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Enterprise voice upgrades can break more than they fix

Upgrading an enterprise voice platform is rarely as simple as hitting the 'install' button. One voice engineer shares her tips for ensuring voice upgrades don't break other apps.

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Network Evolution: Cloud network management for the WLAN booms:

In this edition of "The Subnet," we chat with Amy Arnold, a senior network engineer who works in the public sector, about all the things that can go wrong during a voice upgrade, what her dream network looks like and the challenge of getting deeper into information security.

What are you working on now?

Amy Arnold: I have a lot of projects on my plate, but probably one of the two biggest ones is planning a voice upgrade. We're getting everything sorted out to take [our Cisco Unified Communications Manager platform] to the next major version. It never sounds like much, but there are all these details because of all the applications that [integrate] with it. And I'm also replacing my firewalls with newer, bigger firewalls, so that's another big project that we've got in the next few weeks.

Tell me more about the voice upgrade.

Arnold: Our phone system, our voicemail system, our contact center solution -- those are all getting upgraded. Currently, we're on [version] 8.6 and we're going to 9.1. It's not the latest version, but it's the latest stable version -- which is always important when you're dealing with voice.

It's a lot of intricate detail, and I think that's what people forget. [I have] done this on the consulting side as well, and when I would go in to do voice upgrades, clients would forget third-party applications that depend on your voice system and [are affected by] what version you're on. Call recording is a good [example of] one, as well as faxing -- which, unfortunately, is still out there -- and paging systems and all of these different applications. [People] are thinking, ‘Oh, we're just upgrading our voice system,' but if you're not careful, you'll break a lot of stuff when you do it.

It's a lot of back-end research where you find out what [systems are] compatible, what versions are compatible and what has to be upgraded first. And can your phones support the latest firmware, or do you have to do step upgrades? It's the reason voice engineers drink. It's so detail intensive, and it's not the hardest work you can do -- it's not rocket science, per se -- but, definitely, if you're not careful, you could miss something, and that always makes for a very long cutover.

Is a voice upgrade gone awry difficult to troubleshoot?

Arnold: It depends on how badly you broke it. I did know another voice engineer's customer who took it upon themselves to upgrade their contact center without upgrading all of their other stuff, and it was very difficult to get back to where they needed to be because they didn't do what they needed to do. Usually, though, if you're doing things in a certain order … you can revert back to the inactive partition.

It's never good to, before an upgrade, not check to make sure they have a valid backup—those are rookie mistakes.
Amy Arnoldsenior network engineer

I know Cisco voice, so I'm not sure if Avaya voice and Mitel voice can do the same thing, but typically you can go backwards. It's just a matter of how painful it's going to be to go back. It depends on how far you went down that road. It's never good to, before an upgrade, not check to make sure they have a valid backup. Those are rookie mistakes. Try not to make those.

If you could build a network from scratch, and money was no object, what technologies or architectures would you look to first?

Arnold: That's a hard question because it's hard to imagine a world with no budget! I've seen, on both the consulting side and in the public sector, that there are places where you cut back on redundancy. You know you could do it better, but because of constraints, you take that hit. So I would love a network that was really redundant. I know that sounds cheesy, but that's where I would go. I would spend my money on getting that extra supervisor card for every switch that can hold it, getting dual switches everywhere and really focusing on a truly redundant design -- not having to cut any corners.

I don't think about particular brands or any one technology, but I would just like a network design that was truly redundant and truly resilient, which is the holy grail of networks. I'm not even sure that exists, but it would be cool.

What is your biggest technical challenge these days?

Arnold: I'm dealing a lot more with security, which I haven't been as focused on. I've been able to [configure] a few firewalls and things like that, and now my department actually [oversees] security, so it's a new skill set. I'm trying to think policy-wise and also just from a configuration standpoint to learn those skills.

I focused on voice for a long time when consulting, and I've done route/switch network engineering for a long time, but when you really start digging into specialties like security, it's a lot to learn.

It seems like a lot of people get into IT somewhat by accident. What was your career path, and how did you wind up in networking?

Arnold: I thought I was going to be an attorney. I even went as far as to get a full scholarship to law school -- and I dropped out in a week. I loved the theory of law, but with the actual practice of law, I wasn't feeling that this was what I wanted to do with my life.

I took several classes after that. I had an undergrad degree, so I thought about, ‘What did I really want to do?' I took a programming class and I took a networking class, and I loved the networking class. I was hooked, and the class was from the Cisco Networking Academy, so I did all of [the classes they offered]. I did them all quickly, and I loved it.

Did you consider yourself a technical person before that?

Arnold: My dad is a programmer, so we grew up going up to the data center with him and spending time in his office. I could fix my own computer, and if I deleted something, I could recover it -- things like that, you know, that average users couldn't necessarily do. But I didn't have a huge passion for it and, honestly, I still don't have a huge passion for endpoints. Desktop support does not thrill me, and I do not want to be a full-time server admin. But I love networking, and I love building networks. I just think it's fun.

Here's a different personal question: What's the best place you've ever traveled to?

Arnold: I was very fortunate when I was young, about 18, to go to Nairobi in Kenya. I had never been outside the U.S. at that point, and it was incredible to see how other people lived. It gave me a real appreciation for what I had, for one, and an appreciation for another culture. I had never experienced that -- seeing how other people lived. And the people in Kenya were incredibly gracious and kind to people they didn't even know. You don't see that a lot over here. [Their culture has] just an incredible amount of compassion and generosity.

Next Steps

Deploying CUCM in a VMware workstation: A two-part series

Creating a voice upgrade and maintenance schedule

What's the difference between VoIP and a virtual PBX?

This was last published in December 2014

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What's your software-upgrade horror story?
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Working from a laptop often means making sacrifices that a desktop computer wouldn't require. In my case, it meant sacrificing my wrists; because of the placement of the laptop and the heat fan that was required to prevent it from overheating, any mundane work would aggravate carpal tunnel. I switched to using a Bluetooth keyboard at desk level to alleviate the symptoms; however, when a Windows update was released, it somehow disabled my Bluetooth driver. While I could access the settings, I was unable to remove the old keyboard, which made it impossible to reconnect my Bluetooth keyboard and work comfortably.
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Yikes. I suffer from an occasional bout of carpal tunnel, so I feel your pain (although, thankfully, not today). And it seems all roads lead back to Windows updates... 

Did you ever find a fix for it?
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