Small project works out the VoIP kinks

Last August, global pharmaceutical maker GlaxoSmithKline put 400 IT workers in a new building on a VoIP test network that would serve as a proving ground for future rollouts worldwide.

The company, which began exploring VoIP in late 2003, started with the goal of building an all-IP system and brought together a team of 10 internal voice and data engineers to work on the project, says Charles Goodall, manager of global voice technology and architecture.

The team built an IP LAN using Catalyst 6500 switches from Cisco Systems. But it eventually settled for a hybrid of IP and circuit-switched technologies with a Siemens HiPath voice system, partly so it could continue to serve a number of circuit-switched phones, Goodall says.

All told, hardware and software costs for the Durham test site were about US$1.6 million: $1 million for Cisco gear, $500,000 for 500 OptiPoint phones and the Siemens HiPath 4000, and $100,000 for Avaya messaging software.

To reduce cabling costs and obtain related savings from a converged network, the planners decided to run one cable to each desktop for both PCs and phones, Goodall says. About 25 of those users are testing softphones over the system, giving them voice service through a PC equipped with a microphone.

"Service has been excellent, and the users have not noticed a difference, which is a good thing," Goodall says.

The company has set a five-year goal to improve mobile connectivity from the current level of 30 percent of its 100,000 workers at any one time to 50 percent. That initiative will put a premium on having data and voice, as well as video, running together, says Goodall.

Virtual Teaming

The most challenging aspect of the Durham project was the newness of IP telephony technology, Goodall says. "So we expected bumps and learning curves and did our homework and gave ourselves time," he says. "We learned that a network assessment upfront is very, very important." It helped that GlaxoSmithKline talked to other companies that had similar projects, Goodall adds.

Clay Swenson, project manager and GlaxoSmithKline's manager of U.S. voice services, says the biggest obstacle to overcome was getting the company's voice and data networking teams to more effectively communicate with each other. "There was a tremendous amount of discussion among the teams to make decisions about how the new blended network should be designed and configured," he says.

The teams remain separate entities but are "committed to working as a virtual team if necessary," he adds. Because of the success of the virtual-team setup, Swenson says he doesn't expect the voice and data crews ever to be permanently combined, even as VoIP technology is implemented elsewhere at GlaxoSmithKline. As a result of the project, the two sides developed a stronger relationship than before, says Swenson.

Jeff Snyder, an analyst at Gartner, says it's "absolutely essential for VoIP implementations to use a joint team" of voice and data engineers. Snyder says GlaxoSmithKline did well to start with a test case and a small pool of softphone users. Picking a new building and fully testing the data network first were key to the company's early success, he adds.

According to Goodall and Swenson, end-user training was a nonissue, partly because users learned what they needed through online training. And Goodall says the planners spent time ensuring that the network was designed properly to provide security and sufficient quality of service for voice. "That worked (on) Day 1," he says.

Because end users were facing several changes in addition to the IP telephony, including moving to a new building, the goal was to make the new phone service the least of their problems, says Swenson. To overcome initial concerns, planners gave live demonstrations so users could get accustomed to the phones before the installation.

Easier moves

GlaxoSmithKline has seen some tangible cost benefits as well. Because workers can move phones themselves, the company's outside contractor has reduced its annual fee of $35,000 for moves, adds and changes by more than 10 percent, Swenson says. In addition, IP telephony makes it easy for a mobile worker to use any available desk when he's in the office, and GlaxoSmithKline can keep its total office space smaller, which could ultimately reduce real estate costs by more than 20 percent a year, Goodall says.

And because videoconferencing is run over the IP network, about $200,000 in annual charges for the ISDN have been cut. Goodall says that as more offices move to IP voice, phone bills for calls between GlaxoSmithKline offices will eventually be eliminated. Both Swenson and Goodall say it's still too early to judge the value of some combined voice and data features, such as the softphone or a universal company directory used to help make calls quickly anywhere in the world.

Swenson says that despite cost reductions, the project's goal wasn't to get a quick return on investment, but rather to learn about an essential future technology.

"Right now, we are in strategy mode for IP deployment globally," Goodall adds. "We are going to IP, but it's a matter of building a strategy and architecture."

GlaxoSmithKline

Project scope: A $1.6 million project involving 400 users and 500 phones

Key vendors: Siemens, Cisco Systems and Avaya

Challenges: Learning a new technology; blending voice and data teams

Benefit: First step toward a more mobile global workforce

Unexpected reward: More than 10 percent cost reduction in moves, adds and changes

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