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Building a UC strategy from scratch, with minimal service disruption

Jessica Scarpati

Integrating heterogeneous unified communications (UC) environments after a merger or acquisition can be challenging, but corporate divestitures can be equally thorny, as one UC pro learned after he was tasked with surgically detaching legacy infrastructure and reconstructing a UC strategy

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with minimal service disruptions.

"We had from January 2010 until June 2011 to basically separate from the [previous parent company] and rebuild our [communications] infrastructure while maintaining business as usual," said Nagy Nagiub, manager of voice and data communications at Peoples Natural Gas, a Pittsburgh-based utility company that was spun out of its parent company, Dominion, last year. "The [legacy] equipment [we owned] was 15 years old ... and hadn't been upgraded or cared for. We had to build everything from scratch."

When it sold Peoples to a private investment firm, Dominion required Nagiub to disconnect critical communications systems that could not tolerate any downtime—including PBXs, call center systems and conferencing bridges.

"We [cover] 16 counties in western Pennsylvania, and I have offices in most of those counties ... with customers we still have to serve," Nagiub said. "I cannot come in all of a sudden and remove their voice system ... for a couple of days or even a weekend while I install a new one."

For Peoples' new UC strategy, Nagiub sought a vendor that could easily interoperate with the legacy TDM-based equipment from Siemens Enterprise Communications that could not be removed immediately from some branch offices.

"Voice over IP is the future and SIP is the future ... however, we still have offices in the middle of nowhere where there's no [high-quality] network connectivity," he said. "It was very important to get the new switches to talk to the old switches." 

UC strategy: Insourcing delivers UC services to more users

After evaluating three other "major" vendors, which he declined to name, Nagiub chose to stay with Siemens and upgrade his UC infrastructure in most branch offices and call centers to Siemens' OpenScape platform.

Nagiub’s new UC strategy with Siemens includes the insourcing of services that had been previously contracted out to hosted UC providers, such as voice conferencing and Web collaboration. He hoped that a single-vendor UC strategy would lead to a simpler deployment model.

The move slashed operating expenses, enabling Nagiub to deploy a UC strategy that offers advanced services beyond the C-level executives to more rank-and-file users across the utility company.  

"Very few [users] had Web collaboration capabilities and voice conferencing bridges because you had to pay for [each seat], so it was only left for the managers and above," he said. "But now that we have the equipment on premises, anyone could have a conference bridge, Web collaboration capabilities ... and the ability to do video conferencing."

Most users also gained access to presence, unified messaging (UM) and find me/follow me services for the first time, Nagiub said. The applications are especially helpful in maximizing the efficiency of Peoples' frequently-mobile users, such as natural gas and IT technicians.

"This makes sure that while they're traveling between different sites and undertake these huge tasks, they don't miss their important calls ... and [stay connected] easily through their BlackBerry or iPhone," Nagiub said. "[Our users] have to do their work fast and efficiently ... [so] it was really important for them to be able to communicate with anyone at anytime." 

Where possible, he upgraded Peoples' local area networks (LANs) and wide area network (WAN) connectivity to 100 Mbps or 1 Gbps to support the influx of voice and video traffic. Nagiub is considering an eventual integration of video conferencing in the call center, but noted it was not an essential part of his UC strategy.

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, Senior News Writer.


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