Schools Give High Marks to VOIP

Calence, Cisco provide solution for Arizona's growing Pendergast school district.

John Moreno doesnt have the budget to go tilting at IT windmills. As technology director of the Pendergast School District—a high-growth, low-income district on the west side of Phoenix—Moreno knows tight budgets are a way of life. The technology needs of Pendergasts nearly 11,000 students, teachers and administrators may be great, but he just doesnt have the money for risky new technologies.

"Im not one who will rush into something just because somebody says it will work," Moreno said. "Im very cautious. In schools we dont have the money to spend just to spend it."

Still, when Pendergast entered a high-growth phase five years ago (enrollment surged 25 percent between 2001 and 2004), Moreno was determined not to be penny-wise and pound-foolish.

At the start of that expansion wave in 2000, Moreno had two tasks. The first was to devise a modern telecommunications system for the new schools (so far, three and counting) that the district planned to build in coming years.

The second was to overhaul a creaky phone system for Pendergasts nine existing schools and its administrative office. Each site had its own old PBX to manage voice calls, and repairs or changes required hiring support specialists at more than $100 per hour.

Moreno wanted one solution for both problems and wanted it to be a long-term one, even if it cost more at the start. And so he committed to VOIP (voice over IP).

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Five years later, Pendergast has 12 schools (with another to open this fall), all running data and voice traffic on a single network. Trunk lines for long-distance calls have been consolidated into one line running through district headquarters. Moreno plans to roll out services such as electronic hall passes and automated calls to parents when a child is absent.

Best of all, Moreno said he and his 11-person staff can install, manage and troubleshoot the VOIP system themselves.

"The beauty of it was the simplicity of the network layout," Moreno said. "For us, that was the ultimate goal—to be able to support and install these systems. I couldnt put myself back into the situation I had with my old PBX, where we had to call somebody out every time we needed a change."

Pendergast used equipment from Cisco Systems Inc., in San Jose, Calif., for the overhaul, with network design and implementation assistance from Calence Inc., a networking consulting business in nearby Tempe, Ariz.

"Its been a long process for them, but theyve been gradually moving in the right direction" to a simplified, unified voice and data network, said Doug Fink, the Calence vice president who worked with Moreno. "Like a lot of schools, it was low-end—very poor cabling structure and no voice capacity. ... It was really a state of disarray, from a technology perspective."

The VOIP network design is straightforward. Most sites (including each school) have their own Cisco CallManager server to act as a virtual PBX, plus a Cisco router to manage data flow and QOS (quality of service) and a Cisco Catalyst switch to host VOIP-enabled phones. Some smaller sites with fewer phones omit the CallManager, and the router manages voice traffic. All the sites connect to one main trunk line at the district office, which acts as the network hub and manages the firewall between the district and the outside world.

Pendergast uses approximately 700 Cisco IP phones, Moreno said. Each school could have 60 or 70 phones, while administrative offices have phones as necessary for the staff at each location, Moreno said.

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