Explosive growth in the lending industry has come as a boon to Provident Funding Associates LP in recent years. But for the companys small systems group, led by Jason Lukitsch, the boon brought a logistical nightmare: how to administer disparate telephone systems at a growing number of small branch offices coast to coast.
Many of Providents branches employ only three to 10 workers—underwriters, for the most part, with no expertise in managing a network. Provident, in Burlingame, Calif., was forced to contract with third parties to maintain the systems, and a task as basic as adding a phone meant paying an extra fee.
"We were never really organized enough to have a centralized phone system," Lukitsch said.
Lukitsch wanted a system that his own team could manage and let them gain control over telecommunications usage and costs. The staff evaluated VOIP (voice over IP) systems from all the major manufacturers, including Cisco Systems Inc., Nortel Networks Ltd., Siemens AG and Avaya Inc. The first thing they noticed, Lukitsch said, was that the systems were priced beyond the point at which the company could realize a timely return on investment.
"When we looked at the big players in this, we were taken aback by the price," Lukitsch said.
In addition, the Provident IT team discovered complexity in the VOIP systems that appeared more overwhelming than the jumbled legacy network the company already had in place. Several "solutions" came with lists of as many as 200 separate required line items, Lukitsch said.
"We never knew what any of the stuff was," Lukitsch said, adding that it wasnt always clear whether an item was software or hardware.
For many organizations, migrating to IP networking means adding numerous pieces of equipment. VOIP systems can include media servers, gateways, voice mail servers, switches, routers and firewalls, all of which can be housed in separate boxes. Recently, some of the large vendors have begun offering new managed services to help ensure that all the disparate equipment works together once deployed.
Having to pay a vendor to manage a VOIP system after investing in the equipment was not part of the simplified- networking vision that Provident had in mind, Lukitsch said. And because the company likes to develop its own software applications, he sought a phone system that would integrate easily with programs built in-house.
"We wanted to support this in-house, but it seemed we would need someone with specific expertise for the specific vendor," Lukitsch said. "I went back to the vendors and asked why all the solutions are proprietary."
Many solutions are proprietary, it turns out, simply because they can be. Industry giants with a long-standing customer base around the world can leverage embedded legacy systems. What Provident needed was a VOIP system based on open standards. It found one at Zultys Technologies, in Sunnyvale, Calif.
"Zultys is a smaller company. Theyre willing to work with us," Lukitsch said. "Their whole solution just screams simplicity."
Provident was presented with no more than seven components for the VOIP system it reviewed from Zultys. At company headquarters in Burlingame, Lukitsch decided to install the Zultys MX250, which incorporates the functions of a PBX, voice mail server, voice gateway and Internet gateway in one box. Scaling to 250 users, it was the right-size component for Provident to begin its migration to VOIP. At the branch offices, he deployed the Zultys MX25, which can be used as a SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) gateway or a remote module for the MX250, handling as many as 30 simultaneous voice channels.
Touting its adherence to standards as one of its best assets, Zultys designed its equipment to work with any SIP-based handset even though it sells its own phones. Provident tested phones from several vendors but chose the Zultys ZIP 4x4. Some competing phones were difficult to use, even with simple tasks such as call transferring, Lukitsch said. Also, the Zultys handset includes several features the lending company needed, such as a speakerphone, a headset jack, encryption and a message waiting light.