VoIP converts say good riddance to Centrex

Organizations still leasing Centrex phone lines could be wasting money and holding back advanced telephony and collaboration features from employees, said a pair of IT professionals speaking at Interop this week.

Two very different government/nonprofit organizations -- the Visiting Nurse Service of New York (VNS), and the Public Schools in Saskatchewan -- were both able to hack down their telecommunications and IT costs by bringing telephony in-house using voice over IP (VoIP) instead of hosted Centrex services. The IT executives also said that the productivity gains and advanced features delivered by IP telephony and VoIP blew away what Centrex could do for them.

"We were spending quite a pretty penny per month per year on [Centrex, and] the flexibility wasn't there," said Randy Cleghorne, director of IT planning and management at the VNS. Over a year ago, the organization moved almost completely off Centrex to an VoIP system based on Avaya Inc. technology. The VNS now runs dual Avaya S8700 IP PBXs, which support 3,000-plus IP endpoints -- mostly IP phones, with PC-based softphone clients mixed in. The IP PBX servers, which run a hardened Linux operating system, operate out of a centralized data center and serve VoIP clients in over 143 locations throughout the five boroughs of New York.

Cleghorne said the organization is saving around $900,000 a year after eliminating its Centrex costs. She added that along with renegotiating its service contracts for data and voice, the VoIP move brought the VNS's IT budget down from around $4 million per year to nearly $2.5 million.

In New York, where unexpected events are the norm, the flexibility the VoIP system offers -- such as the ability to relocate phones and extensions quickly -- is another key asset, Cleghorne said.

"We could move people to alternate locations in minutes vs. days," on the VoIP system. In comparison, Centrex required a technician call for every move or change, she said. The flexibility came in handy this summer, when a heat wave caused power outages in Manhattan and forced the VNS to move some of its workers to locations with more reliable electricity.

As for the Canadian school district, it moved off of a Centrex system, as well as dozens of key telephone systems in separate schools, to a VoIP network based on Nortel Networks Ltd. technology. At the core, the schools chose the Succession Communication Server 1000 IP PBX -- a call server based on the VxWorks operating system from Wind River Systems Inc.

The district has 51 schools and two administrative sites, with more than 2,000 employees, and more than 23,000 students. The biggest hurdle in switching to VoIP was unifying all the separate phone networks that were built out over the years across 53 sites, sometimes by subcontractors who never considered someday linking all of the phone extensions together, said Daryl Koroluk, general manager of information systems at the school district.

"We had a growth rate that was huge," Koroluk said. The VoIP deployment, which took place a year ago, expanded the number of desktop phones from 900 to around 2,000 throughout the district. Voice mail, which was a rare luxury or a shared resource for teachers and staff in the past, also exploded -- from 123 mailboxes to more than 2,300.

Koroluk has run into a couple of trouble spots with the new system.

For one, pricing can be complicated. Centrex costs were pretty straightforward, Koroluk said, since phones, extensions and voice mail were billed on a monthly basis. There are more surprises when it comes to licensing for VoIP phones, the software that runs the IP PBXs and the various features that can be added to parts of the system such as voice mailboxes, he said.

Another issue was the added electrical and cooling requirements that came with deploying power-over-Ethernet switches in wiring closets and IP phones in classrooms.

"In some locations, we're not operating what others might call an ideal environment for this kind of network and [VoIP] equipment," Koroluk said.

The school's IT staff tracks the environmental data on the Nortel switches and VoIP gateways through agents built into the hardware's operating systems. These agents monitor the temperature and humidity of the gear and send alerts to administrators if things get too hot in the wiring closets.

This story, "VoIP converts say good riddance to Centrex" was originally published by Network World.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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