A school division in Manitoba is moving over to a unified communications strategy, including VoIP, to cut costs in half and simplify administration.

Pembina Trails, a school division in Winnipeg, has 14,000 students, with 1,800 users in 34 locations across the division. These users will have access to voice over IP, unified messaging, unified communications and interactive response, among other applications, through Objectworld’s Unified Communications Server.

This is possible, thanks to 47 km of dark fibre network infrastructure running at 1 gigabit per second through Dell switches, managed by Microsoft Windows 2003 Servers running Active Directory.

Five years ago, when two school divisions were amalgamated into one, Don Reece was hired to evaluate the division’s existing infrastructure – and make it better.

“Part of the reason that we put in the network was that we had end-of-life phone systems and we wanted to centralize some of our network infrastructure,” said Reece, director of information technology at Pembina Trails School Division.

The network has the potential to save the division $200,000 per year. “We are the telco,” he said. Students also have access to information 850 times faster than DSL or cable Internet service. Internet bandwidth is provided through its connection to MERLIN (Manitoba Education Research & Learning Information Network).

“Our goal was to build a strong, secure network to use Active Directory to consolidate our existing Novell, Linux and Windows server architecture and to take all that and build a robust communications platform for our school division,” said Reece.

The existing telephony system was replaced with Objectworld Communications Corp.’s Unified Communications Server. Reece ran a pilot of 300 phones and after one month knew it was going to work. Expected side effects such as poor sound quality and echo did not appear. What challenges did appear, said Reece, were above and beyond what was purchased.

Previously, the division was paying $42 per phone per month, which ended up costing more than a computer. With its current soft phones, it pays a one-time charge of $120 per phone.

Many school divisions have held back on VoIP because of the proprietary nature of the hardware. “What’s the point of replacing a phone with a phone?” said Reece. Unified communications, on the other hand, is helping the division achieve its goal of decreasing the budget – which is less than half of what it was four years ago, with 13 less staff members.

At the same time, he said, there’s more software, hardware and services available to users. Eventually, Pembina Trails will roll out 1,800 phones (mostly soft phones) across the division.

But beware of the term unified communications. “Some of it is pure marketing crapola and people suddenly realizing unified communications sells better than a VoIP PBX,” said David Levy, CEO of Objectworld Communications. “Nobody wants to be left behind.” Credibility was given to the term recently by Microsoft’s announcement that it’s in the business of unified communications, he added.

Unified communications means that a company’s communications needs can be satisfied by software running on conventional hardware and managed from within the IT data centre – whether e-mail, fax, voice, video, collaboration services or conference services. “It has to harmonize the many disparate aspects of your communication environment,” said Levy. “We didn’t tell (Reece) what hardware to run on – he has the freedom to choose his platforms, and he also has the freedom to choose his phones.”

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

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