“We want to take advantage of all the tech trends that our audience, both now and in the future, can take advantage of,” says Forbes CIO Mykolas Rambus.
Feb 25 2010

All Business

Once Forbes decided its phone system needed an overhaul, it left nothing to chance — stripping down two legacy networks and replacing them with a unified communications platform.

When Scott Evon walked into his office at 60 Fifth Ave. on the day Forbes’ new Voice over IP network went live, he was ready for anything — well, almost anything. He wasn’t ready to have extra time on his hands.

The director of technology operations for the New York City media company had blocked out his entire morning to handle any major hiccups that might arise, but none did. “I’ve done several network upgrades — for big companies and campuses — but this is the first time I have ever seen a network cutover with this level of complexity and risk go so smoothly that the next morning after the cutover I had free time on my schedule,” says Evon.

Now, following a nine-week accelerated deployment that took place in late summer, Forbes has established a unified communications platform and outsourced the telephony management services. Evon and CIO Mykolas Rambus expect the new Internet Protocol backbone, coupled with third-party tech support, to drastically reduce systems maintenance overheadand also expand IT services available to employees.

“We are now more open and flexible about the types of tools that we allow our employees to use in their everyday lives,” says Rambus.

Although gaining savings by collapsing the separate networks at its two New York locations was a major driver behind the UC initiative, improving the technology tools available within the company was equally important.

“Frankly, we want to take advantage of all the tech trends that our audience, both now and in the future, can take advantage of — particularly when it comes to content,” points out Rambus. “People were consuming content in different ways and faster than our own employees were able to.”

Commercialization often drives technology adoption, according to Phil Hochmuth, a senior analyst for the Yankee Group. Unified communications creates a way for enterprises to more efficiently tap tools that individuals often acquire through service providers.

“The biggest benefits of UC are the integration of VoIP, presence, video and other services with line-of-business applications and with other services and apps,” says Hochmuth. “This allows for communications-enabled business processes, such as integrating an IT help desk and trouble-ticket application with voice, presence or even video.”

New Arsenal of Tools

Privately held Forbes has been a New York institution since its inception more than 100 years ago, when it launched its namesake business magazine. Today, it’s a worldwide operation, with employees spread among offices and bureaus around the globe creating content for the flagship publication as well as 10 foreign editions, a handful of other titles and several other online sites.

“Like the lights, the phone system has to work, and the ability to do video conferencing is a significant value add,” says Forbes’ Scott Evon.
Photo: John Emerson

“The flexibility of the platform and how we can use it to work more closely with our customers and our internal staff is the biggest win on this,” says Evon. In the same way that the conference call was innovative in its day, the ability for people in Forbes bureaus to use video and see one another will increasingly play a pivotal role in day-to-day operations.

Other capabilities also appeal to sales and business users, he notes. More and more, there are employees who telework, who are on the road or who need anytime, anywhere access to technology, he says.

“Our internal customers, the employees at Forbes, look at the phone system like a utility,” Evon says. “Like the lights, the phone system has to work, and the ability to do video conferencing is a significant value add. We can be much more productive and work and collaborate as if sitting directly across from each other.”

UC tools such as simultaneous ringing on multiple lines and bringing up softphones on a notebook computer make the company’s staff much more available, he says.

Going For It

At the onset of the project, Evon and Rambus acknowledge that they had reason to be a bit on edge. For starters, they had to assuage senior management.

“Our general manager was frankly skeptical about the move to VoIP,” says Rambus. “He’d heard earlier horror stories about installations and the garbled quality of the calls.”

What’s more, this was no simple VoIP deployment. It required setting a strategy for the services at Forbes’ storied headquarters as well as a second location, two blocks north at 90 Fifth Ave. There were two go-live dates on back-to-back weekends, first for the entire building at 60 Fifth Ave. and then a week later for the office up the street.

“All the work that we did, from planning and execution, paid off,” Evon says.

That planning work involved a team of pre-installation engineers doing a sweeping analysis of every bit of network technology deployed within Forbes as well as a node-by-node review of the private branch exchange (PBX) systems.

“One of the biggest challenges in New York is that many buildings are very old,” says Patrick Priest, a project manager for CDW Advanced Technology Services. There are typically a lot of cabling needs and issues related to power and cooling whenever anyone in the city wants to revamp a network, so the team assessed the Forbes buildings and both legacy networks to gauge their VoIP readiness. With those details in hand, the team worked with the Forbes IT staff to define the new VoIP and UC infrastructure (see “From Stem to Stern,” below).

Replacing the legacy networks required a ground-up retooling of the network infrastructure at 90 Fifth Ave. from the core of the network to the user core, a complete hardware upgrade and a revamp of all IP connections. The headquarters building had been upgraded two years earlier with Cisco gear that could handle VoIP, so it required only quality-of-service tuning to prioritize voice and data traffic, says Ziyad Roumaya, a CDW network engineer. “We did do a lot of reconfigurations and adjustments.”

The installation strategy called for running the new and old networks in tandem to shake out any glitches, avoid downtime and ease users’ adoption of the new phones (see “Put ’em at Ease,” below). And although the wiring closets were small, “we were able to rack and stack new hardware in the existing closets so that there wasn’t any downtime,” Roumaya says.

Dollars and Sense

Right from the start, Forbes can calculate some direct cost savings — from turning off several voice circuits, shuttering
PBXs and converging voice, data and video pipelines.

“But the flexibility that it allows us to give our customers — the employees — is huge; that’s truly the long-term benefit for Forbes,” Evon says.

There’s also the savings on day-to-day systems maintenance. From the early planning stages, the New York media company weighed how it could most efficiently and cost effectively manage a unified communications platform. Ultimately, it chose to outsource support, starting on Day 2.

Hiring additional staff to manage the environment did not seem like a viable option, Evon says. After all, they would have difficulty keeping their skills honed because they would not need to use them day in and day out.

By outsourcing management services, he points out that Forbes gains the bench strength and the facilities necessary to properly test new applications, manage patches, maintain patch documentation and monitor telephony activity.

“With any PBX environment, there are a lot of moving parts, and there’s a lot of skill needed to manage the platform,” he says. “We would rather focus our staff resources on new technology efforts to drive revenue and efficiencies.”

The overhaul also has other intangible benefits, adds Rambus.

“It had the additional impact in this rough economic environment of showing people that we were investing in them and the physical infrastructure.” That’s not only a win for the company’s leadership, but it also has a “psychological impact” on the employees, improving morale, he says.

“And, oh yes, we saved money: The cost per unit went down.”

: John Emerson