Say goodbye to desktop phones

VoIP apps and a high-density 11ac Wi-Fi network let an Oklahoma insurer scrap its desktop phones.

"When are we going to get rid of these things?" said Ken Henderson's boss as he pointed at the corded desktop telephone that has been emblematic of the American office for decades.

"I'm glad you asked that," replied Henderson, the assistant vice president for technical infrastructure at American Fidelity Assurance in Oklahoma City. He outlined to his boss, AFA President David Carpenter, a plan that had been gestating for a while. The recent purchase of a new headquarters building was the spark to put it into action.

The insurer's IT group is shifting hundreds of employees to voice-over-IP "softphones" on Windows 7 laptops and Apple iPad tablets, all clients to Microsoft Lync Server, for IM and video conferencing and now for VoIP calls, over an 802.11ac wireless LAN from Aruba Networks.

For years, WLAN vendors predicted that 802.11n Wi-Fi was the perfect foundation to support wireless VoIP. But most deployments were relatively small, at most a few hundred wireless VoIP handsets, in part because the combination of Wi-Fi and VoIP in the enterprise required a lot of work. [see our 2007 article, "Wireless VoIP works, but it's work"]

The new Aruba 11ac network at AFA is a pervasive, high-performance, redundant WLAN, replacing what had been mainly a network-of-convenience for employees in the original headquarters building. Going with 11ac shifts all clients to the uncluttered 5 GHz band (AFA isn't allowing 2.4 GHz use, even for Bluetooth), optimizes capacity, and "future proofs" the wireless network for an expected surge in the number of clients and in multi-media, real-time collaboration.

Nearly all of AFA's Wi-Fi clients currently are still 11n, but even these will see a performance gain on the 5 GHz band.

Toward complete mobility

Founded in 1960, privately-held AFA offers a range of supplemental insurance products covering disability, death, and other areas, as well as a range of services to company health plans. In 2012, the fast-growing company bought an existing building to become its new headquarters. Much of the interior was gutted partly for renovations and partly for a new network infrastructure.

"We wanted complete mobility, to support a collaborative environment within the new complex," says Henderson. "That meant we had to go wireless, and that meant getting rid of the desktop phone, because the cabled phone doesn't let you move around and collaborate with others as needed."

"Going wireless" at AFA entails distinct technologies that are intended to realize this idea of "complete mobility."

One is a distributed antenna system (DAS), designed and deployed by RF Connect, a network services company in Farmington Hill, Mich. DAS is essentially a system of cabling and internal antennas for distributing carrier cellular signals inside a building, improving transmission and reception. The DAS deployment is about 80% complete at this writing.

Second is the 11ac WLAN, with a design to support its new role as a mission critical network. "We built out the WLAN as if it were cable," says Henderson. "We emphasized redundancy, performance and operational measurements, and a big investment in the [RF] site survey." (AFA worked with an Aruba systems integration partner, Sigma Solutions, headquartered in San Antonio, with two offices in Oklahoma.)

This type of network adds access points liberally. "We added access points so we'd have overlapping coverage," says Henderson. Each Aruba AP 225 access point -- dual-radio, three spatial streams, maximum data rate of 1.3Gbps - has two gigabit Ethernet ports, each cabled to a separate distribution switch, which in turn are each homed to a separate network core. The gigabit backhaul anticipates video conferencing traffic but also bandwidth-intensive applications such as re-imaging a laptop over the air. There are multiple, redundant Aruba WLAN controllers.

The WLAN environment is complicated by the fact that part of the building is occupied by another corporate tenant for several more years. Access point power levels and channel planning, and authentication and security, had to take into account that company's separate WLAN.

Aruba's AirWave WLAN management application provides a wealth of real-time data about the network's performance and health, including interference sources. The AP 225 can monitor the RF environment, feeding data to AirWave. Aruba's ClearPass handles network access control, security, guest access and other authentication services. For mobile device management, AFA uses software from AirWatch, a mobility management applications vendor.

The third key technology is VoIP, enabled over wireless, via an upgrade to AFA's Microsoft Lync server, which had been an instant messaging, chat and video conferencing platform. The IT group worked closely with the various departments and business units to identify their full range of communications needs, Henderson says. Adding VoIP brought a range of PBX-like features to the Lync clients, whether Windows laptops or company-issued iPads running a Lync app. Lync also tied together Exchange Server contacts and calendaring with both voice and video conferencing. Because AFA already had a Lync enterprise license, "it was very cost effective to add voice," says Henderson.

The VoIP transformation is deceptively simple, from the end user viewpoint. "Your laptop is now your phone," says Henderson. An incoming voice call opens a window on your laptop or tablet screen, along with photo of the caller (if the caller is listed in your contacts). Users have wired or wireless headsets. Lync also shows "presence" -- it can show the online status of someone you're trying to reach. It also supports, via the WLAN, location tracking for 911 calls (AFA also has some hardwired phones in the new HQ for 911 emergency calls), according to Henderson.

Call quality is excellent. "Through Lync, it's high definition voice," he says. "Our colleagues realized that very quickly. 'Oh my gosh, I thought you were sitting in the room next to me.'"

Despite all the documented benefits, for many users there was an unexpectedly strong emotional attachment to their desk phones. "User response was very mixed," Henderson says. "Quite a few really embraced the technology. But others really like that phone on their desk. One stumbling block was the Microsoft Lync client didn't flash a message light on their phone [for a new voicemail]. You'd be surprised at how many were upset by that, even though all their voicemail was now going to their email, and they could receive the complete message."

The collaborative work environment this whole infrastructure is supposed to encourage and sustain is a work in progress. Right now, it means that employees in two separate buildings, and some 600 telecommuters, can use Lync's video chat and online meeting features. With Lync's integrated approach to different modes of communication, collaboration becomes a corporate service available over wireless. An AFA employee's "office" is now wherever they happen to be. As users are switched to Lync, they get mandatory training in its features and capabilities.

Another mobile collaboration technology that's part of the "complete mobility" concept is Crestron's AirMedia, which combines an HDMI box that plugs into a projector or flat panel TV and the corporate network. Using a Web service and client applications for PCs, Macs, Android and iOS device, up to 32 users in a conference room and wirelessly share PowerPoint, Excel, Word and PDF documents, along with photos and screen shots. Up to 40 more users can log in via the Web. "I was passionate about that," Henderson says. "I didn't want our folks to have to worry about plugging into walls or HDMI ports. We use it to share spec sheets, presentations, videos. It's very robust."

Currently about 600 employees have shifted to mobile VoIP, including eight of the highest ranking executives. But so far AFA President Carpenter, the vocal advocate of wireless VoIP, is not yet one of them, mainly because he's still in the old building.

"He's still got a phone on his desk," Henderson says. "But we'll get to him eventually."

This story, "Say goodbye to desktop phones" was originally published by NetworkWorld.

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