Just over a year ago, global pharmaceutical maker GlaxoSmithKline put 400 IT workers in a new building in North Carolina on a VoIP test network that would serve as a proving ground for its future rollouts worldwide.

The company, which began exploring VoIP in late 2003, started with the goal of building an all-IP system and brought together a team of 10 internal voice and data engineers to work on the project, says Charles Goodall, manager of global voice technology and architecture.

The team built an IP LAN using Cisco Catalyst 6500 switches, but it eventually settled for a hybrid of IP and circuit-switched technologies with a Siemens AG HiPath voice system, partly so it could continue to serve a number of circuit-switched phones, Goodall says.

All told, hardware and software costs for the US test site were about $1.6 million: $1 million for Cisco gear, $500,000 for 500 OptiPoint phones and the Siemens HiPath 4000, and $100,000 for Avaya messaging software.

To reduce cabling costs and obtain related savings from a converged network, the planners decided to run one cable to each desktop for both PCs and phones, Goodall says. About 25 of those users are testing softphones over the system, giving them voice service through a PC equipped with a microphone.

"Service has been excellent, and the users have not noticed a difference, which is a good thing," Goodall says.

The company has set a five-year goal to improve mobile connectivity from the current level of 30 percent of its 100,000 workers at any one time to 50 percent. That initiative will put a premium on having data and voice, as well as video, running together, says Goodall.

Virtual Teaming
The most challenging aspect of the Durham project was the newness of IP telephony technology, Goodall says. "So we expected bumps and learning curves and did our homework and gave ourselves time," he says. "We learned that a network assessment up-front is very, very important." It helped that GlaxoSmithKline talked to other companies that had similar projects, Goodall adds.

Clay Swenson, project manager and GlaxoSmithKline's manager of US voice services, says the biggest obstacle to overcome was getting the company's voice and data networking teams to more effectively communicate with each other. "There was a tremendous amount of discussion among the teams to make decisions about how the new blended network should be designed and configured," he says.

The teams remain separate entities but are "committed to working as a virtual team if necessary," he adds. Because of the success of the virtual-team setup, Swenson says he doesn't expect the voice and data crews ever to be permanently combined, even as VoIP technology is implemented elsewhere at GlaxoSmithKline. As a result of the project, the two sides developed a stronger relationship than before, says Swenson.

According to Goodall and Swenson, end-user training was a nonissue, partly because users learned what they needed through online training. And Goodall says the planners spent time ensuring that the network was designed properly to provide security and sufficient quality of service for voice. "That worked on Day 1," he says.

Because end users were facing several changes in addition to the IP telephony, including moving to a new building, the goal was to make the new phone service the least of their problems, says Swenson. To overcome initial concerns, planners gave live demonstrations so users could get accustomed to the phones before the installation.

Easier moves
GlaxoSmithKline has seen some tangible cost benefits as well. Because workers can move phones themselves, the company's outside contractor has cut 10 percent off its annual fee of $35,000 for moves, adds and changes, Swenson says. In addition, IP telephony makes it easy for a mobile worker to use any available desk when in the office, and GlaxoSmithKline can keep its total office space smaller, which could ultimately reduce real estate costs by more than 20 percent a year, Goodall says.

And because videoconferencing is run over the IP network, about $200,000 in annual charges for the ISDN have been cut. Goodall says that as more offices move to IP voice, phone bills for calls between GlaxoSmithKline offices will eventually be eliminated. Both Swenson and Goodall say it's still too early to judge the value of some combined voice and data features, such as the softphone or a universal company directory used to help make calls quickly anywhere in the world.

Swenson says that despite cost reductions, the project's goal wasn't to get a quick return on investment, but rather to learn about an essential future technology.

"Right now, we are in strategy mode for IP deployment globally," Goodall adds. "We are going to IP, but it's a matter of building a strategy and architecture."