Finding its net voice

When the command at the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard transferred responsibility

for the yard's phone system from the facilities staff to the information

technology department as part of a centralization project, the department

did what many computer shops in the same situation would love to do: It

hatched a plan to run those phones over its own IP-based computer data network.

Besides putting the phone system into a much more familiar technical

environment for the IT staff, the new voice-over-IP (VOIP) system will provide

shipyard employees with phone features they've never had before, such as

voice mail, caller ID and call histories. And best of all, the new system

will pay for itself within two years.

The bold move to this new technology puts the Navy shipyard at the forefront

of a trend to run voice communications over data networks, a move often

referred to as convergence. Although VOIP technology has improved immensely

during the past year, there are still many challenges — not all technical — that adopters need to overcome if they are to build effective systems

and recoup their investments.

The Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility

in Hawaii has tackled many of these issues, and with the help of its VOIP

vendor, Cisco Systems Inc., is moving ahead swiftly with its plan to deploy

more than 3,000 IP phones that will replace most of the command's traditional

phone lines.

The yard services ships that are part of the U.S. Navy Pacific Fleet.

At about the same time the command's IT department was assigned responsibility

for the phone system, the shipyard learned that a change in its telephone

services contract was going to raise prices for its existing 2,500 phone

lines significantly, from $26 to $42 per phone per month.

To avoid the cost increase, the shipyard's IT department evaluated two

new options: install its own PBX phone system or deploy a VOIP system.

"We didn't pursue the PBX ultimately because, among other factors, there

are huge training issues," said Stephen Sasaki, the assistant to the chief

information officer at the shipyard. "There would be a huge learning curve

to bring up a new piece of equipment that we had no understanding about,

given that we're inherently a data shop."

Cost was chief among those other factors guiding the shipyard to pick

VOIP over PBX. A return-on-investment analysis prepared at the behest of

command CIO John Harris showed that a $1.3 million VOIP system would pay

for itself in less than two years, compared to about five years for a PBX

system.

Furthermore, an implementation plan was devised in which the cost of

the system would ultimately be paid for by actual telephone line cost reductions.

The net result is that the telephone budget will remain constant for the

next two years and then is expected to drop significantly once the installation

is complete.

There are several components to the dramatic savings of the VOIP system.

One is the much greater line efficiency that the VOIP system achieves when

connecting the shipyard's phones to the outside world via the public switched

telephone network (PSTN).

With the shipyard's traditional phone lines, each telephone required

its own direct line to the PSTN via the service provider's switch, in this

case AT&T. By using VOIP, the shipyard can take advantage of a statistical

trend that typically occurs at most enterprises: 90 percent of telephone

calls stay within the enterprise. That means that the VOIP system requires

the number of outside lines to be only 10 percent of the total number of

IP phones, as opposed to the one-to-one ratio required by traditional phones.

"The

savings on those monthly recurring costs really is our biggest payback,"

Sasaki said.

The VOIP system also cuts the shipyard's costs for handling service

requests. With the current telecommunications contract, AT&T charges

the shipyard $40 for a service call, for such services as activating, deactivating

or relocating a phone. And internal procedures mean that such requests can

take as long as two weeks to be completed, according to Sasaki.

To activate

a phone with VOIP, the shipyard's IT staff can simply connect an IP phone

to the local-area network and configure it centrally using a network autodiscovery

feature. The job can be done in a few hours or less because the phone carrier

does not have to be involved.

Urge to Converge

In choosing to pursue the VOIP option, the Pearl Harbor shipyard joins

a small but growing number of organizations merging their voice and data

communications infrastructures.

There are now more than 50 vendors offering VOIP solutions, from established

telephony providers like Avaya Inc. (formerly Lucent's enterprise networks

group) and Nortel Networks Corp. to start-ups like Altigen Communications

Inc. and VocalTec Communications Ltd.

When the Pearl Harbor shipyard surveyed the market for VOIP solutions

last November, it considered several but ultimately chose Cisco's in part

because the base already had an existing contract with the vendor as part

of an ongoing network upgrade plan.

The shipyard became one of about a dozen Cisco customers worldwide participating

in the vendor's VOIP early adopter program. The customers were the first

ones to use Cisco's new Call Manager 3.0 VOIP software that can scale up

to support more than 100 VOIP telephones. By participating in the early

adopter program, the shipyard receives direct consulting services from Cisco

to help build the VOIP system.

"What was key with any of these early adopters was an organization that

wants to really move out quickly on the technology," said Mike Rau, Cisco's

director of systems engineering for federal sales. "Pearl Harbor is a phenomenal

site."

The shipyard began its VOIP deployment earlier this year with a limited

rollout of 100 phones to the IT department. The idea was to get feedback

more quickly and not risk disrupting phone service to other shipyard employees

while the VOIP technology was tested.

To provide a better environment for running VOIP traffic, Cisco recommended

that the shipyard install switches throughout its network. "Dedicated switching

to the desktop eliminates the data collisions on the network that can rob

bandwidth and result in packet loss," Rau said. VOIP systems convert a person's

voice into digital form, then breaks it down into smaller pieces called

packets that are sent across the network.

Network latency in excess of 150 milliseconds and packet loss are the

chief culprits behind call degradation in a VOIP network, according to Rau.

Symptoms include problems with call clarity, echoing, cutouts and even

disconnections.

In addition to extending the switching capabilities of its network,

the shipyard uses quality of service features built into the network, especially

on the newer equipment, to give voice data priority over other types of

data on the network. This also helps minimize packet loss and latency.

Another common concern for VOIP adopters, and one of special importance

for a defense installation such as Pearl Harbor, is protecting the power

supply that keeps the phone system running.

Traditional phone systems carry a small amount of electricity to power

the phone. And telecom companies have years of experience in keeping phone

systems up and running, even through general power outages. Data networks,

on the other hand, traditionally have not been designed to carry power.

To solve this problem, Cisco now offers what it calls an inline power

feature in some of its networking gear so that the copper-based, twisted-pair

data network can carry power to the IP phones. The shipyard has connected

this new equipment to several battery-based uninterruptible power supplies

(UPSs) that will provide several minutes of back-up power during power outages.

The shipyard's long-term plan is to buy a diesel generator to provide power

for longer periods of time than possible with UPSs.

The Backup Plan

But even with these provisions, the shipyard will retain some of its traditional

phone lines, mostly connected to fax machines, to have in the event of an

emergency.

A certain number of traditional phones will also be retained to continue

supporting a feature called pre-emption, in which any voice call can be

interrupted and overridden during an emergency. That feature is not currently

available with VOIP.

Since the initial rollout of 100 phones, the Pearl Harbor VOIP system

has been extended to 200 more users in a cross section of the organization's

departments. The shipyard plans to deploy about 3,000 more phones commandwide

by next September.

Sasaki said the shipyard would like to use the savings on telecom costs

to finance several related projects in the pipeline, such as building a

wireless system for the IP phones and a unified messaging system that would

consolidate users' voice and e-mail systems.

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