Telecom user groups wield power

There are a few constants for network professionals who manage telecom networks -- updating extension lists, replacing broken handsets and attending PBX user group meetings.

Such user group organizations often prove to be more than just a marketing tool for vendors. Many well-entrenched telecom user organizations can affect vendor product road maps and support practices. Meanwhile, these groups also serve as a powerful problem-solving resource as users begin rolling out complex VoIP technology.

Some telecom user groups have histories longer than many telecom vendors do. Groups such as those for AT&T, Lucent Technologies, Avaya, and Nortel Networks have existed for more than 30 years.

Now as converged telephony takes off, users of next-generation VoIP gear are finding that belonging to a vendor-focused user organization is helpful. The Cisco IP Telephony Users Group (CIPTUG), founded two years ago, is steadily gaining members with regional chapters set to open this year.

As the new kid on the block, CIPTUG has more than 700 members. But the organization is choosy about who can belong.

"We want users that experience the product in a production environment," says Al Losada, telecom manager at Florida International University in Miami and a member of CIPTUG, which starts at US$300 per year to join. Prospective members are required to have more than 25 Cisco IP phones in a production environment. Candidates cannot be a Cisco channel partner or technology integrator. However, vendors are allowed to participate. Those who qualify to resell Cisco IP telephony equipment and third-party software and hardware vendors also may join.

"The group lets us share experiences and understand what people are doing in their respective environments," Losada says.

Losada says being a member of CIPTUG helps him keep FIU's converged network running smoothly by giving him access to Cisco technologists and other users who might have solved some of the same problems.

When FIU first installed Cisco IP PBXs two years ago, about 10 percent of the IP phones had unusual bugs. Losada brought this up at a CIPTUG meeting, and a Cisco representative responded.

"They sent a team to our campus, which looked at what we were doing, and determined that the phones we had were from a bad lot," Losada says. "I'm not sure if we could have gotten that kind of information and response so quickly if we were not part of CIPTUG."

Strength in numbers

Another valuable aspect of belonging to a user group is the ability to have input for product development and features.

CIPTUG runs a "feature request" system, which lets members recommend changes or enhancements to the version of IP telephony that they currently use. Data is collected, qualified and prioritized. Then, representatives from Cisco product development, support and marketing are brought in periodically to go over the issues.

"Many of the features in the most recent (CallManager) were a result of (CIPTUG) requests," FIU's Losada adds.

Some user groups can also affect an entire product road map or direction. This was the case in the International Alliance of Avaya Users (INAAU).

INAAU is a powerful force for shaping how Avaya develops and supports its products, says Jerry Miller, a telecom manager for the state of New York and marketing director for INAAU.

A few years ago, Miller says Avaya planned to migrate customers off its Call Management System for call centers to a new platform.

"We had about 70 or 80 members who were concerned about that," Miller says. "We had arranged a session with some product managers from Avaya, and they practically got lynched. We said, 'This is our CMS. You can develop a new product if you want, but make sure you don't scrap CMS.'" And Avaya listened.

There are countless examples of small ways that INAAU affects what features Avaya puts into its products, says Jim Sposito, telecom manager for The Pennsylvania State University at Altoona, which runs an IP-enabled Definity PBX. Several years ago, resetting 900 students' voice mail boxes at the end of the school year was an all-day affair. "We had to do them one at a time," he says. "So at an INAAU event, he and other members asked "Can't we do something globally to handle this?" The result ultimately was Avaya Sight Administrator, a GUI-based software package with global change management and configuration tools.

INAAU has a multi-step process for handling requests. First, a user's feature or new-product inquiries are submitted to the INAAU community, where other members can suggest a work-around or other tips that might satisfy the user's needs. If the requested feature is known to be included in a forthcoming product release, this knowledge also is shared. Requests or problems that aren't satisfied this way are sent to Avaya, which has 15 days to respond.

"It's an advantage to Avaya to have a group like ours that isn't paid to tell them things they want to hear," Miller says. "They know we'll always tell the truth."

Problem-solving peers

Beyond acting as a forum for feature and bug-fix requests, user groups are an excellent resource of brainpower and collective experience, members say.

From his contacts in INAAU, Miller has compiled an e-mail list he calls the "200-years-experience list." This includes "people from every company you can think of," he says. "When I have problem, I send e-mail to that list," and the problem usually is solved pretty quickly.

FIU's Losada says advice from fellow members of CIPTUG and the Association of College and University Telecommunications Administrators (ACUTA) has helped him avoid pitfalls when deploying IP telephony.

In one instance, input from fellow CIPTUG member Phil Palevo, who runs the IP telephony network at Lehman Brothers Holdings in Jersey City, N.J., convinced Losada to skip an entire version of Cisco Systems' CallManager. This advice resulted from Palevo's struggles with a migration from Version 3.1 to 3.2 of Cisco CallManager.

"His recommendation was to go right to 3.3, even though Cisco was saying you should to go 3.2 first as part of their upgrade path," Losada says. "We did a flash-cut to 3.3 and it was pretty seamless; that success was because of our direct interaction with other CIPTUG members."

Losada says ACUTA is also a good resource for finding best practices in telecom management and policy. Although a majority of ACUTA members run legacy-based phone networks, the industry-specific focus is helpful.

"The way we configure our network and how we provide telephone services is a little different than the way a corporation might do it," he says. Because the university bills students for service, the FIU telecom group "is kind of like a little phone company," Losada explains. ACUTA provides a good forum for exchanging information on how universities provide new services, he says.

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