Providers Play the Part

Vancouver Film Studios relies on its partners to get Cisco products running.

In the film production industry, communications among production members is what allows the show to go on. At Vancouver Film Studios, that communication takes place through a unified solution with technology from Cisco Systems and one of the vendors channel partners, Berbee Information Networks.

VFS management said it believes the solution, which combines Ciscos CallManager and Berbees InformaCast application, sets the company apart in its industry because the technology allows VFS

to offer its customers IP-based voice and data systems for telecommunications, Internet and e-mail functionality.

"Our competition uses phone systems from the 1980s, and, in fact, most film production spaces are unorganized, leaving it up to the customer to fend for themselves to find their own services," said Gordon Hawkins, network systems administrator at VFS. "Our Unified CallManager allows us to provision and configure telecom services to our customers within 48 to 72 hours."

By making a decision several years ago to embrace unified communications, VFS became a pioneering user in a category that industry observers expect will gain serious momentum this year. For its part, Cisco expects unified communications eventually to become a $10 billion market.

"Were a small IT department, but this solution allows us to be nimble and respond quickly to our customers who may show up within three to four days and need a 150- to 200-seat communication system," said Hawkins.

Even though VFS has a small IT department, it is a large operation that occupies a 17-building, state-of-the-art production site in Vancouver, British Columbia, where customers take advantage of a full range of production and services, such as lighting and grips, lifts and equipment, office equipment, and even assigned parking areas.

At any given time, VFS can have thousands of people on-site as clients go about the business of producing films. Operating in a dynamic, demanding environment, VFS customers fly in and out within months, working with tight deadlines.

Communications are critical to the companys customers, who need to talk to crews and staff located in temporary VFS offices, on stages or at other office sites. Of course, each customer has different communication needs, which the companys system easily can accommodate, said Hawkins.

Partly to optimize customization capabilities, VFS has continued to upgrade and tweak the system since installing Ciscos Unified CallManager, Unity voice messaging system and IP phone. To get that work done, VFS has called on Cisco partners Bell Canada and Berbee.

Time for change

The VFS solution usesCisco applications that the vendor in December 2005 combined into its SONA (Service-Oriented Network Architecture), a platform that includes Ciscos CallManager, MeetingPlace, IP Content Center, Unified Personal Communicator, Unified Presence Server and Customer Interaction Analyzer.

Built into the platform is the flexibility to integrate with third-party complementary applications, such as Berbees InformaCast. It is a way for the vendor to reach out to its channel partners, said Richard McLeod, director of unified communications solutions for worldwide channels at Cisco, in San Jose, Calif. "With unified communications, were moving into more of an applications-based focus,"McLeod said.

The Berbee application, which provides voice and text messaging, came into existence in response to a need for improved communications during emergencies, a need that was highlighted with the challenges experienced by rescuers in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

But even before Berbee developed its application, VFS had already identified a need for improved communications at its site. In 2000, the company decided to replace its PBX, which had reached capacity. "The PBX didnt have the features that could meet our customers needs," said Hawkins.

Already a Cisco customer, VFS decided it made sense to bring in additional Cisco products, Hawkins said. "We looked at the competition, Avaya and Nortel [Networks], but Cisco had the best products available for our environment," he said.

Turning to Canadian telecom solution provider Telus, VFS brought in and installed two CallManager 3.1 servers and 150 IP phones. "We werent interested in doing forklift upgrades. We were looking for an expandable solution that could accommodate our growth and the varied needs of our customers," said Hawkins.

Ciscos unified communications was an ideal fit for VFS, said McLeod. "Customers like VFS can build on the open platform of unified communications to meet the unique needs of their customers," he said.

In a dynamic setting such as the VFS facilities, where no two customers have the same requirements, CallManager allows faster, more cost-efficient IP phone moves, additions and changes, according to Hawkins.

While it was Telus that helped with the initial Cisco solution installation, the relationship didnt work out, and VFS quickly partnered with Bell Canada as its communications solution provider.

"Bell continues to help us with consulting, configuration and support services," said Hawkins. Bell is one of Canadas largest telecom companies, offering comprehensive information and communications technology solutions to small, midsize and large businesses.

In fact, it was Bell that helped expand and upgrade VFS Cisco unified communications environment to CallManager 4.2 and 500 IP phones and also installed switches across the companys 17 buildings.

With an in-house IT staff of three, Hawkins said that as his company grew, Bell provided the critical vision. "We couldnt have done it without them," Hawkins said.

While Bell delivers solution expertise to VFS, Hawkins in 2002 discovered InformaCast, the application from Berbee, which was acquired last year by CDW. InformaCast, said Hawkins, made Ciscos CallManager solution a "no-brainer."

InformaCast is a full-featured system that allows users to simultaneously push an audio stream and/or a text message to multiple IP phones, InformaCast IP Speakers, the InformaCast Desktop Agent and overhead paging systems, said Ken Bywaters, vice president of voice products at Berbee.

First developed for a U.S. government agency that requested the solution because it couldnt evacuate a building after 9/11, Bywaters said the solutions broadcast capability provides an alternative to companies that arent interested in installing analog paging systems that require dedicated wiring.

Originally Ciscos CallManager lacked a paging feature, so the Berbee application filled that hole, said Bywaters. VFS purchased the product directly from Berbee and installed the product with help from the solution provider. "InformaCast showed us how flexible a solution Unified Manager was and underscores the strength Cisco has with important channel partners," Hawkins said.

Lynn Haber is a freelance writer in Norwell, Mass. She can be reached at