Gibson Guitar strikes a chord with Microsoft UC platform

System upgrades provided lower cost path to voice, video, e-mail, presence

Gibson Guitar is enjoying the sweet music playing out on its multifaceted unified communications system that connects its users across the globe.

The Nashville company last year abandoned a rollout of Cisco gear and tapped into its existing Microsoft infrastructure to build a unified communications system of voice, e-mail and instant messaging.

Main story: Microsoft: It's all about software

The company upgraded to the 2007 versions of Office Communications Server (OCS), Exchange Server, Office Communicator and Office Outlook to create a centrally deployed and managed platform that will eventually service 600 users.

"What it came down to for us is that we were already running all these Microsoft products so it did not make sense to switch," says Kevin Wing, senior network engineer for Gibson. "For the entire rollout, we only bought one additional server."

That server was an OCS Edge Server, which provided a connection to public IM networks and acted as a host for video/voice conferencing. Gibson is so happy with the software-based system, Wing says he would throw out the PBX if it weren't for the fact he needs it for the company's call center.

Because OCS does not have a queuing feature, Gibson must rely on its traditional phone infrastructure to meet its customer service mandate of a live voice for every caller.

"When we can get the call center on OCS that is the last day we will have a PBX," Wing says.

Getting to this point of contentment, however, was not without its challenges. Gibson originally set out to adopt a Cisco environment and had rolled out software in two satellite offices, before ballooning costs had them looking for alternatives.

With 95 per cent of its environment on Microsoft, including Exchange, Active Directory and early versions of OCS, the company tapped what it had.

The major challenge was getting a phone gateway that would talk to its PBX, a point of integration that requires close scrutiny, Wing says. After two months of trial and error, Gibson settled on an AudioCodes Mediant 1000 Gateway that takes incoming calls and routes them either to a Nortel BCM400 PBX or OCS.

The company uses OCS's Mediation Server to handle translation of the standard Session Initiation Protocol into Microsoft's unique flavor of SIP.

Gibson uses PolyCom CX700 IP desktop phones that have a touch screen and are integrated with a user's Exchange contact list and Active Directory's corporate global access list. Instead of dialing by number, users look up names and connect.

Since Gibson's IT staff of five has been maintaining Microsoft systems for years, the unified communications rollout did not pose additional administration or maintenance requirements -- a fact that results in US$50,000 per year savings, the company estimates. And the voice capabilities have trimmed calling costs up to 75 per cent, according to Gibson.

Now Wing says the goals are to work on establishing lowest cost routing by eliminating trips over traditional phone lines as much as possible. The company plans to put gateways in its 18 global offices to handle routing via VPN links.

Just a year into the rollout, Wing says everything is humming. "From a setup standpoint, if you plan right from the beginning and you get the PBX and gateway integration to work, if you are moving to Exchange 2007 and understand the upgrade and you have Active Directory, then this is not that hard to do."

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