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Unified communications systems can be boon for SMB budgets

For collaborative potential and cost savings, unified communications systems are worth embracing for SMB and midmarket businesses.

It easily could have been Troy Neal's worst nightmare. The director of IT for YES Prep Public Schools in Houston could only stand by and watch as Hurricane Ike ripped through the Gulf Coast, taking with it the school system's already decrepit telephony system comprising a few failing PBX systems. But for YES Prep, the disaster turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Starting from scratch, Neal and his small IT staff were able to build a state-of-the-art unified communications system that has helped this network of public charter schools thrive and grow.

Troy NealTroy Neal

The goal of unified communications (UC) is tying together voice, video, data and mobile applications on a single network for ease of use and administration. For Neal, as with many small and midmarket CIOs considering UC systems, the challenge was finding a way to bring a unified communications solution to his organization without breaking the bank. Only in Neal's case, that challenge was exacerbated by a race against the clock. Without much time to shop around, he had to make a smart choice and quickly.

Options weighed and discarded

Video conferencing enhances UC system, eliminates travel costs

The state of the economy has meant tightened travel budgets at companies of all sizes, but small businesses -- many of which had small travel coffers to begin with -- were particularly hard hit. Such was the case at Unigene Laboratories Inc. in Boonton, N.J. The small biotech firm had a single way of interacting with its large pharmaceutical industry customers: meeting them face-to-face. But in recent years that method became untenable, said Ron Calderone, Unigene's director of information services. "Our company is only 60 people, and it was really prohibitive to travel so much."

Earlier this year Unigene began exploring video conferencing options in earnest. The company considered several solutions, but ran into systems that couldn't interface with the Tandberg or Polycom systems commonly used by customers. They considered acquiring a high-end system themselves, but the cost was too high. Another option was to rent units or use the video conferencing services of local conference centers, but Calderone worried this wouldn't work for last-minute conferencing calls.

In the end, the solution came in the form of a cloud-based video conferencing service from Mountain View, Calif.-based Blue Jeans Network. The killer feature? Software- and hardware-free interoperability with a vast array of video conferencing products from companies including Tandberg, Polycom Inc., LifeSize Communications Inc. and Microsoft Lync.

After Hurricane Ike destroyed the school's private branch exchange (PBX) systems, the first order of business was to restore voice communications as soon as possible. Neal was well-versed in Cisco Inc. technologies and turned to the San Jose-based provider first in search of an IP telephony solution. But at an entry price of about $100,000, the cost was too high for a school on a shoestring budget. Starting fresh with new PBX solutions also was not an option, with a potential cost of up to $80,000. Even a simple key system could run about $60,000. With plans to add new campuses to the school, the expense was out of the question, Neal said. "That's when we discovered Microsoft OCS -- now Microsoft Lync."

With Microsoft's academic licensing rate and funds from the government eRate program, the school partnered with Houston-based Insource Technology to implement OCS R1, the first release of Office Communications Server, Microsoft's unified communications system that includes instant messaging, Web conferencing, audio and video conferencing, and telephony.

"Within two weeks we had Exchange 07 and OCS R1 up and running for the entire organization," Neal said. Running over an Aruba Networks Inc. wireless network, the total cost was less than $3,000 per campus. "We've been on Lync since it came out. It's all fully virtual; we basically just replaced all our PBXs and it's all linked to our colo data center," he said. "We have about 650 users, we issue laptops to all our teachers with webcams built in, so that's pretty much their phone."

Unified communications fosters collaboration

YES Prep got more than just an affordable telephone service. Before Neal and his team began building the school-wide unified communications system, teachers on the school's then-five (now 11) campuses generally communicated via cell phone and email. When they wanted to collaborate on a project or just meet to share information with a group, it required a lot of preplanning and trekking across the city. That meant time out of their day and money out of their pocket. When the new UC system came into play, they were thrilled, Neal said. They could now attend virtual meetings in their classrooms, share and collaborate on documents, and talk to fellow teachers anytime with instant messaging.

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"We wanted to answer, what can we do from an IT standpoint to help them gain more instructional time, how do we get data in teachers' hands when they need it? The true collaboration that's come along with this is what's most valuable," Neal said. Unlike some other technology deployments, change management was not an issue in this one. "Most of our staff is straight out of college, so they're already tech-savvy as it is. With Lync --then OCS -- the adoption rate was phenomenal; there was very little resistance, and with the IM [instant messaging] desktop-sharing, it was an instant hit," he said.

During the next five years, YES Prep hopes to open 10 more campuses and eventually move outside the Houston limits. Now, with a scalable UC system and the built-from-scratch IT infrastructure to support it, there are no worries about expansion, Neal said.

"If we go on to have another 10 schools, another 600 employees, it doesn't affect the architecture that's already in place," Neal said. "As far as cost savings, for another 10 schools at around $2,000 each, we'll pay about $20,000 versus $800,000 or more in PBXs, so it's just a huge cost savings."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Karen Goulart, Features Writer.

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