The Via Group on CityNext, Lync, and Sonus
Smart businesses know that one key to success is to find a niche that has an unmet need and fill that need. That is exactly what Microsoft is doing with its CityNext program. CityNext brings next-gen communications to cities to enable various sectors, such as fire, police, administration services, libraries, schools, etc., to improve and streamline communications and collaboration. City workers need to connect with each other and their constituents cost effectively, while enabling workers to be responsive regardless of where they’re located or what device they’re using.
Noting that city service demands are up while tax revenues are down, and that cities have to do more with less in light of competing funding priorities and goals (local, regional, national, international), Microsoft created CityNext to help provide solutions and services that cities need to meet the needs of citizens while managing tight budgets. Introduced at the 2013 Worldwide Partner Conference, Microsoft CityNext “fully leverages the new era of innovation, including mobility, social media, big data and cloud computing. It also broadens the scope of smart city initiatives putting people-first, and enabling city leaders to transform operations and infrastructure, engage citizens and businesses, and accelerate opportunity and innovation.” CityNext centers around helping cities grow their economies and enhance their global competitiveness. According to Microsoft, it’s an opportunity for Microsoft Lync partners to collaborate with Microsoft and other partners to take advantage of the $100 billion ICT (information and communications technology) opportunity.
One Microsoft Lync partner that is embracing CityNext is The Via Group, which has a long history of focusing on the education sector, and sees cities and the public sector as a natural extension for the company. According to Michael Cassady of The Via Group, there’s a huge concentration of people moving into cities who can benefit from all the things that Microsoft Lync brings. Cassady notes, “The Via Group is passionate about the fact that Lync is a communications platform that enriches people’s lives if rolled out and used properly. With Lync, Microsoft built an application-driven platform that integrates with other Microsoft platforms such as SharePoint, Yammer, Skype, Active Directory, Exchange, and so on. Bringing these together and enabling the same communications experience on any device will make it easier for city governments to connect with their population constituents.” The company points out that, “When sales and accounting don’t communicate effectively, it’s a problem; when the police and the fire departments don’t communicate effectively, it’s an emergency.”
The Via Group recently deployed CityNext for the City of Kentwood, Michigan, featuring Sonus and Microsoft technologies. Kentwood had outdated legacy communications equipment that required costly maintenance and support, while lacking key features and functions, making it difficult to support the real-time needs of its citizens. The City of Kentwood turned to The Via Group to help them migrate to Microsoft Lync and Microsoft Exchange for voice, video, conferencing, desktop sharing, unified email, and Instant Messaging, while enabling mobile capabilities for the government workers.
A critical component of the UC deployment is the SBC, which routes calls to the right destination and enables different devices to talk together using SIP as the foundation, and more importantly, provides security and protection for the SIP-based networks. After evaluating the city of Kentwood’s needs, The Via Group selected Sonus Networks to provide the SBC and secure communications. The Via Group had worked with Sonus previously, and found Sonus to be a good company to work with, with product features, capabilities, and ease of use that made it the right choice.
According to Cassady, “With any Lync implementation, the SBC is key; it can protect the SIP-based network against attacks, encrypts the communications, provide security and call routing so that if calls go out over the PTSN, they go in the most efficient manner. SBCs do the networking handshake that has to happen between different communication protocols.” He went on to say, “When we got involved in the City of Kentwood, Sonus was the SBC/gateway of choice for that particular opportunity. I told Sonus about CityNext and this opportunity and asked if they’d like to participate, and Sonus agreed that it was a good collective opportunity for both of our respective organizations.”
Sonus and The Via Group worked closely on the project from the beginning. Cassady explained, “The first thing we do is make sure that the customer’s network is ready for Lync, as there may be more stress applied to the network by moving to Lync if you start doing voice, video and data sharing. Then we determine if the customer needs an SBA for failover, how to handle remote locations, and other issues. During the design phase where right-sizing the SBC/SBA/gateway requirements and the engineering planning comes in, we worked closely with Sonus and engaged with their sales engineering team to make sure we were all walking lockstep with the customer to design the best overall solution.”
When determining which SBC provider to work with, Cassady noted, “We have to look at the specific needs of the customer and the features they require. Sometimes the customer has existing infrastructure in place, but sometimes we make the recommendation. We have to work hand in hand with the SBC provider and look at the customer’s environment from the very get go, making sure we understand everything, including the ‘gotchas.’ We have to look into the details, and that drives us toward what SBC/SBA is appropriate.”
He added, “For example, Sonus has SBAs with a wireless feature that provides failover capabilities, plus their SBCs provide call forking so that if a customer doesn't want a forklift replacement and wants to overlay Lync on top of their existing PBX platform, they can use both platforms simultaneously. In addition, Sonus boxes are certified on the TLS encrypted transmission that some of the SIP providers and UC platforms use.”
As with any project, there were some challenges to overcome. Cassady noted, “On a daily basis we see the issue of moving parts around Lync – there are always gotchas when it comes to integration of auto attendant consoles, contact centers, IVR, call recording, analog communication devices, any kind of legacy databases that hook in with the existing PBX platform that are already running in the customer’s environment. In Kentwood, we put in an application that didn't work and we had to pull it out. There were analog devices and ancillary extensions like elevator alarms, Public address consoles and door systems in the fire department infrastructure that required analog gateways to communicate in a Lync environment.”
Now that The Via Group has the City of Kentwood under their belts, the next step is to add one more customer case study in order to meet the requirements of the CityNext program and gain more exposure in the city government vertical. City government is a natural vertical for The Via Group. Cassady explains, “We started with Microsoft in the early TAP program back with LCS and did deployments for several universities. Microsoft has brought us into education opportunities throughout the U.S., and we’d like to replicate that in the public sector space. Sonus has been a great partner, is jointly involved in our CityNext initiative and interested in riding along with us in blazing a trail. That’s the way our organizations work together for the common good of the public sector customer in transforming their aging communication infrastructures to a next-gen platform with Microsoft Lync.”
This paper is sponsored by Sonus.