The University of Guelph said it had powered down the last portion of its private branch exchange system, completing the first stage of a move to IP telephony that will bring more multimedia applications to a network of 12,000 data ports.

The school has been slowly installing 7,000 IP phones

from Cisco Systems of Canada for the past three years, ever since an internal audit in 2000 revealed frustrations among its users about the aging private branch exchange (PBX).

The Cisco-based network has been designed to offer integrated voice, video and data services while taking up much less physical space, according to the vendor.

Kent Percival, manager of the university’s IT department, said Guelph had been using Cisco products since 1995 and had already gone through two generations of equipment.

That, along with improvements to IP telephony products as a whole, convinced him the time was right to make the switch.

“”It wasn’t that it was mature enough — it was strategic enough,”” he said. “”When we started looking at this there were some (maturity) questions, and even the Cisco we chose wouldn’t have been able to scale to our size of an institution at that time. But we put in our last PBX in 1984 — we make some of these technology decisions for a long time.””

Percival said the school conducted its first pilot in a new 660-bed residence, which provided a “”greenfield”” opportunity to test out the equipment.

“”The three-year timeframe gave us the ability to stage things and move as aggressively or as carefully as we wished to on different parts of the migration so that we didn’t run into the kind of things you do when you have a big cut,”” he said.

The last person on the PBX was put onto the IP phones last week, Percival said. “”Today was just powering down the old system that didn’t have anybody on it.””

Brantz Myers, Cisco Canada’s director of enterprise marketing, said many organizations are starting to see value in IP telephony that go beyond controlling or reducing basic costs.

“”In a campus environment, you need to be in multiple locations and want features to follow you,”” he said. “”Ultimately, the road for customers is towards applications, and that’s where the massive returns can be felt.””

Percival said the University of Guelph had had difficulty deploying standard voice services on the old technology. Already there is interest for some of the newer applications.

“”The big one people are clamouring for out there is call centre,”” he said.

“”For a lot of organizations that’s old hat, but it’s new for us, and there are some IVR (interactive voice response) applications that we’re looking at now as well.””

The university hasn’t had to add any more staff as a result of the move to IP telephony, Percival said.

And he is confident the IP network can be maintained at a comparable cost to the old network.

Since voice becomes just another IP application, he said it will be handled by the same resources dedicated to e-mail and other data services.

“”It’s just a few more servers.””

Myers said that while IP telephony might cut costs by 10 per cent, a two per cent gain in productivity through IP applications will mean more to enterprise organizations. This is because that gain will be multiplied over every employee, he said.

“”It may be that we go to the head of audio/visual or the head of staffing (to make the pitch),”” he said. “”The base cost advantages are fairly well-established today.””

Since the Cisco IP Communications system takes up roughly 1/1000th of the space occupied by the PBX equipment, Guelph will use the extra room to create a disaster recovery centre.

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