VoIP Systems Increase Network Support Burdens

Quality needs, new apps create snags

The complexity of managing and maintaining voice-over-IP systems is posing more problems than many IT managers initially expected, spurring demand for so-called Day 2 support services, users and analysts said last week.

"VoIP is not a slam-dunk, and there are unexpected support issues," said John Wade, CIO at Saint Luke's Health System Inc. in Kansas City, Mo. Saint Luke's, which started deploying more than 750 VoIP phones three years ago, relies on AT&T Inc. for maintenance and support at an annual cost of about $75,000, according to Wade.

Six other IT managers interviewed last week largely agreed with Wade that VoIP systems often bring added complexity, stemming from end-user demands for expanded functionality and the need to maintain quality-of-service guarantees on voice transmissions.

John Wade: VoIP is not a slam-dunk

John Wade: "VoIP is not a slam-dunk" Expert Help Needed "Day 2 support is much more critical than in the past," when companies relied on traditional circuit-switched voice systems, said Chris Stockley, CIO at Skanska USA Building Inc. in Charlotte, N.C. Skanska has installed about 2,200 IP phones from Cisco Systems Inc. at 30 U.S. offices over the past year. Within the next 18 months, it plans to add thousands more at the construction job sites it manages.

For maintenance and support of its VoIP system, Skanska relies on combined services offered by Cisco's Remote Operations Services unit and Alliant Technologies LLC. Stockley said the services cost between $10,000 and $15,000 per month -- an expense that he thinks is well worth it.

Skanska officials felt that the company couldn't provide VoIP support expertise in-house because of the scale and complexity of its system, which eventually will be expanded globally, Stockley said. "The Day 2 folks are experts, like surgeons, for an operation of this size and scope," he added.

In some ways, VoIP technology is easier to manage than traditional phone systems, according to Stockley and other users. For example, moving IP phones to different locations and assigning them to new employees are relatively simple tasks. However, many VoIP setups do much more than older phone systems did, such as providing the ability to collaborate via e-mail or instant messaging and allowing transmission of video.

Stockley said that Skanska's VoIP system supports a variety of unusual applications, including one that helps users find construction experts or other specialists anywhere in the world who can be patched into conferences. Instant messaging capabilities built into the Cisco phones can be used to show who is available and whether they should be contacted by phone, e-mail or another mode of communication.

Bill Moore, who oversees in-house VoIP maintenance as telecommunications manager at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, said that providing proper quality-of-service levels for voice calls is "a very complicated thing."

MOMA has installed about 50 IP phones from Avaya Inc. and wants to add another 100, Moore said. His staff is handling the maintenance work. But, he said, "I can certainly see why companies would outsource quality-of-service work. VoIP is definitely a lot more complex than we were initially led to believe."

Zeus Kerravala, an analyst at Yankee Group Research Inc. in Boston, estimated that 80% of companies try to manage their VoIP systems themselves, although he noted that there is an emerging trend of companies seeking outside help.

"VoIP is more complex than any other application organizations have faced before, and most companies don't have the internal discipline to run a VoIP environment," he said.

Gartner Inc. analyst Eric Goodness noted that managing IP telephony systems "can be a bear," especially installations with more than 500 end users at multiple locations. And as the use of applications such as video over IP grows, the management complexity will only increase, he said.

Virgin Entertainment Group Inc., a Los Angeles-based music retailer, has installed about 500 of Cisco's IP phones at 17 stores and its headquarters. The subsidiary of Virgin Group Ltd. relies on support services from AT&T that cost "tens of thousands of dollars" annually, said Robert Fort, the retailer's director of IT.

Fort described the support expense as "a small, incremental cost" to Virgin Entertainment and said he thinks VoIP "sometimes is made out to be too complex." He noted, though, that the technology introduces "additional needs" from a management standpoint. External support was needed to provide constant monitoring of the VoIP system, Fort said.

By itself, VoIP technology "seems relatively straightforward to me," said Brad Sandt, lead network engineer at Park Hill School District in Parkville, Mo. "It's the human aspect that makes it complex, not the technology," he added, referring to the demands of users for added functionality.

Sandt last week was helping to finish a $600,000 installation of about 1,100 IP phones at 18 sites within the school district. Park Hill is dropping the Day 2 maintenance contract it had for its circuit-switched system, Sandt said. He added that the service provider charged $110 to move a phone, something he and other staffers can do quickly and easily with VoIP.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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