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How to unify a network when the company keeps expanding and the WAN doesn't work

Navigant Consulting had to build a unified communications net from scratch --- while the company kept acquiring other businesses and a telco let the project team down.

Executives at Chicago's Navigant Consulting Inc. say their mission is to help clients mitigate risk and make over their business models.

But after an acquisition binge in which Navigant subsumed 14 companies between 2002 and 2007, rapid growth forced it to have its own business model remade, increasing its business risks as a result.

Note: This is an update and clarification of an earlier version of this story.

Not that the risk didn't deliver results. Acquisitions helped boost total revenue from $258 million in 2002 to $575 in fiscal 2005, the last full year for which annual revenues are available. Net income went from $9 million to $49 million during the same period.

The lightning pace of acquisitions had spawned one huge mess of a PBX systems across the company's more than 50 offices in the U.S., Canada, the U.K. Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai.

Compounding Navigant's PBX problem was the lack of a corporate communications standard. Each firm it acquired just plugged its own communications and network infrastructure into the existing mix, stressing the PBXs, the network and processes that depended on both.

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The solution was a rip-and-replace project whose goal was a build-from-the-ground-up unified communications network. But the breakneck pace the company set, a crucial miscommunication, and the omission of a key technical requirements from project plans left Navigant's IT leaders and channel partners smarting.

"When [we're] asked what PBXes did we have, our CIO likes to say 'all of them'," said Joe Kennedy, of Navigant's network operations and service desk. The CIO, Dan Nottke, inherited the mess, taking over early in 2005 as the migration was about to begin. "Nortel was in the majority, but we had 12 other PBX vendors in our shop, ranging from fairly large systems all the way down to 4-person key systems," Added Mike Dongvillo, Navigant's network architect, who was the technical lead on the project.

Managing all those systems was too much for Navigant's small IT staff, so the company was buying support from several outsourcing providers -- a situation that is complex to manage, and expensive, to boot. Worse, staffers had been frustrated in years' worth of requests for relatively simple functions such as the ability to forward voice mail between systems, make interoffice calls with abbreviated dialing functions or look each other up in a corporate dialing directory.

The project wasn't just difficult, time-intensive and costly. It was undermining Navigant's ability to integrate operations, and provide its consultants with the flexibility they needed from the communications infrastructure to service their clients.

Many of the acquisitions had data network infrastructure that begged for radical re-invention. "We were four to five years out of date," Dongvillo says, noting that light obsolescence was an increasing drag on the consolidated operations' effectiveness.

The solution he visualized was a completely new unified communications system.

A clean-slate approach to the company's communications network would deliver Internet telephony, integrated voicemail, on-demand video, unfettered mobility, and more. But it would require forklift upgrades of the existing knot of PBX systems and the construction of a new network infrastructure even as the acquisitions went on.

Surprisingly, it wasn't hard to sell the radical makeover idea to executive management. "When we talked about the IT budget for '05, one of the big ticket items was the network upgrade," Dongvillo said. "It was clearly a necessity. We were having multiple serious outages every day."

Dongvillo's first job after being hired in mid-2004 was to stop the outages. "We didn't even have the equipment in place to do SNMP or syslogs. We had a big cleanup job to do just to get stable," he said. "When I first got there, every day at least one office would have an outage."

Dongvillo -- a Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) who went to work for Cisco as a Chicago-based senior systems engineer shortly before this story was posted – said his team stabilized the network and added diagnostics during 2004 and into April 2005, when the 11-month-long PBX-to-IP telephony migration began.

Navigant had already standardized as much as it could on Cisco Systems Inc. gear, so building the new system around its products was a logical choice, as Navigant was already standardized on the vendor. And by IT managers' reckoning, Cisco also had the hardware, software, and services portfolio required to be a single-source provider.

But with a lean IT staff, Navigant needed a solutions partner who was also steeped in Cisco technology and could drive project management. They ultimately chose Berbee Information Networks Corp., a $330 million security and telephony specialist in Madison, Wis. that Navigant had worked with before.

"When [we're] asked what PBXes did we have, our CIO likes to say 'all of them'"
Joe Kennedy
network operations and service deskNavigant Consulting, Chicago, Ill.

"Customers want one partner -- one throat to choke -- that they can turn to," said Pat Scheckel, vice president of Berbee's Cisco Practice. "Unified communications projects are not just about IP telephony, rich-media conferencing, and unified messaging applications. They require a well-rounded skill set. There are many layers that form a foundation in routing, switching, security and wireless."

Scheckel said Berbee, which was acquired last year by CDW Corp., worked to build these competencies up over the last seven years, investing invested in technical resources, structured approaches for design and delivery, and what a "very robust support model" spun out of the company's hosting and services practice.

With the project green-lighted, Navigant's IT team did months of due-diligence research and projections. They ultimately assembled a team from Cisco Advanced Services, Berbee's advanced services group, and Navigant's network and telephone leadership, for a three-day face-to-face planning effort. They outlined the architecture for the design and deployment strategy, and followed that with six-weeks of planning to nail down each phases' details.

The deployment would be unprecedented among all three partners in its speed and complexity, and that would lead to frustrating challenges as the project unfolded. And the schedule's intensity, a critical miscommunication about Navigant's future acquisition plans, and omission of a key technical requirement would turn up the heat on IT leaders at both Navigant and Berbee.

The scope and planned pace were extraordinary for several reasons:

  • Every one of Navigant's more than 50 worldwide locations would have its LAN replaced with a redesigned map and new equipment.

  • Every office with more than 10 staff members would have its phone systems rebuilt from scratch, and rolled out with advanced applications.

  • The company did a cost-and-benefit analysis, but there were so many unknown elements its accuracy was "plus-or-minus 15 or 20 percent," Dongvillo said. Nevertheless the project went ahead because it was a 'base survival effort' without which the company would have had no functioning network, according to Dongvillo.

  • To get the work done in less than a year, the team executed site design, implementation, validation, and debriefing simultaneously, with team members piling up the overtime on both project work and travel among Navigant sites.

  • While the project team had an overarching design for the new system's architecture, they threw out the normal multi-month site design planning cycle for each office.

Read the second part of the Navigant case study.

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