There's Money In Voice Over IP
With a showcase seven-site installation, $42 million networking integrator Meridian IT Solutions proves that voice over IP is a moneymaker.
Meridian IT Solutions (formerly N2N Solutions) of Chicago defines its success by the numbers. In 1998, its first year of operation, the network infrastructure integrator employed 18 people and generated $3 million in revenue. Today, the company employs just fewer than 50 and earns $42 million. President John Freres attributes his company's explosive growth in part to its partnership with Cisco Systems (San Jose, CA). "We were one of the first Cisco partners to be certified for Cisco's AVVID [architecture for voice, video, and integrated data], and we're a certified Cisco Gold Partner," explains Freres. Meridian IT is also a certified Cisco wireless and security reseller.
Partnership Pays Dividends
When Chicago-area engineering firm Patrick Engineering began to shop for an IT infrastructure for its new corporate headquarters, it decided on Cisco solutions for its data network and Verizon Communications for voice. Patrick was interested in IP (Internet protocol) telephony, so Cisco, a Verizon partner, suggested the company contact Meridian IT to handle the initial piloting, testing, and eventual integration of IP telephony at Patrick's headquarters.
"IP telephony is one of our specialties. We run it in our own office, so as our friends at Cisco like to say, we eat our own dog food," says Freres. Meridian IT developed a model in its laboratory that simulated the way an IP network would connect Patrick's seven offices and 300 employees in Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. The model demonstrated to Patrick how voice would travel over their IP network and frame relay backbone.
Centralization Of Infrastructure Makes The Sale
In the past, Patrick had relied on a traditional key telephone system. With the construction of its new facility and the resulting overhaul of its infrastructure, the firm had to choose between simply upgrading its traditional system with a legacy Avaya, Lucent, Fujitsu, or Nortel solution, or moving to IP. Meridian IT showed Patrick how it could utilize the data infrastructure (which is based on Cisco switching technology) that it would be putting into the new facility to create its IP voice network. "By just adding a quality of service across that data network, they could build a new corporate office, put in one cabling system, overlay Cisco's telephony technology on top of their data technology, and create one IP network among all of their locations," explains Freres.
The resulting low-maintenance infrastructure allows Patrick to maintain its entire voice and data network with an IT staff of three. "Their biggest concern while shopping around for solutions was the cost to support them. We showed them how to implement and manage this technology on a very limited IT staff," says Freres. "Because this is all based on IP, any time they add or move an employee, it's just a matter of plugging in or unplugging a phone. There's no reprogramming of the PBX [private branch exchange]. No one on the IT side even has to be involved in the change. You just plug a new person's phone into the network like you would their computer," he says.
Another major concern Patrick voiced was reliability. "It's one thing to lose your e-mail server for an hour, but nobody can afford their voice system being down that long," Freres contends. To ensure its integrity, Meridian IT designed the voice and data networks to be fully redundant, giving the firm a full-featured backup system. Additionally, Patrick bought a service contract that gave them maintenance on two hours notice.
Business Continuity Is Key To IP Integration
Freres cautions that voice over IP integrators should choose their partners carefully, specifically phone service carriers. "Any time you move voice out over a WAN [wide area network], you're at the mercy of the carrier," he says. Meridian IT worked with Sprint to fine-tune its network so Patrick would not experience voice degradation when its solution went live. "From there, we could upgrade the remote offices to IP with no disruption of service," adds Freres.
Meridian IT worked through a 4-month sales cycle to land the $300,000, 90-day project, which continues to provide revenue on service contracts and upgrades. The relationship Meridian now maintains with Patrick is based on consulting services, phone sales as the network expands, and other network security and video upgrades. "We provide two maintenance plans," says Freres. "One is Cisco's SmartNet, an on-site break/fix service. The other is a 24/7 support line that guarantees an on-site technician at their corporate office if need be."
Perhaps the most beneficial result of the project for Meridian IT is the showcase that the Patrick installation has become. "Patrick is so pleased, they've opened up their facility to the outside world as an example of successful IP telephony," Freres claims. "Cisco has been taking potential clients through Patrick's facility for more than a year now."