Taking a punt at new technology is always a tough call for an IT director to make but it can pay off. Chris Rawson, head of IT at Lloyd's of London, recently oversaw a successful move to new telephony technology, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP).
There were, he says, good business reasons for adopting VoIP. "The main business driver was cost. VoIP is saving us more than £1m a year over four years," he says.
The timing was right too. Lloyd's had just reached a breakpoint in its existing contract for BT's Featurenet service, and was selling part of its headquarters which contained a lot of telephony kit. Moreover, Rawson felt that VoIP, which is only six or seven years old, had gained sufficient industrial strength to merit consideration.
It also proved much cheaper than the alternatives - renewing Featurenet or building Lloyd's own, old-technology analogue PBX network.
VoIP allows Lloyd's to use its existing Ethernet data communications infrastructure for carrying digitised voice telephony and, beyond the Ethernet, Rawson can now buy in telephony PSDN bandwidth from several telecommunications companies at competitive tariffs, to carry both voice and data on one line.
"Voice telephony is now treated as a software service," says Rawson.
His experience has thrown up seven golden rules for VoIP implementation:
n Make sure that you have a compelling business case - Lloyd's spent £1.4m on VoIP, but will save £4m in four years, predominantly from reduced tariffs. "We were already buying in data comms from different suppliers, so we've got the required negotiating skills," says Rawson.
n Ensure the VoIP architecture is well designed - "Telephones are our lifeblood, we had to have full resilience and no operational risk," says Rawson. "VoIP is not bleeding edge but it is leading edge. We have five [software] call managers running so there's minimal disruption if one fails, and we also run over two mirrored sites, Lime Street and Chatham. We can handle 50,000 calls a day from our 2,500 users."
There may be an impact on the desktop environment as well. VoIP requires a certain base level of desktop, and Lloyd's needed to upgrade a few of its PCs, though the bulk were already at the Windows 98 baseline.
n Plan the project well - "You are stripping out the entire telephony structure, you must plan very carefully," says Rawson. "It would have been nice to have had more time, but we had immovable deadlines with the BT contract ending and the pressure to move buildings."
n Ensure you have good VoIP suppliers and implementors. "We got Cisco's original VoIP developers - it was definitely their A-team. BT Syntegra was likewise extremely positive about doing the integration," says Rawson.
n Avoid a "big bang" implementation. Roll out incrementally - as well as the usual test-beds, VoIP was introduced first at the Chatham site, before going online in the London building. "This is a large, complex implementation," Rawson warns. "You must take it seriously."
The project started in August, and the first phase of implementation was in November. "It was fully rolled out by the end of the year," says Rawson. At its peak he employed about 30 in-house staff on the project, as well as integrators from BT Syntegra and staff from Cisco.
n Make sure you have enough training and appropriate follow-up support. Phones are a way of life for office workers, and VoIP makes changes to a very familiar function. The new VoIP phones have a different look and feel, more like a mobile phone. "They are slightly different from traditional phones so they take a little getting used to," Rawson says.
They also interact closely with the desktop PC, for example by alerting on screen the arrival of voicemail and accessing phone directories.
"We were asking our customers to take on a different look and feel, different functions, a different way of using phones - so we did a lot of training and hand-holding early on," says Rawson.
After implementation he also ensured he had a team ready to be deployed to sort out any teething troubles rapidly, such as refining and tailoring local configurations.
Although Rawson was careful to try to give his customers a "like for like" swap as much as possible when moving from traditional telephony to VoIP, he now finds that users are keen to explore the new possibilities the technology allows.
"We're getting calls from them asking, 'Can I do this? Can I do that?' and, 'What can we do next with this?'," he says. "But we are not going to rush into the next implementation phase, we're going to gather more [information about their] requirements from customers first."
Possible new functionality includes, for example, voice recognition by way of voice-to-text conversion for on-screen voicemails.
"We're looking at a whole raft of different things, such as moving to the local administration of telephony configuration, rather than central administration, whereby underwriters can change their call manager directly themselves, to do things like fast dialling," Rawson says.
One thing that will not be disappearing off desks quite yet, however, is phones - even though VoIP can work perfectly well through PC speakers. "In an open office it's more discrete to use handsets," he says.
Especially when the deals are as big as they are at Lloyd's.