A big bang approach

When replacing an outdated system with integrated IP telephony, law firm Forsters saved money with a bold "all or nothing" approach. Helen Beckett reports

When replacing an outdated system with integrated IP telephony, law firm Forsters saved money with a bold "all or nothing" approach. Helen Beckett reports

The move to new premises in London offered law firm Forsters a green light to replace an outdated analogue telephony system.

For the IT department the big appeal of migrating was the opportunity to manage telephony and communications infrastructures without having to rely heavily on specialised external engineers.

The analogue PABX served 150 extensions with a range of time division multiplex-based functions, but was liable to failure. Nor could it provide an effective voicemail service to users, essential for modern business practice.

It had been built using proprietary coding and syntax, and even relatively minor problems had required the presence of an external engineer. Tasks such as setting up call divert or setting up pick-up groups had a turnaround time of two to three hours.

"The old PBX was time-consuming to manipulate and manage for network administrators. We wanted a system that we could manage without having to traipse around the office fiddling with handsets, and that provided our users with a better way of communicating," says IT manager AJ Meade.

Forsters hired Matrix consultants to evaluate kit and support requirements and they recommended Mitel's 3300 integrated calling platform. A pilot consisting of six phones plus a server running client applications quickly proved cost effective and easy to use. "Straight away we could manage the system and set up groups," says Meade.

He remains pleased with the greater autonomy that his team has gained. He says, "The IP user interface is very intuitive (web-based) and anyone with a little IP knowledge can operate it." Now, administrators can assign phones six-times faster than before, a big improvement given the highly dynamic nature of case teams within the practice. 

IP telephony has also delivered the cost benefits it promised. "Lawyers hate spending money," says Meade, and the product choice was justified as being economically optimal and providing a return on investment. The firm had considered a gradual migration to IP telephony at its previous site but rejected it because it was too expensive.

The conversion cards alone would have cost an extra £9,000, plus maintaining two worlds entailed technical complexity and potential cost, explains Meade. "It is like asking PABXs to talk German to French." For Forsters, the big bang approach to voice over IP was the more sensible option.

Big savings have flowed from the easier management of staff telephony needs. In a law practice there is typically a lot of movement of people. The sector has a higher turnover of employees than banking or other industries for example, and a turnover rate of 40% per annum is not unusual. Such heavy-duty maintenance on the telecoms side meant costs soon stacked up.

In the future, Forster plans to use soft phones instead of the full-blown IP handsets. Soft phone devices provide access to a minimum of functionality, while all the other telephony applications are accessed from the PC. It reduces the cost from about £220 per IP handset to £60.

Training has proved straightforward. Three trainers from Mitel were on site the day the system went live to instruct batches of staff in the basics. In addition, they supplied tip sheets on the fundamentals: how to make and forward a call, how to secure the headset, and how to use do not disturb and auto answer.

For the IT team, training was also essential because support is handled in-house. A big part of this involves "constant talk with Matrix and Mitel to keep up-to-date on what is going on". Every member of the team has been trained in how to set up a new extension and facilities like hunt groups.

Since switching to VoIP, there has been an increase in productivity and call resolution of the IT helpdesk. Previously only 10% of calls could be resolved at first contact, compared to about 95% with the new IP telephony system, and according to Meade,  maintenance costs have been halved as a result.

Unfortunately, voice and data integration and unified messaging have not been realised to date, as Forsters uses Citrix to maintain a thin version of applications at the client end and to centralise all applications on central servers, and this cannot support VoIP.

A thin client was selected for the desktop when the firm originally set up because it offered better value and a greater control of the desktop. Employees use the same applications, and so it made sense to reduce desktop maintenance costs and offer these from the server via Citrix, says Meade.

Developments in streaming technology should shortly bring the benefits of VoIP to thin clients too.

Nonetheless, implementation of IP telephony has delivered other benefits for the law firm. In particular, home working is a lot easier to facilitate. "It is a massive improvement from analogue," says Meade. "We can give an IP phone to a member of staff and they plug it into their laptop that connects to the network over the internet and it becomes their desk phone."

Bringing thin clients into IP telephony

Developments in thin client technology mean that skinny desktop devices will soon be able to take part in the VoIP fest.

For example, Wyse Technology, supplier of thin client devices, released at the end of last year a streaming manager product that works in conjunction with a "stateless client".

Thin clients need sufficient intelligence to connect to and invoke software on a central server. By contrast, streaming operates with an end device that is literally a piece of kit with nothing preconfigured. The streaming is initiated at the centre and delivered via the session.

"Issues that are traditionally associated with thin clients go away with streaming technology," says Tony Lock, chief analyst with Bloor Research.

Streaming enables stateless clients to have telephony streamed to them and has the advantage that a "rip and replace" is not required to turn a thin client into a stateless client. "It builds on top," says Lock.

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