Ku-ring-gaiís state of the art telecommunications overhaul

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In February 2008, Ku-ring-gai Council in Sydney’s north went live with a new telecommunications system servicing all its main offices and remote sites. In the following interview Council’s IT Manager, John Giovinazzo, explains how this was achieved.

What are the key features of the new system?

  • As well as basic phone call functionality the system provides voicemail, automatic call distribution (ACD) queues, a corporate directory, call recording, fax gateway, soft phones (a software application installed on a computer or laptop that mimics a telephone) and Nortel’s MCS Unified Communication features.
  • The system is fully managed and hosted in an Optus data centre.
  • It is designed to provide fault tolerance and redundancy if one or more sites fail. The previous PABX was in the main Council building and any outage would affect all sites.
  • It is based on industry standards (SIP), allowing us to use a wide variety of equipment if we chose to.
  • Administration is all carried out remotely via a web browser, this allows internal IT staff to complete routine tasks like moves, adds and changes from anywhere on our network and without the intervention of external service providers.

Why was a new/updated system required?

The previous system was fast approaching 20 years of age and supporting it was becoming harder each year. This presented a number of issues including increased maintenance costs, difficulty sourcing replacement parts and the ability to find people with the skills and knowledge required to maintain it.

The previous system also lacked basic features and functionality which are now considered mainstream. This included voicemail, call centre functionality and fax gateways.

What process did Council use to decide this was the best system to meet your telecommunications needs?

Right from the very beginning we realised that we did not have the required skills or knowledge to successfully complete this project. Council engaged the services of PABX Advisory Services (PAS), a vendor independent, telecommunications consulting company to assist with the replacement project. PAS had assisted numerous organisations, including a number of other councils, with similar projects.

PAS started the process by reviewing and documenting our current system to identify the features and functionality we currently had, and, more importantly, didn’t have. They then held briefing sessions with all Council staff and subsequently invited feedback to determine the requirements for all the areas within the organisation. This then led to the development of a requirements and technical specifications document.

Once we had the requirements documented we decided that a VOIP system based on SIP standards would suit our requirements. This would allow us to design a system that would provide fault tolerance, redundancy as well as allowing us to easily connect all 11 Council sites. Aside from this we wanted to go to market with an open mind and didn’t have any preference for either a specific vendor or the type of system, being software or hardware based.

We received several tender responses including both hardware and software based solutions. Together with PAS we conducted a rigorous evaluation process that, amongst other things, included detailed demonstrations for several of the core features. An important part of the evaluation process was the involvement of staff from key areas like our Call Centre who would be using the more critical features of the new system.

Eventually the tender was awarded to Optus (Alphawest) for their Nortel based solution.

When was it installed and was the changeover seamless?

The new system was delivered, installed and configured over several months in 2007 and early 2008. The new system went live on 4 February 2008. The actual changeover from the old system to the new occurred over the preceeding weekend and went very smoothly. Due to the configuration of the previous system we had to cutover our entire organisation including all 11 sites at once. We shut down the old system on the Friday night and everything that was scheduled to cutover was up and running for business as usual on the Monday morning.

What benefits has the system delivered for staff and your external customers?

The new system has been well received and has provided a number of benefits such as:

  • consistent look and feel throughout our entire organisation, staff in all sites have access to the same phone handsets and features
  • our entire phone system is now on the same in-dial number range. This has allowed us to realise considerable savings in relation to line rental and call
    charges, especially at our eight remote sites
  • we have been able to extend ACD features beyond our Call Centre and provide queues for areas such as IT and our main Library.
  • most of the basic management tasks including moves, adds and changes can now be carried out by internal IT staff, this allows us to deal with staff requests a lot quicker and reduce maintenance costs
  • the increased capacity of the new system also means our external customers have a better chance of contacting us
  • new reporting functionality allows us to monitor the system and report to management on the performance of our organisation, especially in relation to the Call Centre.

Have you encountered any problems?

Overall there were no major issues. However we did experience some minor problems, mainly around the use of analogue devices, the issue being that somehow we fell short on the required number of analogue ports and had to add these soon after implementation. The analogue ports are mainly used for fax machines and in some cases for cordless phones.

Aside from this there were the usual teething problems associated with any system implementation of this type, however, everything settled down after the first few weeks.