X-Men’s real secret weapon? Their IP phones

One of Canada’s major studios for film and television production is using Cisco‘s Unified Communications to provide voice, data and video for each of its productions, including X-Men: The Last Stand.

At any given time, Vancouver Film Studios (VFS) can have thousands of people working at its facility, spending millions of dollars, over a period of only a few months.

“A production will come in and in a very short period of time we’ll have a confirmed deal and they’ll be needing to inhabit the office in 15-30 days, which for a commercial lease is a fairly short period of time,” said Gordon Hawkins, network and systems administrator with VFS.

Now, when a crew comes in to shoot a film or TV series, they don’t have to worry about procuring a phone system or getting Internet service, he said, since everything is already set up.

For “X-Men: The Last Stand,” production requirements included 120 of Cisco’s 7920 IP phones in a mixed model, including wireless networking. X-Men also used Berbee’s InformaCast to page within the facility and into the stages, so they could talk to their construction crew.

“Our customers all have different needs,” said Hawkins. “There’s not one template or formula, so it ensures we look good because we can give them what they want.”

The studio’s PBX phone system hit its limit in 2001, and VFS faced a painful forklift upgrade. “We were at a point where our PBX couldn’t meet our needs anymore,” he said.

“How much money are we losing by having an old crappy phone system and there’s nothing that beats that [for ROI] – business potential, money, customer opportunities flying out the door because you don’t have the right product to meet your communication needs.”

VFS was already running a Cisco data network, so it made the decision to deploy Cisco’s Unified Communications suite, including Cisco CallManager, Cisco Unity and 500 Cisco IP phones in multiple buildings. “The flexibility of IP telephony has helped us to meet our business case but it’s really feature-driven,” said Hawkins.

Paging, for example, is a frequent demand in the film industry, and was something VFS didn’t offer with its PBX system. Now, using IP, it’s partnered with Berbee Information Networks to provide a paging solution for film and TV crews. “That was an immediate need we were able to fill with IP telephony,” he said. “We could have paging, but it was flexible too – we could manage it over multiple sites with multiple customers.” Several moves, adds and changes can be done by the users themselves, he added.

“(With PBXs), there’s no way for third-party vendors like Berbee to come in, see a need in the marketplace and design a product that will integrate,” said Hawkins. “If you want into Nortel’s box, you’re going to have to talk to Nortel.”

VFS differs from a lot of Berbee’s other customers, said Ken Bywaters, vice-president of voice products with Berbee Information Networks Corp. “With each new production they’re likely to want different paging groups,” he said.

VFS’s customers can use the displays on their IP phones to page text; they can also simultaneously push an audio stream and/or text message to multiple Cisco IP phones, InformaCast speakers, the InformaCast desktop agent of overhead paging system. The upcoming release of InformaCast 5.0 will offer users more grouping flexibility, since they won’t have to be in the same location.

Berbee only offers this capability through Cisco IP phones. “No other phone that I’m aware of, Avaya or Nortel, even provides a multi-cast architecture, which means if you try to send an audio message to every phone individually, it would swamp your network,” said Bywaters. “With multi-cast, you just put one audio stream on the network and all the phones listen to it at the same time.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Vawn Himmelsbach
Vawn Himmelsbach
Is a Toronto-based journalist and regular contributor to IT World Canada's publications.

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