VoIP centralises global company

For one company, building a VoIP deployment from scratch meant years of planning, design and implementation before it achieved its goal of a centralised, global network.

For many, the work of an IT manager is mysterious and complicated, but few would describe it as miraculous. But after considering the work of Sanjay Chadha, chief IT architect at Lyondell Chemical Company, some might call him a miracle worker.

Justifying the implementation of a Voice over IP (VoIP) network can be a tricky task for many IT managers. But at Lyondell, Chadha was in a supportive environment where everything was put on the line to deploy a VoIP system, he said. The one catch -- it had to be done on a cost-neutral, or cost-plus, budget.

In some cases, this might not be such a daunting task: A small or midsized business (SMB) could eliminate its standard PSTN lines and utilise one or another hosted service and probably find itself in a cost-neutral or cost-plus situation. But at Lyondell -- the third-largest chemical company in the world, with offices on five continents -- the savings necessary to hit that budget target could have overwhelmed another manager.

And then, perhaps just for fun, the planning team decided to build a centralised infrastructure -- for a global network. This would effectively simplify the global deployment, saving the engineers and technicians from having to install hardware in each site location around the world. But developing the architecture for that type of network made even Lyondell's tech partners nervous.

With the bar already set high, Chadha dove into a design and implementation project that, though supported, was not what many deemed "necessary." Nor was there anyone in the company actually asking for a VoIP network.

"The company was losing money at the time, and there was neither a need nor a demand for these services," Chadha said.

But Lyondell has always prided itself on its tradition of staying ahead of the curve by looking ahead and wisely choosing to develop the latest applications and services that will improve business at both the time of implementation and in the future. Because of this forward-looking attitude, Lyondell's network had been ready for more than a decade to accommodate an IP voice network.

The first implementation began with the first of many huge risks -- canceling Lyondell's existing maintenance contract for its legacy telephony system. The savings from not having to pay for the maintenance service allowed the company to fund the first implementation -- with the first rollout in a small office that required only 50 phones.

To simplify the migration process for both the IT team and the employees, who would be transitioning to brand-new equipment as well as new business processes, the decision was made to build the new network parallel to the existing telephony system.

Once the network was in place and employees had undergone extensive training, each employee had a two-week grace period with two phones -- one, the legacy PSTN phone, and the other, the new IP phone. Employees used this time to become familiar and comfortable with the new IP phone -- with the older phone for backup -- before transitioning to an IP-only phone environment.

"We told everyone that they could always go back and use the PSTN phone if they got stuck on the IP phone," Chadha said. "But once we removed the old ones, they would have to use the new ones."

After the first office was successfully deployed and initial issues had been discussed and resolved, Chadha's team moved on to the next office that was to be part of the first implementation. With each deployment accomplished, the team moved on to the next, with the office size increasing as they became more confident.

Though the first implementation was intended to be a test run for the rest of the global rollout, Lyondell's first VoIP implementation lacked one important component of the end result -- centralisation. By initially eliminating this complicated factor, however, Chadha's team was able to build a lot of experience and confidence before attempting what would be the most difficult part of this immense project.

Running the first implementation in this cautious manner gave the team the opportunity to learn as much as possible about both unanticipated problems and unexpected positives, and to learn about the technology itself. And it was this experience with quality of service (QoS), emission controls, trunking, and even service providers that helped them to begin the implementation design that would take them through the second stage of implementation and to the finish line -- which Lyondell anticipates reaching around the end of 2007.

Another goal the Lyondell IT team set was to make sure that each site location could function regardless of any difficulties that another part of the network might experience. This integrated disaster recovery/business continuity plan needed to allow for sites to have near-full functionality even when the system was fully centralised. This ideally meant that the phone system would operate in a type of failure mode, where the more advanced features might not be accessible, but major features would maintain the functionality of the employee.

Following the successes of the first implementation, and learning from early problems, the team allowed time to build up enough cost savings to fund the second implementation stage -- integrating larger offices around the globe and beginning the process of centralisation. Implementations at this point had reached the size of 2,600 phones at one site. And once the network was centralised, deployments began to go faster and were much simpler because there was not much work that actually needed to be done at each physical location.

Centralisation had several additional benefits that allowed for implementation to continually grow easier though the office sizes were larger, Chadha said. Disaster relief policies were easier to implement, phones could be moved easily, and help desk boasted more and better features.

The new VoIP network also provided Lyondell's employees with a whole new set of features on their phones. Although they are not yet using the IP phones to display email, an integrated email/voicemail feature -- one of the many features that unified communications is known for -- allows users to read voicemail in their email inbox, saving them from having to search through voice messages one at a time.

Though not all the features are yet in use, they could allow employees to use their phones as a digital bulletin board, as a PSA system that would allow the CEO to keep the entire company informed of important news with one phone call, or to make campus-wide or emergency announcements.

In looking to the future, Chadha also described one of the biggest advantages of Lyondell's centralised, yet global, VoIP network as the ability to leverage new and more advanced features. With the infrastructure already in place for the entire global company, adding a new feature means that it only has to be placed on the network in one location for every employee to be able to benefit from it in the future.

For many, the move to migrate to VoIP can be a race, but Chadha and his team at Lyondell saw the VoIP migration as more of a journey, he said. By the time Lyondell's migration is complete, well over three years will have been spent on this process. And Chadha indicated that -- even then -- Lyondell will continually leverage newer features and update the system with the best ones to help improve employees' productivity and work experiences.

Now, Chadha said, Lyondell has saved several million dollars and has the benefits of a centralised VoIP system. The entire project to this point has been a gamble, he said, but so far it's paid off.

"To do this right, it was important to have a supportive culture to work in, and especially important was being in a culture that was willing to take the risks we needed to take," Chadha said. "We were already working on a very lean telephony budget, but we needed it to become even leaner."

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