Communication Technologies - includes Industry Participants

Serve & Secure: Anatomy of a VOIP System Selection - Part 2

By Mark Brophy posted 04-27-2012 14:15


Welcome back. This is the long anticipated sequel to the blog "Serve & Secure: Anatomy of a VOIP System Selection - Part 1" and not the lame "prequel" that is often the case with today's stories.

When we left part one of this blog, I had explained why two of the top four VOIP candidates did not get a red rose. The looming question was did ShorTel win out over Cisco?

Drum roll…crescendo...cow bell!

They did not. Cisco was selected.

Before we begin this deeper dive, let me just say that both companies did an outstanding job showing their product’s capabilities and design options.

Breakdown of a decision

First, my environment and business needs are different than most firms. RTT has about 430 employees, but only 65 attorneys. We have several departments that operate like a scaled-down call centers versus the typical secretary/paralegal to multiple attorney setups that permeates most law firms. We have five offices spread across North and South Carolina, but the user headcount is very lopsided and not very balanced.

Columbia: 300

Charlotte: 110

Charleston: 6 (expected to grow in upcoming years)

Greenville: 2.5 (expected to grow way beyond that this year)

Conway: 0 fulltime – satellite office for field workers. Single phone required. VPN phone not an option due to office logistics and weak local telecom service offerings. 

High availability

My network operations exposed an area where Cisco edged out ShoreTel in the design of its failover capabilities. Providing DR/BC for my 3 small offices was easy with ShoreTel.  As long as I had a few open ports on any other ShoreTel unit in any other office, I could provide the emergency coverage quite easily. The reverse could not be said for my larger offices. In order for me to provide enough ports for either one of those two larger offices, I would have to purchase and license way more ports that I would ever use in those smaller sites. I viewed that as a bit of a waste. I’d have appliances running and doing nothing but waiting for the day to failover, if ever. I know that can be the nature of any DR setup, but if you can reduce waste or overhead, why wouldn't you?  It’s not ShoreTel’s fault here. Cisco was just a better fit for me with their design in this regard. 

To back things up a bit, RTT underwent a major network overhaul over the last 6 to 8 months where aging and faulty HP Procurve switches were replaced with new Cisco POE switches and new Cisco 2900 series routers for the WAN. Our entire infrastructure is now less than 1 year old and it still has that new packet smell. In the Cisco world, you are a third of the way to their VOIP phone infrastructure already. With regards to the DR/BC component, after a small upgrade takes place on the new routers I am good to go. Now, if any of my small offices loose their connection to my Call Manager, the local 2900 series router takes over in that site location to provide the necessary services (minus voicemail) for the local phones. The routers can handle this function indefinitely in case of catastrophic failure like building devastation or massive telecom damage due to hurricane. With regards to maintenance and support, since I am running Cisco routers and switches, I have to pay for SmartNet/support on my LAN/WAN already. With ShoreTel, in the remote offices, I would still have my existing Cisco SmartNet plus maintenance support coverage for ShoreGear switches. Not an exorbitant cost addition, mind you, but still higher than just going Cisco alone. Plus, there is something to be gained by having less hardware in offices unmanned by IT. So from a cost perspective, to implement DR, it was way more beneficial for me to go with Cisco than ShoreTel. Your mileage may vary.

Analog support

Let’s face it, both systems are digital (VOIP) by design. Running analog off of them will require a card installed that can handle the conversion. With ShoreTel, for every analog line you add, you lose roughly 5 VOIP phone seats. This is due to the analog to digital conversion which chews up CPU cycles. Since ShoreTel runs on a sealed appliance, upgrading hardware is not an option and there is no way around this. You have to be careful with sizing in that although you may be licensed for 96 VOIP seats on a ShoreGear 96, you may not have the processing capability in the phone system itself for that many phones if you have analog lines connected and in use. I don’t view this as a negative; it just is what it is. Cisco is no different. I don’t have their numbers available but since we're talking CPU cycles here, its probably in the same ballpark. The number of analog lines that I will need is again skewed along the size of my offices. In 4 of my offices, having faxing connect to the phone system is not needed and there are no plans for any more physical lines. (We use eFax). In my largest office, getting a separate appliance device to handle the physical analog lines that are already in place was going to happen regardless whether it was Cisco or ShoreTel. So the notion that ShoreTel is way better than Cisco with analog lines just didn’t hold true for us. (Love you, Bob!).  

Acquisition Pricing

Surprising, the first round of proposals came back and Cisco had edged ShoreTel out on acquisition costs and maintenance fees for its full Call Manager offerings and not the scaled down edition. The margin of difference was slight when compared the overall cost of the project, (2%-3%) but the past notion that Cisco prices them self out of the competition was clearly busted. ShoreTel seemed a little too sure of themselves at first and clumsy in the response when I brought to their attention that Cisco beat them. ShoreTel also fumbled the first proposed configuration. In the end it didn’t change pricing, but it was a little disconcerting that this happened. As you can see, cost was not the lone determining factor, but it did do something very important in the whole process. It kept the Cisco conversation alive. If you had asked anyone in the know, I was expecting to get the first proposals back and declare ShoreTel the winner.  But while ShoreTel was correcting their initial proposal, Cisco kept the conversation going by demonstrating their alignment and proper fit for our business.  During this time, Cisco closed the gaps (perceived on my part) between the two systems drastically. The more time I spent reviewing the two systems, interviewing other firms and doing my own homework, the more I found the better alignment with Cisco than with ShoreTel.  ShoreTel just could not put Cisco away early and in the end it cost them.

The phone card gets played

In the second round of pricing, Cisco offered up a proposal that would provide an out of the box solution for a big gap in my current technology, video conferencing. My firm is still fairly new to the multiple offices arena and due to the clientele that my firm services, video conferencing has never been a pressing need in the past. That is all changing. Cisco proposed a new phone for the bid called the 8941G. This phone has point to point video conferencing built in that requires no bridge or central unit for management. (Think The Office where Steve Carrell calls his boss Kathy Bates). This new phone is actually cheaper than the classic 7965G phone that has been the icon of a Cisco deployment.  So for a very slight adjustment to the cost, a modest video conferencing solution gets brought into my firm at a very aggressive level. There are no options like this with ShoreTel and the lack of options with the ShoreTel phone models seemed limiting at times. I seemed to either be settling for one model or swallowing hard at buying more of a phone than I needed. The fact that a lot of their models are still only 10/100 was a big negative. I did not just undergo a major network upgrade to gigabit networking only to take it away by dropping in 10/100 phones. Cisco has phones that are only 10/100, but as shown here, they also have many more models that are 10/100/1000 and even 802.11n if that tickles your fancy.  IMHO Shoretel is really showing a lag behind, whether intentional or not, in their R&D with regards to updating their phone options. Nothing from them has changed in several years, which is not something modern consumers of technology expect from their key providers.

Getting back to the office, I have several departments the run advanced hunt groups that act like mini call centers. Having the option to select suitable model phones for them as well as the plethora of modern accessories needed for a call center (Bluetooth headsets and handset lifters…) seems to give Cisco another edge here. (Note we are not buying Cisco’s UCC for this, we are going with native capabilities, the same if we went with ShoreTel) Again, with ShoreTel, in some areas I seemed to be buying too much phone or clearly not enough. With Cisco making cost not a factor when comparing their phone sets against ShoreTel, I could buy the phones that properly fit the business needs and not just have to make due. Let's face it. When we're spending this kind of capital, no one wants to feel like they are settling for anything. 

Finally, with the 8941 series of phones and higher, Cisco has a small Wyse Dell terminal that can be attached to the back of the phone for VDI deployments. Under this design, the only thing that would be on a user’s desk would be phone, monitors, keyboard and mouse. With a VDI pilot starting soon and a desire to rollout a larger scale in 2013, having this as an option to explore was very appealing. The capability and timing of this product release is an unique benefit to my firm, so this may have zero appeal to anyone else.

(note since this blog was initially written, Dell has purchased Wyse and it’s too early to know how this impacts the relationship with Cisco or this particular product line.)

Demonstrations and feedback

During the whole process, I had my two Network/System Admins, my Help Desk Manager and another IT Manager engaged in the demonstrations. We had a total of four total product demos, two from Cisco and two from ShoreTel. At the end I asked each member if they felt they would feel comfortable supporting a ShoreTel system after Day 1. The answer was a resounding “yes”. When I asked them if they felt the same way about a Cisco system the response was just as a resounding “yes”. That surprised me based on my long history and previous bias with the Cisco systems. I attribute this to the good job the local Cisco team did showing my guys the functions that pertain to them, “a day in the life” as you will.  Each of them echoed the same sentiments privately, in that, from a management perspective, the Cisco system did not appear complex or hard to handle. Actually two of them actually thought the Cisco might be easier to learn than the ShoreTel. Regardless, another previous negative in my mind with the Cisco system had been removed. To help seal the deal, Cisco provided advanced training in the form of Cisco Learning Credits for my team. Plus, as I said in part one, there are dozens of Cisco VAR’s in town in case senior work is needed. Since most of the Cisco system resides on the routers, if you do have a problem and you want to tackle it yourself, there is only one number to call, the award winning Cisco TAC. ShoreTel’s number of local support is much less in comparison, but still enough to meet our level of comfort.

Cisco advantage and I don’t mean technology

Cisco has a big leverage over ShoreTel in one area. Cisco has its own financing arm. Cisco was able to come forward with financing and flexibility in payment options that made my Shareholders very happy. The money saved using Cisco’s financing options actually allowed me to upgrade numerous devices for the same cost versus the original plan with the traditional financing options. Getting more for the same money is always a good thing to tell the Shareholders.  

The deciding factors

In the end, this wasn’t about brand loyalty, fanboy-ism or red team versus blue team. It was about getting the best solution to address the business needs of my firm. The needs of my firm are unique when compared to a great many firms out there due to the type of law we practice. Agility, flexibility and scalability are keys for us. With anticipated growth vertically and horizontally, Cisco clearly has an advantage in their design. If RTT should open additional offices, I could easily have a phone system in place for them since I have to buy the switches and router anyways (both Cisco & ShoreTel require licenses for seats so the comparison here is moot). If my user population was more balanced across my office, or my network design a little different, I could definitely see where ShoreTel could have been a great fit. Their solution is strong and their market share in ILTA is growing for good reason. But I’m here to buy the phone system for the needs of RTT, today and projected future. Cisco is the industry leader for VOIP systems (Gartner Magic Quadrant) and the #1 provider of VOIP in ILTA. The sheer size of Cisco means that antiquation of their systems seems unlikely. With regards to business mergers, no one is going to buy Cisco as a company. Smaller companies like ShoreTel are constantly dealing with rumors that they will be bought by a larger provider (Dell seems a likely candidate as they flee from the pc only business model). These are all just rumors. I just had to go out and buy one phone system because the vendor in use was bought by a rival and the product disbanded. I certainly don’t want to have to do this again in 5 years. This is definitely not happening with a Cisco solution. The same cannot be said about the smaller companies like ShoreTel, but now I don’t have to even think about it.

This was a great exercise as I got to learn about two really good solutions and can begin the countdown to my “Office Space-ing” the old phone system in the parking lot.

Again, the factors surrounding your final decision may be different than the factors that influenced my decision. I hope I’ve shed some light on a pretty big topic with regards how this process played out here.

Thanks to all of my fellow ILTA members for the information and support during this process. I hope this helps others in their search.

Now comes the fun part...rollout.