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Catalyst Conference 2002: Siemens tests out VoIP

Siemens decided to use its new San Jose complex as a test case for voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) telephony, and the project highlights the highs and lows of VoIP technology.

SAN FRANCISCO -- While it seems it is the shoemaker's children who go barefoot and the plumber's house that has leaky faucets, Siemens was determined to practice what it preached when it came to its new Skyport facility in San Jose, Calif.

The electronics giant had originally planned to install a traditional private box exchange (PBX) business telephone system, it switched gears mid-way through the construction of its new office complex and decided to install a voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) system instead.

Lessons Siemens learned from its VoIP project
  • Network design is critical in supporting IP telephony
  • Take a practical approach to applications and solutions; not all applications are ready for the IP environment.
  • Make sure IT and telecom staffs are united on the project.
  • Line powering does allow IP phones to survive a power outage but backup power is required.
  • Users prefer a physical phone over a soft client.
  • Features are not a big deal but performance and reliability are.
  • Joan Vandermate, Siemens vice president of product management, offered up her company's experiences with the technology at Catalyst Conference 2002, a networking infrastructure event sponsored by the Burton Group. She said the company decided to use the facility as a test case of VoIP technology, which is just beginning to be adopted by businesses over traditional telephone systems.

    She said the project highlighted the highs and lows of VoIP technology, which uses the Internet to deliver voice communication.

    Siemens Enterprise Networks unit -- which conducts product development and research -- had been operating out of a technologically antiquated building in Santa Clara where the decor was 1970s quaint and the telephone system was a rusty, old PBX system.

    Siemens' new 300,000-square foot facility included two eight-story buildings. Midway through construction, the company decided to use the complex as a showcase for IP telephony.

    Because Siemens had switched gears half-way through construction, the planning team had to move fast, said Vandermate.

    "We had 60 days to get it in, test it and tune it. There were lots of nervous people," she said.

    The decision to go with VoIP was made in February, by August they started to install the system and by October they migrated over to the newly installed system. Today almost all of the voice communication in the building travels over the Internet. About 1,000 people use the system and there have been only a few minor glitches with the technology.

    The project dispelled some of the company's myths about VoIP telephony, she said. For example, Siemens discovered that a VoIP installation is no cheaper than traditional phone systems. The entire VoIP installation at the new complex cost about $3.8 million, compared to the estimated $3.7 million the PBX system would have cost.

    "We found from a capital perspective there is neither a driver to do or not to do VoIP,'' she said.

    However, Siemens discovered operational costs are substantially less with VoIP. For example the VoIP system costs 20% less per user to run, especially when used with a PC instead of a traditional telephone handset.

    The project did have its glitches. For example, it became clear that the IT staff and the telecom voice staff must be united on the project.

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    It turned out this was not the case at Siemens when an IT person decided to bring down a router for routine maintenance during the middle of the day, not realizing it would also bring down the entire phone system as well.

    "The poor guy got so flustered at the result that what should have been a half-hour shortage turned out to be a half-day outage," she said.

    There were some minor issues with traffic flow on the network as well, she said, and they had to tweak the system to get rid of echoes and choppy speech.

    But the advantages of the system were highlighted the day a back hoe knocked out all power to the building. The VoIP system continued to work just fine.

    "So business went on as usual. It was just a little darker than usual," she said.

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