Staffing for convergence

Converging voice and data onto one network can be a daunting task for any organization, but merging and molding IT professionals to handle voice and data duties successfully can be as challenging as the technology itself.

As IT executives look to convergence to reduce costs and support new applications, they also need to consider the staffing implications. Workers in the voice and data departments have different skills and experience, and bringing them together on a single team will require that they learn some new technologies.

On the campus of Delaware State University in Dover, a new phone system called for training and changes to the school's help desk system.The school recently installed a Siemens AG HiCom 300 PBX and two HiPath 3000 IP PBXs to run voice and data at a satellite campus 50 miles away. Digital handsets attached to the HiCom PBX connect users in the main administrative office buildings.

The dorms and remote campus buildings have about 500 IP handsets linked to the HiPath IP PBXs. Charles Fletcher, assistant provost for technology and information systems at the school, kept a mix of IP and circuit-switched phones so he wouldn't be completely reliant on one voice technology.

Before the Siemens installation, the university used a Centrex system from Verizon Communications Inc. While bringing the phone system in-house was a big project on its own, the convergence aspect added another wrinkle to staff management.

"Everyone knows IP in my operation," Fletcher says. "The area that has been a challenge is to get IP people used to running voice." Overall, his staff members accepted the new telecom responsibilities, he says, and were quick studies in the technology.

While Fletcher calls his network well-managed, he concedes that network outages occasionally take time to be resolved. With voice in the equation, that had to change. "The new philosophy we put in was that if there is a phone issue, that has to be taken care of much more quickly than a data issue, such as a crashed laptop," he says.

Fletcher devised a new system for reporting technical problems via e-mail and phone, and prioritizing them. The staffer who previously managed the Centrex system assumed responsibility for the PBX. That person got training on the Siemens IP and circuit-switched PBXs, while the rest of the group received more basic training on troubleshooting and administration. "The extensive training we put our staff through I think is what will pay off in the long run," Fletcher says.

In Daytona Beach, Fla., one self-proclaimed "old IT dog" did most of the teaching when the city moved to a converged voice/data IP network.

The city hired five IT workers to install and manage two IP-enabled Meridian PBXs from Nortel to replace a Centrex system. Nortel Networks Corp. Business Communications Manager IP PBXs let workers use IP phones to connect to the main Meridian systems over a Gigabit Ethernet metropolitan-area network. Back in the larger offices, digital Nortel handsets connect directly to the PBX.

Gene McWilliams, IS director for the city, says that instilling the right philosophy about voice from the project's inception was key. Although McWilliams has worked with voice and data for more than 20 years, some of his staff members in their mid-thirties came from the "point-and-click" generation of Windows PCs. "The thing is, I never told them there was a difference - data is data, transmission is transmission is our philosophy," he says.

McWilliams sent staff for training on the Nortel PBXs, and he helped reduce the learning curve with his own experience with Nortel switches. His goal in picking his staff of 17 was to hire workers who could adapt and handle a diverse set of technologies. "I didn't take telecom people and try to make them into datacom staff," he says. "I really didn't take data people and cram phone technology down their throat either. I said this is a new road; this is a converged road," and everyone will have to have converged skills.

At The Seattle Times, an Avaya Inc. S8700 IP PBX and several hundred IP telephones were installed recently as the newspaper moves to convert each of its 1,000 or so phones to IP phones by the middle of next year. Eventually, the entire phone system will ride on a network of Cisco Systems Inc. switches in the backbone, Nortel routers at the edge and Avaya switches at the desktop.

Thomas Dunkerley, IT communications manager for the newspaper, managed the former Avaya PBX and oversaw the migration from a circuit-switched PBX to an IP-based call server. Paul DeWees, senior network systems administrator, handled the recent upgrade of the paper's Cisco switched data network. So was head-butting inevitable?

No, Dunkerley and DeWees say. The two work as partners in overseeing the new network, whereas in the past, their paths were less likely to cross. Dunkerley and DeWees share project status updates and technical information.

Convergence also has changed the day-to-day tasks and routines of managers and their staff: Dunkerley, formerly a "PBX guy," now keeps track of IP network utilization, while DeWees has become involved in testing the quality of IP voice conversations over the LAN and WAN.

Dunkerley and DeWees say they've been enlightened a bit about the requirements of overseeing data and telecom management.

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