With its strong tradition in technology research, plus knowledgeable staff and students, the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) has never been slow to adopt new technologies.

The university has deployed a variety of multimedia applications across its Gigabit Ethernet data network for some time. Video conferencing, e-learning applications and collaborative technologies are part of everyday life for students and administrators.

With a growing need for additional multimedia applications and an ageing private branch exchange (PBX) system on its voice network, the university decided to switch to an IP-based PBX to enable a converged voice/data network. According to Lawrence Law, director of HKUST's Information Technology Services Centre, the decision for a new VoIP communications platform was simple because its traditional PBX was in need of replacing and a converged IP network is inevitable.

Strategic steps
Rather than doing a complete rip-and-replace overhaul of its voice network, HKUST decided to implement VoIP for part of the campus while retaining the old voice system in other parts. This hybrid adoption enabled the university to spread its investment over time while wringing the last functionality out of moribund PBX systems.

Law says the University began considering the project eight months ago. An evaluation of the main IP networking vendors, including Nortel, Cisco, Avaya and others, was conducted. The new system had to be simple to use, meet user requirements in terms of functionality and also be cost-effective. Law also insisted on selecting a vendor with a clear product road-map and migration strategy. Nortel and systems integrator Jardine OneSolution (JOS) were selected, and project planning began in April 2005.

Work in progress
The actual installation began in August and was completed within two months. The core system includes the Nortel CS 1000M server-based IP PBX, 600 wired and wireless IP phones plus Nortel's 2050 softphone. The IP PBX will initially provide 3,000 telephone extensions for users to access to applications, including unified messaging, wireless IP telephony and IP phones.

Security is provided via Nortel's 5109 firewalls, while the SSL VPN capabilities of its VPN 3050 Gateway allow for secure remote access.

Integration with a multimedia communications server is planned for the future - this will enable file sharing and transfers, conferencing, electronic whiteboards, video and instant messaging.

"The [new] systems solve the problem of coexistence between our legacy phone system and next-generation IP services," says Law.

The cost of the systems was significant, he notes, adding that "given the ongoing high cost of IP Phones, the phased migration makes business sense to us. Maybe within the next five years we'll have a 100 percent IP voice network."

The new features and capabilities will help the university continue its push for more collaboration and distance learning applications.

The VoIP system also allows for flexible network planning in future expansion projects. Patching voice cables to new or yet to be built facilities would have been severely restricted under the old centralised PBX system. Wiring new sites to the data network is easier as the structure is much more layered, adds Law.

Smooth uptake
Helpdesk operations have also improved as email and voice messaging are now consolidated, allowing for recording of all enquiries and easier management overall.

"Catering to unique user needs was the biggest challenge," says Law. Anticipating initial quality issues, the university ran the VoIP system without any QoS measures, "but to our surprise the VoIP applications worked fine without QoS applied."

He also pointed out that some users still have their old phone beside the new IP phone as a fallback option, but most have switched to the IP phones. One popular feature is the unified messaging application which combines voice, email and fax messages into a single mailbox that's accessible by phone, any desktop PC, or mobile email-enabled devices. Off-campus users can also use a broadband connection to dial secure voice calls via a VPN and still be identified by the receiving caller residing on campus. "The new platform has provided much-improved voice services and unified messaging for all our users," says Law.