Behind the scenes of MIT's network

MIT network veteran Jeff Schiller on its recent VOIP rollout and foray as a regional fibre-optic network operator

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Network Manager/Security Architect Jeff Schiller is leaning back in a plum-colored recliner in his office, but he isn't relaxing. The victim of a back problem that has forced him to forgo a more traditional office chair for now, the 25-year MIT network veteran has more than enough to do, with the school forging ahead with several major network projects, including a massive VOIP rollout and its foray as a regional fibre-optic network operator. Schiller covered the gamut in a recent interview with Bob Brown.

How's the VOIP project coming along?

We have 500 people on our voice-over-IP system, so we've really moved beyond the pilot stage to the service stage, and we're ramping up to 1,500 users in the next couple of months, and to be a VOIP campus not too many years from now, MIT plans to switch all 15,000 of its phones to VOIP. We've got it going in the IT department, since you've got to eat your own dog food. (Some people asked if it was really wise that the phone path to the IT department would use VOIP, but we told them if the network is down, we know.) One of the arguments for having us do it by department or building is that the hard part is getting our 5ESS [phone switch]people to manually route their phone numbers to us so that people can keep their phone numbers (putting new employees on the VOIP system is much simpler, as the school uses a common name space and via a Web administration page can set up new end users with a Session Initiation Protocol address that's the same as the e-mail address).

What's the story behind your VOIP project?

If you would have come here a year ago you would have found that I had an ISDN phone, as we put in ISDN in 1986 [now he has a Polycom IP phone and is among the 500 initial users of VOIP at the school]. We bought a 5ESS phone switch from AT&T that went online in 1988. AT&T rewired the campus at that time and that's how we got our first fiber plant. Around 1999 they contacted us and told us that switch would be obsolete by 2001 because they weren't making any more software updates for it. Our CIO came to me and asked if we could do VOIP by 2001. I said "I wish I could tell you yes, but the technology is just not mature enough," so we went and bought another 5ESS, which was hugely expensive. If you estimate a 10-year life cycle for that phone system that meant the vendor was going to be coming back to us before long to let us know we'd need to buy another one. But now voice over IP is ready, and I told our CIO about a year ago that if we want to be a voice-over-IP campus by 2010 that we'd need to start now.

What technologies are you using for the VOIP system?

We're not 100 percent decided on some parts, but I'm currently using a Polycom system. The media gateways to the 5ESS are Cisco high-end voice-over-IP switches, and of course we do everything in pairs in different locations. We're running the OpenSER SIP Express Router [MIT is also evaluating commercial offerings] on Dell 2850s redundantly, and our toilet server, which does voice mail and all the other crap, runs Asterisk software. It's fair to say it's mostly an open source deployment. The open source stuff not only is relatively inexpensive but we can integrate it into our infrastructure and customize it. The killer app has been sending voice mail to e-mail., something the Octel voice mail system on the 5E couldn't do. As for the rest of the infrastructure, the voice-over-IP phones are running on a separate VLAN. We have to upgrade the general infrastructure just because it's time to do that. We have physicists who want to send data sets of gigabytes to CERN, and the Media Lab wants to do real-time video. But voice over IP itself is not a very demanding user of the network.

What sorts of challenges or concerns have you run into with the system?

The biggest aspects of it are not technology; it's the sheer numbers of people, it's a staff training issue. The fact that the phone is a different color is going to be upsetting to some of them. We want to minimize disruptions and that's why we hired a full-time project coordinator.

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