The Next Phase
The next phase of the projectthe deployment at the companys remaining 12 storesbegan in January 2006. The project was completed in September. Virgin Entertainments co-location facility in Irvine serves as the call processing center for all 14 of its stores. The new phone system, which runs on a Cisco MCS-7835 Unified CallManager appliance, uses Ciscos IP Contact Center Express to automatically route calls, monitor and balance system loads, and manage redundancy.CallManager, a software-based call processor, delivers telephony features and functionality to Cisco IP phones. Virgin Entertainment is using the 7940 and the 7970 handsets with Cisco Unity Unified Messaging enabled, giving employees centralized voice mail.Keeping their experiences with unreliable phone service in mind, Virgin Entertainments IT managers decided to install two backups to their phone system and use a Cisco 2811 router as the gateway to a public telephone network switch, along with a Cisco 1760 router plugged into the public phone network. In addition, the remote routers run Ciscos Survivable Remote Site Telephony as an extra backup manager. Virgin also has deployed 200 Virgin Vault Kiosks, based on IBMs Anyplace Kiosk. The kiosks, which were placed in the highly trafficked Hollywood and Times Square flagship stores, run proprietary kiosk software developed in-house. The kiosks allow shoppers to sample the arsenal of music, movies and games for sale at Virgin Megastores. All data for the kiosks is stored at Virgin Entertainments headquarters in Los Angeles. The data is delivered to stores as needed using Cisco Application and Content Networking software, which caches and performs content delivery, and two Cisco 4507 switches. These caching capabilities are significant, as they reduce network bandwidth requirements and server cycles. Caching isnt the only method Virgin Entertainment uses to save resources. The company also does least-cost routing using CallManager. For example, when an employee in California calls a non-Virgin vendor in New York, the phone call originates as IP traffic to the New York store and then uses the public telephone network to complete the call. Fort said least-cost routing accounts for a significant percentage of the projects total cost savings per year. "When we quote a project cost savings of $700,000 a year, a lot of that is from least-cost routing because we have eliminated dramatic amounts of long-distance traffic," he said. Virgin Entertainment uses Microsofts Exchange Server 2003 and Outlook for e-mail, so the company is also taking advantage of unified messaging. Now, voice mail messages appear as messages in Outlook in-boxes, allowing users to check voice mail when theyre checking their e-mail. With content streaming and telephone calls all on the same network, prioritizing traffic has become even more important to Virgin Entertainment. The company uses Cisco tools to monitor QOS (quality of service) and relies on SBC to do the same, as part of an existing SLA (service-level agreement) with that company. Forts predecessors had installed T-1 lines to every store, which also has made it easier for him to ensure QOS. At the Times Square store, however, Fort underestimated the utilization of the kiosks: He said he had thought the kiosks would be used 30 percent of the time, but usage has been hitting 70 percent levels. Fort had estimated correctly the packet requirements for each transaction, but his estimate for the number of transactions was way off. His estimate for the number of phone calls that would originate from the Times Square store also was off, increasing actual bandwidth requirements. As a result, the company had to install a second T-1 line to the Times Square store. Forts advice to other CIOs is to measure local calls carefully. "In the analog phone world, you have phone bills and some details that explain the number of long-distance calls that were made, but the local calls arent counted," he said. "Our observation is that having a good benchmark and understanding what your analog traffic is before rolling telephony out on your data network is key." Fort said he is on track to realize his estimated savings of $700,000 on voice traffic in the first year. He expects the amount to increase to an estimated savings of $1 million a year in the near future. Virgin Entertainment is talking to third-party vendors about developing applications for its IP handsets. For example, Fort said he might use the screens on the Cisco IP handsets in Virgin Megastores to display information on the latest music or movies for sale so that sales associates can easily access that information and pass it on to customers. "When youre in a retail environment, dealing with a very trendy product, you want the store associate next to the phone to know what the current releases for the week are," Fort said. "We could use the phones to display e-mail, but any time we make key retail information available, thats a potential increase in sales." Displaying the latest trends isnt the only thing the phones will do. Fort said he may program the phones with a panic button so that employees wont have to look up phone numbers in the event of an emergency. He is also considering using the handsets as a time clock with which employees can log their hours. "Our big strategy was to help resolve the constant communication problems," Fort said. "Communication comes down to the individuals here, but if they dont have the right tools, its difficult to get a hold of people. We are on our way to addressing those concerns and have positioned ourselves for the future." Senior Writer Anne Chen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest news, views and analysis on voice over IP and telephony.