Did We Miss VoIP?

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In the early 90s I had the pleasure to work at Coors Brewing Company in Golden Colorado as a Network Engineer. It was a great gig – unlike any place I have ever worked. For example, it was common to have bikini wearing Coors Girls posters in our cubes – though I hear that practice ended. Every break room also had free beer taps, and that continues.

Recently, a reunion of sorts took place. A Coors IT reunion held at a park in Golden. It was a blast. I can’t say I recognized everyone (a bit disappointed in that), but was impressed that I still recalled some extensions. Yes, extensions. The early 90s was pre-email and Coors had an AT&T (pre-Avaya) System 85 and VMX voice mail system  (cutting edge collaboration). We had analog phones on our desks (2500 sets) with a taped on voice mail light. This was circa 1992.

We were cutting edge in multiple ways. The Coors campus is quite large (largest brewery in N. America). Coors brewed all of its products in Golden instead of smaller breweries around the country. Coors did lots of things differently, cold filter instead of pasteurization and actually distributed its products in refrigerated trucks. (I am not aware of their current practices so am using past tense out of ignorance).

To connect the Coors campus we utilized a dual ring FDDI. We had big computers from IBM and DEC, and little ones running Novell. I remember the fairly major upgrade of the System 85 to Definity. We had a full time AT&T technician on site, and also had an AT&T Tariff 12 agreement for all of our long distance.

Sometime around the late 90s (probably because I had left), Coors outsourced all this to EDS. That agreement changed vendors a few times, but some of they key players stayed in place. Several of these survivors I caught-up with had kept the same desk, but changed employers five times (Coors, EDS, IBM, HP, AT&T). Ironically, my old boss that left Coors before me is back there with an office not far from his old, but now working for AT&T.
If that sounds crazy, the entire beer industry has also undergone considerable change (and consolidation). When I was at Coors, Anheuser-Busch (#1) and Miller (#2) were our primary US competitors. Now A-B is a Belgian company, and Miller-Coors is the name on my old building. Evidently, some of the IT decisions are now coming from Milwaukee. Not sure how Adolf would feel about that, but Milwaukee is known for its share of visitors. The French missionaries and explorers began visiting there in the late 16th century. It’s name was originally an Algonquin Indian term meaning “the good land.” That bit of trivia is courtesy of Alice Cooper in Wayne’s World.

The AT&T tech that lived in the switch room is still there too, but he now works for a local (non Avaya) reseller. Evidently Avaya won’t support that switch any more. Yes, Coors is still on that Definity switch. They did a few more upgrades since I left. The company still uses mostly analog phones – about 8,000 of them, but an upgrade in the early 90s that featured stuttered dial-tone eliminated the need for a separate voice mail light.

Is Coors the brewery that the telecom fairy forgot? Not necessarily. I am fairly current on the latest and greatest the vendors offer in telecommunications, unified communications and collaboration – and surprisingly none of them have come out with enhancements that directly relate to brewing beer. The fact is that when people at Coors talk about pipes, they are largely talking about real pipes. It is surprising how old that switch is, but it works. It is presumably paid for (though who knows – refinancing the switch was a favorite pastime), and its maintenance is outsourced to a third party.

One of my former colleagues asked me “Did we miss VoIP yet?” I was confused at first, but he explained they missed digital. For years they were told that they had to upgrade phones to digital, but now they missed their chance. Hmm? Did they miss VoIP?

At first I dismissed the question as a joke, but soon realized its legitimacy. Certainly VoIP the protocol is mainstream, but did Coors miss VoIP phones? Let me think that through:

  1. VoIP phones really don’t offer much value. Key features such as teleworking, unified messaging, and click to dial comes from VoIP phone systems. For most users, analog or digital endpoints will offer feature parity with VoIP phones. The power of VoIP lies more in the architecture than the endpoints. Gateways could enable some VoIP streams.
  2. The Coors campus is huge – lots of those phone locations don’t have cat-3 or a computer nearby. Why rewire if you don’t have to?  The current solution utilizes cat-3 analog, but with a few gateways they could add VoIP to some knowledge worker locations. In addition to analog, wireless technologies are growing in popularity. This includes 3G/4G, Wi-Fi and DECT. Again, gateways could provide this functionality.
  3. The vast majority of UC & C benefits are associated with knowledge workers, not manufacturing. A few buildings are the campus are traditional office type buildings with Cat-5 wiring. Again, a few gateways could enable those areas. The vast majority of wall phones throughout the brewery are fine unchanged.
  4. SIP offers about 60% savings in trunks and carrier services. Thus, a few gateways could also make sense for access. This would also apply for communications between locations such as Golden and Milwaukee.

From afar, and without knowledge of any specific customer requirements, a manufacturing heavy environment could easily reap the benefits of VoIP without upgrading the system. I don’t think this is break through news – there are a surprising number of old systems out there that haven’t been replaced. They are easy to find, the vendors are circling them.

The primary reasons to upgrade are:

  • New Features. Particularly around collaboration, new features are changing the way we work and communicate. Unified Communications, social networking, collaboration aren’t just flavors of the month, they offer real benefits and real strategic advantages.
  • Support. These systems are typically mission critical. Quality support, including parts, is critical too.
  • Costs. Many of these new technologies actually reduce spend. Both direct costs (carrier, maintenance, MACs) and indirect costs (travel, office space via telecommuting).
  • Retention and Recruitment. Many people expect to work remotely and many refuse to move.
  • Architectural Changes. Times change, and organizations reorganize. Perhaps centralizing all telecom for all locations is necessary. Mergers and acquisitions can change-up the architecture. Vendor consolidation, even layoffs can drive significant purchases.

Those are the big ones  – and as illustrated above, sometimes they just don’t apply. There’s nothing wrong with that. However, a not broken appraoch is not always the best approach. I can tell you too that when I was at Coors we still used a card punch reader because it worked. A considerable amount of the burden vendors and dealers carry is educating their customers on the possibilities that new technologies bring.

Dave Michels