California city rebuilds network using open-source apps

Budget savings earn the city a 2007 Enterprise All-Star Award

When the city of Madera, California, needed a new voice system, it turned to open source technology -- not just for the IP telephony but for an entire network-infrastructure overhaul and loads of other functions. All the renovations cost less than half the estimated price of deploying a commercial VoIP system alone. This smart, budget-wise use of open source across the network wins the city a 2007 Enterprise All-Star Award.

Savings from all corners

The city's foray into open source began two years ago, when it brought on a new network manager, Paul Wheeler, specifically to shepherd through the VoIP conversion. Based on RFPs, the city was bracing itself to spend US$350,000 to $400,000 to rip out a 25-year-old Mitel Networks PBX and replace it with a VoIP system.For the city, with its annual budget of US$100 million and 500 employees, the new phone system would be a major expense.

Madera had set aside US$140,000 for the project when Wheeler arrived. He wound up overhauling the entire city network, however, with open source applications that have expanded services at very little cost. "It turns out I gave them far more for that US$140,000, and I never needed another penny," he says.

The Mitel PBX was so maxed out that the city was using small, supplemental Toshiba PBXs at branch sites and paid monthly fees for Centrex services to some offices. Small sites were tied into the citywide phone system via 50 off-premises extension (OPX) lines that cost US$44 per month apiece. "I said [that] just turning off those OPXs is going to pay for this project," Wheeler says. The city also moved employees around and reconfigured offices, meaning a high demand for adds, changes and deletions (ACD) to the phone service. "The ACD cost was what I was really trying to drive to the floor," Wheeler says.

He has two reasons for wanting to try Digium's open source Asterisk IP PBX. First, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recommended open source software as an inexpensive alternative to commercial wares. Second, the software was free and could be tested using a spare server. "The downside of testing it was zero," Wheeler says. "The only hardware cost I had was for Digium T-1 cards. The financial risk was negligible."

Asterisk comes with voice mail, conferencing and call distribution, for which some commercial systems charge extra. The gear proved itself on an internal test bed, and Wheeler targeted the public works department for the initial deployment of 50 extensions supported by Polycom Power-over-Ethernet (PoE) phones. He fronted the Mitel PBX with the Asterisk IP PBX and throughout the year switched over one phone at a time, so phone use was not broadly disrupted, he says.

Until the transition, the city was getting by with an eclectic collection of unmanaged switches. It replaced those with US$40,000 worth of HP ProCurve PoE switches, chosen for their price and lifetime replacement guarantee, Wheeler says. City electricians handled the cabling requirements.

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