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    New generation of Internet telephone systems can yield big business savings

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2009 First published in Business in Vancouver September 15-21, 2009 issue #1038

    High Tech Office column

    With revenue up 75% over last year, Vancouver-based Vision Critical seems to have missed the recession. But Vision Critical, which describes itself as “an interactive online research company,” has found that success can strain existing infrastructure.

    With offices in New York, Paris, Sydney and elsewhere, the company’s flexibility was being constrained by its phone system. According to Shawn Tagseth, who’s in charge of Vision Critical’s information technology, reorganization or adding employees meant calling in the phone company to reconfigure the phone system.

    After researching alternatives, Vision Critical worked with network consultant KOIOS Systems to install a Cisco unified communications network. It replaced the hard-wired telephone system with one built around Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology. Also replaced at the same time: a wide area network.

    Though Cisco has a reputation as maker of products for large enterprises, Tagseth suggests that it also proved a good fit for a much smaller company. A plus was that it’s easy to find technical staff with experience working with Cisco’s gear.

    For many, VoIP’s initial attraction has been the promise of saving money on long-distance charges. Even though Vision Critical has a network of international offices, this wasn’t a big issue for the company. Instead, the big benefit has been the flexibility of being able to make additions and changes to the phone network in-house. Tagseth said Vision Critical moved around 70% of its Vancouver employees over a recent weekend, something that would have previously been impossible.

    The company does expect savings from the new system, however, and is predicting a return on investment over two and a half years.

    Located in sight of BC Place stadium, Vision Critical’s Vancouver office will be in a pedestrian-only zone during the 2010 Winter Games, so access to the office will be limited. However, the company’s new software-based phone system will enable employees to take their work phone number and network access home with them, which will allow them to seamlessly conduct business from home or other locations for that period.

    While Vision Critical’s move to Cisco’s unified communications network was the company’s first taste of Internet-based telephone systems, local Mac retailer MacStation has been something of a VoIP pioneer.

    With Vancouver, Burnaby and Abbotsford locations, MacStation had replaced its hard-wired phone system with a software-based system back in 2001 using open-source Asterix software.

    According to IT director Aaron Attwaters, that system provided many benefits: as employees moved between locations, their phone extension and voice mail moved with them. Flat-rate long-distance charges and easier administration were other benefits.

    But as the company grew, it found that its first-generation VoIP system did not scale effectively. As users were added, the system became increasingly unstable, needing frequently to be wiped and restarted. Eventually, Attwaters was backing up and restarting the system daily. Moreover, it required a large amount of network bandwidth. High costs for Internet bandwidth were outweighing initial cost savings.

    Like Vision Critical, MacStation moved to the Cisco platform. Working with B.C. network integrator Boardwalk Communications, it moved from the old system last December. According to Attwater, the transition between systems went smoothly and there have been minimal problems since.

    A big plus, according to Attwater: as a well-known brand, there’s lots of information online about working with Cisco products.
    And that’s a good thing.

    Attwater notes that while Cisco’s website is full of information, it’s mostly “written by engineers for engineers”; the wealth of information available from other sources online is often easier to understand.

    The new system requires a third of the network bandwidth of the Asterix system, which has resulted in immediate cost savings without sacrificing voice quality. And regardless of location, all MacStation employees are connected to one big network. That makes it easy to add staff. A new store would simply be another node in the network.

    VoIP has grown up. Second-generation products like Cisco’s unified communications network are providing the flexibility that small and mid-sized businesses need. •

Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan
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