The System i VOIP Solution: Now Ready for Prime Time
October 23, 2006 Mary Lou Roberts
At the spring COMMON user group meeting this year, IBM and 3Com piqued audience interest with the announcement that the two companies were developing an integrated voice over IP (VOIP) solution that would run natively on the System i. Today, the two have delivered on that promise with the announcement of the first-ever IP telephony solution designed to run on a single system along with a customer’s business applications. That single system is the System i.
As the press release notes, typically IP telephony environments are built with a single server supporting each of the components–call processing, messaging, and conferencing, for example–presenting systems management challenges that are especially problematic for small- and medium-sized businesses with limited IT resources. Thanks, however, to the System i, the new IBM/3Com offering will make “IP telephone accessible to business of all sizes and requirements by allowing them to implement a complete IP telephony solution on one easy-to-manage platform.”
This offers an obvious and attractive alternative to solutions like Vonage and Skype, both Internet-based voice solutions. Mike Rousseaux, IBM’s worldwide System i offering manager for collaborative technologies, points out that Vonage and Skype are not enterprise-ready telephony solutions and they are not designed to run on your organization’s data infrastructure. They run over the Internet and will, therefore, provide you with the level of support you would expect from the Internet. The IBM/3Com solution, on the other hand, is built on top of the company’s data. “Instead of having two jacks in the wall–one for your telephone and one for your network–you can eliminate the one for the phone and have the phone go right into your network.”
The System i will run 3Com’s VCX suite of software products, built on session initiated protocol (SIP), to handle all of the telephone routing, messaging, and conferencing. All of the software modules will be loaded onto the System i and connected to the network and will let customers easily control conversations between different end points.
The suite will run in a “guest telephony Linux partition.” Rousseaux explains that the 3Com suite was originally implemented on Linux for X86 and X64 servers.. But IBM has taken 3com’s VCX version 7 product and moved it from Intel to Power5, and will be running that into an LPAR on System i. “You don’t have to have any Linux skills to do this. You simply have to create the LPAR and then load in the modules as a telephony suite of products. You don’t need to worry about Linux; it’s all administered through the software.”
Rousseaux says that IBM believes there are three different customer sets that the company will market this solution to. The first set of customers is current users who have existing capacity on the system and who are interested in VOIP, especially since VOIP will not require a lot of new resources. The second set is current customers who do not have excess capacity but who see the value of VOIP and are willing to add processors. The third set consists of new customers who will see the value of running this on a System i.
Regardless of targeted customer group, Rousseaux believes the System i value proposition is strong. “One thing you often see is the proliferation of servers to support a traditional IT telephony solution. By offering this on the System i, we’ve taken advantage of the scalability and reliability of the System i to host telephony. You can now do things like dynamic resource allocation from a telephony perspective. For example, you can handle a large conference call and take resources from batch processing for that period of time and share them with the telephony system. That’s something you can’t do any of the other vendor products. Now I can take the whole suite of products and implement it on one system and have it be able to scale a large number of users.”
IBM is also making it quite easy to purchase. In order to implement it, you need enough capacity on the System i to create an logical partition to load 3Com’s VCX software. You also need services around evaluating the network and the readiness of your data network to handle voice. Finally, you need implementation services to install and configure everything on the System i and get it up and running. IBM has taken all of this and put it together into a single order that can be processed through the IBM channel.
Polar Beverages, New England’s largest independent soft drink bottler with approximately 1,500 employees, has already implemented the IBM/3Com solution and is singing its praises.
The privately held company, headquartered in Worcester, Massachusetts, sells to grocery stores, convenience stores, and even smaller customers such as delis. Polar Beverages has a direct store delivery (DSD) distribution network and services about 100 delivery routes every day with about 130 sales people.
Polar Beverage’s IT operation is very centralized, with the data center in Worcester and a System i5 550 running three i5/OS partitions for Domino for email, WebSphere for application serving, and the BPCS ERP system from Infor. The machine also has three Linux partitions: one for file and print serving and two others as the primary and secondary servers for the 3Com IP telephony software. Before the end of the year, Polar Beverages will also be installing another i5 550 in a remote location for high availability and backup.
Paul Paciello, director of IT, explains that the company had already begun a VOIP project about a year ago to replace its Siemens PBX, the lease for which ends in May 2007. The company’s first step was to upgrade the infrastructure, migrating from a frame relay network to a multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) network, which allows for more sophisticated kinds of traffic shaping on the network. The company also had to upgrade all of its routers, and replaced all of its switches with 3Com 5500s and a plunked a 7750 switch in the central data center. Polar Beverages had already begun that process and had to opportunity to run a pilot project in March of this year. At that time, the company sent an RFP out to Cisco, 3Com, and Siemens, resulting in the selection of 3Com.
“Then,” Paciello says, “we heard the announcement at the spring COMMON conference. Mark Shearer mentioned that IBM had just signed an agreement with 3Com to run VOIP on the System i in a Linux partition. I met with him and told him I’d be interesting in being a beta site.”
About six weeks ago, Polar Beverages partitioned its System i with the Linux partitions, installed the VCX software, and since has been running about 15 phones on the new system. The company is now working on migrating all of its NBX (3Com’s VOIP solution for smaller installations) over to the VCX code.
Paciello is delighted with the results. For him, the primary value of VOIP is the time and cost savings from doing adds, changes, and deletes. “We don’t have a large IT staff [only four full-time IT staff augmented with three contractors who work on the ERP system], so we are trying to make people more productive in keeping our software and infrastructure up to date. Being on the System i has made us more productive, but when we have turnover, we still have difficulty creating new extensions, and we were running out of extensions on our Siemens system. We saw it would be much easier to do the adds, changes, and deletes with VOIP solution, and that it would help with the growing number of people we have who travel from one location to another. This is a good solution for a lot of reasons: consolidation, unified messaging, and a growing need to work with voicemail and email.”
The implementation problems have been minimal, according to Paciello. Early in the project, there were a few difficulties with some dropped calls, but the problem was traced to the fact that the voice provider was not prioritizing the packets over the MPLS network, and since they made a quality of service change in the network, no more calls have been lost. There have also been a few voice quality issues, but they are working on that and expect to have it resolved soon.
Although Paciello has no hard and fast numbers on cost savings, he believes the new system will allow Polar Beverages to save money on travel time. It will also allow for better communication and let the company maintain its current staffing levels while actually reducing responsibility. The System i is the perfect platform for this, he believes, because it has been so stable and scalable with the growth of the company.
VOIP may not be for everyone, though. Paciello cautions that companies that have not kept their infrastructure up to date, that have different types of switches, and who don’t have the right routers to prioritize the voice package over the data and ensure quality of service. “Your infrastructure has to be solid and stable. But if you’ve been keeping your technology up to date and have a good high availability and recovery in place, VOIP can benefit greatly. If you haven’t kept up your infrastructure, I wouldn’t even attempt it.”
Another organization that is about to implement the IBM/3Com solution is the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM), a specialized private college with campuses in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, and Orange County, California. FIDM has an enrollment of 5,500 full-time students and an alumni network of more than 30,000 graduates around the world.
An IBM midrange user since 1979 when it installed its student accounts receivable system on a System/32, FIDM now has an i5 570 with nine processors activated and seven partitions–three for i5/OS business applications, one i5/OS partition for Domino, a Linux partition for Web applications, and two additional Linux partitions for VOIP. FIDM is implementing the VCX software now and expects to go live on December 11. While all of the college’s core business is on the System i, FIDM does have 40 Intel boxes, which are print servers and run specific applications for courses offered by the college. FIDM will also be implementing a high-availability solution, and the VOIP package–which will be initially implemented only on its LAN and WAN–will be backed up with a small i5 520 with two partitions.
Roxanne Reynolds-Lair, FIDM’s chief information officer, says that the college was initially looking at another telecom vendor and was planning to move into VOIP in a much more phased-in approach. But, like Paciello, she was at the spring COMMON and heard the announcement about the partnership between IBM and 3Com. “It was really exciting because of the prospect of integration. Being able to pull the telecom apps into the data apps was very enticing and I saw a lot of potential there for our students and faculty.”
FIDM estimates a cost savings of several thousand dollars per month from the switch to VOIP, with a lot of that coming initially from the change from an asynchronous transfer mode (ATM) network to the MPLS network. Reynolds-Lair also believes there are many soft benefits as well, primarily in the area of integration. “We have outlying offices in Washington, D.C. and Arizona, and right now those are not on our telecom LAN. We will be able to pull those in and they will be able to be on the network with an FIDM phone number and extension. There’s also a business continuity benefit: if one of the sites goes down from the telecom equipment or even if one site is overwhelmed with calls, we’ll be able to switch over and have another location answer those calls without the caller ever knowing that there was a problem.”
To prepare for the implementation, IBM and 3Com performed a site survey to make sure that FIDM’s network equipment and bandwidth would support VOIP, not just from a technical standpoint but also from the perspective of volume. As a result, FIDM has beefed up some of the network equipment. “The WAN equipment was already going to be upgraded because of changing from ATM to MPLS. Then we checked the backup to make sure that it was sufficient.”
Though the system is not live yet, Reynolds-Lair is confident about the reliability of the System i and IBM’s commitment to stand behind the product, and she praises the relationship she’s experienced thus far with both IBM and 3Com. Furthermore, her experience with the System i is that it’s a great platform for integration, pulling all aspects of the business together on the same platform and letting the school grow. “Whatever new technology is out there, or new ways to write applications, the System i has been able to anticipate those needs and allow us to focus on the business and take advantage of those technologies and integration.”
While FIDM has consciously made the choice to use VOIP initially internally only on the LAN and WAN, continuing to use traditional phone lines for external calls, Reynolds-Lair is anticipating looking at expansion next year after they have a full comfort level with VOIP.
Reynolds-Lair does have one word of advice for other prospective VOIP users: “We are converting all of our sites over one weekend, but I would probably recommend to other people that they not do this all at once. It would probably be less stressful. I’m confident that it’s going to work out fine, but it’s a lot to do with the multiple locations and the multiple layers that we are doing from the switch from ATM to MPLS, upgrading some of the networks and getting a new messaging system and phones. It’s a lot for one weekend.”
System i5 business partners are as enthusiastic about VOIP as IBM and 3Com, too.
John Taylor, technical director for Typex in the United Kingdom., explains that it is his job to evaluate the launch of new products and determine whether or not they should be brought into the company’s portfolio. “I’ve been fighting our sales people for the last several years,” he says. “They keep asking if we can do VOIP because everybody’s asking about it, and I kept telling them it was too complex and we didn’t have the skills. The IBM/3Com solution has given us something that’s a proven system and deliverable in an integrated way. To us, this is a no-brainer. We are raring to go.”
IBM’s Rousseaux adds that what is being delivered this week is just Phase I of the total project–moving the telephony capabilities onto the System i. He points out that this will be great in being able to leverage different workloads, but that what Typex is hearing from their customers and ISVs is that it’s really about integrating the business-critical applications and line-of-business applications with the telephony applications. Phase II, then, will be to integrate all this with business applications, “being able to take a CRM application and enabling click-to-call from within that application, or doing intelligent routing of an in-bound call to a specific operator who has been specifically trained to handle that type of inquiry. That’s the direction in which we are heading. In the first quarter of 2007, we’ll be making some additional announcements around these capabilities.”
This story has been corrected since it first ran. In several points in this story, Muli-Protocol Label Switching was misidentified as MTLS instead of MPLS. Also, FIDM is saving several thousand dollars per month, not seven thousand; and it was upgrading its WAN, not its LAN, with MPLS capability already. And finally, FIDM started out on the System/32 with a student accounts receivable, not accounts payable, system. IT Jungle regrets the errors. [Corrected 10/23/2006]