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Paul Travis
Paul Travis

Present A Unified Front

Companies find that converged voice and data networks can offer cost savings and simplify management

Dave Pippenger, chief technical officer at Yarde Metals Inc., had an opportunity that most business-technology managers only dream of. His employer, a distributor of aluminum, brass, copper, and stainless steel, moved its headquarters last summer into a 500,000-square-foot building it bought from Pratt & Whitney, giving Pippenger the proverbial "greenfield" to develop a voice and data communications system. "The building was down to bare concrete and steel girders," he says. "We could design what we needed from scratch."

Pippenger decided to deploy a unified communications architecture, one that converges voice, data, and other types of traffic onto a single IP network, for several reasons. For one, Siemens had indicated that it would no longer provide support for the PBX voice systems Yarde used. And Cisco Systems convinced him that a voice-over-IP system was stable enough to provide the features and capabilities the company needed. Still, Pippenger was leery because Yarde sells a lot of products over the phone. "We didn't want to risk basic telecom services," he says.

ChartPippenger had reason to worry. "We had a bad start out of the gate," he says. "We had a bad echo problem, and the sound was way too loud." The Cisco gear misread the strength of the input signal, and the networking vendor and Yarde's local telephone company spent a month finger-pointing before the problem was solved. "People were unimpressed," he says. "We weren't looking too good in the MIS department."

The next problem involved the reliability of Windows applications and a database used by the call center. "We were plagued by Windows flakiness and database integrity issues," Pippenger says. "SQL Server never got it exactly right."

Despite those problems, Yarde, which has about 550 employees and facilities in seven states, is "bullish on VoIP," Pippenger says. Now he's pushing his networking technology in a new direction: The company has installed Asterisk, an open-source, Linux-based PBX, in two of its branches and plans to deploy it soon in the other facilities. "It works great, and it solved the Windows problems," Pippenger says. "Plus, there's zero licensing cost on the software."

Many tech managers report good experiences with implementing voice over IP and operating converged networks, although some, like Pippenger, had to overcome problems at the start. Still, few say they'd return to the days of separate voice and data networks. That's reflected in an InformationWeek Research survey of 140 business-technology professionals. Of those who combined their voice and data traffic onto one network, only 16% went back to separate networks. Half of them say administrative and management problems prompted the split, and 44% cite insufficient IT infrastructure. Some 38% also cite consistency-of-service issues and difficulties in resolving service problems.

But those are rare cases. More businesses are deploying unified network architectures, and they're using them to carry more of their voice and data traffic. Around a third of those surveyed say they're sending a quarter to half of their traffic over converged networks.

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