What's the ideal scenario for implementing VoIP? Starting from scratch to build a combined voice and data network -- which is exactly what the West Virginia University Foundation was able to do when it recently moved to new facilities.
The responsibility for implementing VoIP fell to Keith Knight, director of IT for the West Virginia University Foundation. The nonprofit is based in Morgantown, WV, and has a 80-person staff responsible for raising money from individuals and corporations to support the university's various academic programs, including student scholarships.
"The foundation was in an old building with an obsolete phone system," Knight says. "It was non-Y2K-compliant, but it did work." Barely. The system dropped calls and voice mail worked about 90 percent of the time. While preparing for the move to its new headquarters, "we made the decision the phone system not worth moving. We wanted to look at a new system with unified messaging," he added.
RFPs were sent out to the traditional telephony vendors with PBX wares. While this document was circulating, one of the organization's board members suggested they consider implementing an IP-based telephony system. That board member was WVU alumnus John Chambers.
Cisco responded to the RFP with a complete voice and data solution much less costly than any of the other bidders. The ongoing cost was also less per annum. "When we looked at the features of the IP solution, it did everything we wanted it to do," Knight says.
But wasn't comparing PBX and IP technologies apples and oranges? No, says Knight. But some PBX vendors wanted to convince him otherwise. One vendor touted the 150 different features of their system against a generic IP telephony solution. "It's nice to have 150 features, but if we don't use 120 of them, it really does us no good."
Initially, Knight wanted the system to offer unified messaging they could integrate with their Domino servers and Lotus Notes. At the time, Cisco didn't offer that feature, which is now available and which they are preparing to integrate.
One particular problem for Knight and his staff: talking to PBX vendors. "They had their own language. We're a fairly small IT shop. We don't know PBXes, they're foreign to us," he says. "I understand IP. I know networks and how they work. That's my background. I was lost when I talked to the PBX people." Knight says they felt very comfortable in working with VoIP and with Cisco.
For those network administrators considering VoIP, Knight advises taking full advantage of any training. They were able to take a week-long, hands-on course in which they assembled a Cisco IP system in a lab. "It was advantageous in that we were able to take the course the week before our equipment arrived in the door. We knew how we wanted to set it up, so we took it to the lab and were able to set it up just like we were gonna have it done here," Knight says. "We worked through a lot of the problems. We had dial tone within two hours of our system coming in the door." Which they needed, since weeks later the organization was moved in and operational.
Knight estimates by using one vendor and integrating voice and data, they were able to save between $10,000 to $15,000 up front. He projects a $3,000 to $4,000 per year savings on both phone and data.
The system is also enabling more productivity in their annual fundraising efforts. Student volunteers would typically assist in making phone calls to alumni. The IT department would print out sheets of alumni names and contact information from its old mainframe system, and the students would dial the contacts on their list. Now, the organization has an automated calling system in which 16 workstations with computer and headset are devoted to this task. Knight says they had to allocate more of their budget for IP/analog converter boxes to interface an existing automated calling system into the new network.
Even though fundraising has become more difficult as of late, Knight reports, "we're making more connections. We're making twice as many calls in an evening as we did before."