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VoIP war stories from the Australian front

In this feature, ZDNet.com.au speaks to IT managers across the nation to collate their "war stories" deploying Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) in their organisations. Cut through the spin and find out what's really happening on the Australian VoIP front.
Written by Liam Tung, Contributing Writer

It took the direct intervention of Cisco CEO John Chambers to resolve issues when Victoria's Timboon and District Healthcare service first deployed what at that stage was a fledgling IP telephony technology in 1998. Since that time the technology has become commonplace, but deployments across the nation show not everyone does it the same way.

In 1998 we were what you'd call 'barnstorming into the frontier'

SWARH IT director Garry Druitt

"In 1998 we were what you'd call 'barnstorming into the frontier'. I think we were the first hospital worldwide," says Victorian South West Alliance of Rural Health (SWARH) IT director, Garry Druitt, discussing the group's IP telephony roll-out. In 1998, Druitt kicked off what is now a 33-site, 6,000 IP handset deployment with the "smallest hospital we could find". It was Timboon's District Health Service in country Victoria, which at the time had about 40 staff.

Back then, like many businesses with remote branches, the alliance was locked into the public telephone network, which meant large bills on local and STD calls. Unlike today's arguments promoting the emerging field of unified communications, which often focus on staff productivity, Druitt said the business case for IP telephony at the time was simple: cost.

"In terms of a business case, it was about saying, 'well, OK if we run it on a network, then we can have local calls in Melbourne or to any other centre'," he says. "So we eliminate local and STD calls to any of the centres." Before being able to cut those costs, and roll out the IP telephony system to all sites, Druitt wanted to be 95 per cent certain the test site worked.

But problems arose during the test phase at Timboon due to balancing issues between a router and Telstra's network. "They couldn't get the signal to latch on properly," Druitt explains. "I remember we were trying to get this hospital across the line and [Cisco] was depending on the technology. But there were failures with interfacing with Telstra."

As an early deployment, the issue quickly escalated all the way up the line to Cisco CEO John Chambers. Apparently, he would not allow integration problems with Telstra to undermine Cisco's hopes for IP telephony, a market which, according to Gartner, was worth US$1.9 billion in global revenues to Cisco in 2007.

"I got an email from John Chambers, saying this has got to be fixed: 'If it's not fixed within 24 hours, I will be on the phone directly to you to solve the problem'," Druitt recalls.


SWARH CIO Garry Druitt
(Credit: SWARH)

Fortunately for the Cisco engineers charged with overcoming the glitch, Chambers never had to call Druitt. "It was fixed within 18 hours," chuckles Druitt. "Whether it was his threat, I don't know, but I made the right choice at least. We were using all the resources available in the world to fix this, which was unusual given the hospital has about 40 staff and was in the bush."

Following the "Chambers resolution", it took a year for Druitt to be confident enough to roll the system out as a template to other sites. While there hadn't been significant problems with the telephony system itself, the underlying wide area and local network had been a concern, primarily due to the importance of voice in healthcare.

"You could argue that the medical-grade network we need is determined by the need to support voice. If a doctor can't talk to another doctor you're in trouble; if people can't ring in to say they have an emergency, you're in trouble," the IT director says.

The importance of voice in healthcare had also had a positive impact on the alliance's data network, which of course, is shared with voice and video. "If you were a futurist, you could argue that you should be bolstering the network for voice: if your network doesn't have redundancy, you put it in there for voice, but it fixes it up for data," Druitt says.

SWARH at the time of the interview was amidst a major network upgrade, which it pays Dimension Data around $1 million a year to manage.

Following the sun
Twelve years on from SWARH's deployment, Gartner analyst, Bjarne Munch, says IP telephony is accepted as the "way of the future", but deployments typically hang off larger infrastructure investments, such as network upgrades or moving buildings.

Banking and insurance giant Suncorp deployed an Avaya IP telephony system which had recently hit the 12,000 handset milestone.


Suncorp's Paul Cameron
(Credit: Suncorp)

"It was done on the back of the technology roadmap in 2005, and we took opportunities with building refurbishments, aligned it with our technology transformation and have organically grown it since," Paul Cameron, general manager of IT infrastructure tells ZDNet.com.au.

Cameron, who also drove Suncorp's 21,000-seat Windows XP roll-out, which consolidated six different desktop operating systems, said it was unlikely IP telephony usage would hit 100 per cent, but added that the technology would be installed where current phone systems, such as in Suncorp's Adelaide offices (which are being upgraded with VoIP now), had become antiquated.

Other organisations, such as the City of Sydney Council, which is amidst a 1,500-seat migration to a Cisco IP telephony system that was being integrated by Alphawest with carriage services provided by Optus, had been driven by costs associated with a Telstra-managed voice service arrangement in place for the past eight years.

"We estimate we can save, in terms of operational costs, around $500,000 per year. It's a significant saving and that takes into consideration the internal cost of coming off a managed service and the advantage of being able to make simple programming changes ourselves," says the council's manager of information services Greg Naimo.

Public health insurer Medicare Australia on the other hand says its 2,600-seat IP telephony roll-out was driven by a desire for skills routing to support its call centre operations. The system has allowed Medicare to direct work around its branch office network to ensure that those with the right skills were able to answer client queries.

Rocky roads: deployment challenges

The City of Sydney's 1,500-seat roll-out is in the early stages of deployment. Four sites went live in early December, with four more small deployments and a further 50 external sites planned before the year's end. The migration of its headquarters at Town Hall House has been scheduled for February 2009.

Greg Naimo says there haven't been any problems with the integration, but the switch-over day from Telstra's service to the new system — essentially coordinating Cisco, Alphawest and Optus — had been a planning feat. "The more parties you have, the more coordination you've got. Interestingly, this has been one of the most complex projects that I have seen in the past five years since I joined," he says.

Compared to business application projects, and an asset management system that it will tender for soon, Naimo says installing Optus circuits at various sites, and managing the porting of numbers from Telstra to Optus, was "complex". The long history of numbers following years of staff moving between offices within Sydney City's Town Hall House was another complicating factor.

Suncorp's Cameron, on the other hand, says the pressures he faced centred on the need to avoid disruption at the finance giant's call centres, which the bank relies heavily on to generate business. "We've faced tight time frames rolling the system out to call centres when you're also delivering it out to thousands of seats and couldn't disrupt the business," he says.


City of Sydney's Greg Naimo
(Credit: City of Sydney)

Gartner's Munch says that the cost of IP phones was often a "stumbling block", due to choices businesses faced when determining what features were necessary, and likened it to users pressuring IT departments to offer richer features on mobile devices, such as BlackBerrys. "Often it's an emotionally driven decision because people like to have the best sitting on their desk," he says.

None of the IT executives interviewed for this article agreed with Munch on this issue; however, the range of choices opened by unified communications had posed user-level hiccups at SWARH. For example, Druitt says integrating voice with Outlook had received a mixed response by medical staff. It was meant to dovetail with SWARH's desktop video-conferencing system, yet staff haven't shown interest in making calls from the desktop.

"I think people still have difficulties using a phone, let alone integrating it with an application," the IT director says. "People are getting to grips with email and if you say, 'Do you know you can move from email to video and make calls from your desktop... It's just overload."

And while Gartner's Munch says that Microsoft's desktop dominance made it a compelling player in the UC market, Druitt reckoned that the notion of all communications through a single device was in fact intimidating to some. "Particularly when [a PC] is turned off and can take 15 minutes to reboot," he joked.

Next up: Is unified communications rally driving on a half-finished road?

(Carousel image credit: Canones Paris 1 by Josep Altarriba, Royalty free)

Unified Communications: rally driving on a half-finished road

There is still uncertainty about unified communications (UC). Vendors have pushed features such as presence, click to call, and the benefits of integrating IP telephones with business applications. However, Gartner's Munch says very few enterprises have been able to identify a solid business driver to deploy unified communications. "The market is still going through a phase of dabbling," he says.

That seems to be the case with some deployments, but others also highlighted the fact that UC was dictated by characteristics unique to different markets.

Suncorp has integrated its Avaya-based system with 3,000 seats of Microsoft Office Communicator, which links phones with email, calendaring, instant messaging, and video-conferencing. This was set up within the finance giant's business technology group, where Cameron sits, as well as to its banking staff, in order to have presence and click to call features.

At a call centre level, Suncorp used to hire special staff to handle difficult calls, but the Avaya system, in conjunction with Office Communicator's instant messaging feature, has enabled call centre staff to access knowledge internally. "There may be an individual answering six to seven different queries from someone of our call centre operators," says Cameron.


Bjarne Munch, Gartner research analyst
(Credit: Gartner)

One interesting application of the technology has been what Suncorp has called its "Business in a Box" — a business continuity and work-from-home initiative. "We're in pilot with this at the moment," said Cameron. "The basis of that is a Suncorp locked-down laptop computer ... and a soft phone running with a headset. We'll be able to take that home and staff will have the same applications they would in the office."

As part of Suncorp's roadmap it had divided business units into critical and non-critical. "If you're non-critical and we need to fire up a call centre within 24 hours we'll just move [the call centre] into that part of the office and we'll send those people home or to another part of the building," Cameron said.

SWARH's Druitt says business benefits of UC currently espoused by vendors were "more hype than action" and, in terms of integrating voice with other applications, supposed benefits were "a little esoteric" compared with the hard dollar savings seen by reducing inter-office call costs.

The IP video system, however, presented a clear value — a 30 per cent return, he reckoned — because travel costs could be directly related to investments in it. The other factor against UC was complexity for the end-user. "We haven't gone down that track at this stage. Although there is some benefit in centralising things for the user, there is a level of complexity in them having everything on the one device and knowing how to use it — things like telepresence," Druitt says.

On the other hand, the IT director says he is also looking to integrate the health alliance's portable IP handsets with duress alarms, GPS systems, pager-style messaging and RFID to track medical staff location. There are also plans to integrate the IP surveillance systems with handsets to allow nurses to see who's at the door.

IP telephony in the rear-view

As with most large investments in technology, winning the support and gaining the confidence of a project's sponsors and users is critical. While most CIOs would understand this, the ways of achieving it can vary.

"Have a simple business case," says SWARH's Druitt. "If you can't express it on the back of an envelope, you may as well not express it. If you have an existing network, I would have thought the business case was very simple: use your network for telephony and get more value from your network," he said. "My advice would be to invest in your network and leverage everything you can off your network. IP telephony is a no-brainer, particularly if you have multiple sites."

Suncorp's Cameron says that enterprises need to settle on their architectures first as the four major IP telephony companies offer different architectures. "There are no hybrid models," he says. "You can't take a big bang approach. If it doesn't make sense you're better off leaving the money in the bank."

However, in Suncorp's case, the sharpest end of the project was call centres. "So that means getting close to your business who use telephony as a competitive advantage and understand the benefits of it, then you get them on your side — very key — and then the rest will follow," the executive says.

The City of Sydney's Naimo says the vendor's road map was a critical factor: "The integration partner must have a demonstrable track record and show that they could adapt their implementation to the way we wanted to do things. We wanted to maintain our systems internally, so we wanted a partner that was strong on knowledge transfer and Alphawest was good in that regard."

Got a VoIP war story you want to tell? Or are you up to your neck in CRM systems? Drop ZDNet.com.au a line or post your comments below this article.

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