The United States African Development Foundation (USADF) is an independent federal agency established to support African-designed and African-driven solutions that address grassroots economic and social problems. From creating jobs in Tanzania, and rebuilding lives in Uganda, to supporting youth in Nigeria, the USADF provides grants of up to US$250,000 directly to under-served and marginalized community groups and enterprises to increase or sustain the number of jobs in a community, improve income levels, and address social development needs. To manage this complex mission requires a solidly reliable phone system with the same features and functions required of any organization that serves a critical need. But the distance between Africa and Washington, DC makes reliable communications unpredictable at best.
The USADF also had deep concerns about the security of its communications. The calls traversed the African telecommunications infrastructure, which was riddled with security vulnerabilities that could allow any outside entity to listen to phone calls and potentially gain easy access to sensitive conversations. Finally, as a publicly funded aid organization, the foundation had both a need to contain costs in an environment where telecom costs could be very high and an obligation to see that as many dollars as possible flowed to where they were needed most, rather than to communications expenses.
The USADF had based its phone communications system on a traditional private branch exchange (PBX) platform, but realized that the foundation was at a crossroads that meant either staying with a PBX solution or making the transition to an all-IP phone environment. It was a decision USADF would not take lightly, so the foundation consulted with long-time IT partner Force 3 about the best path to take
Since 1991, Force 3 has built a strong reputation for providing innovative, cost-effective information technology solutions and support services that meet clients’ objectives and add value to their organizations. According to Rodney O’Neal, Consulting Engineer at Force 3, “In March of 2009, we supplied USADF with one of our solution architects who went onsite at USADF and conducted a thorough design and solutions review. We recommended an all-Cisco IP phone solution, not just because it offered the reliability and security they needed and all the enhanced applications they wanted; IP also offered an infinitely scalable services path that, down the road, could save a lot of money.”
In September 2009, Force 3 initiated the implementation of the USADF all-IP phone communications platform. The solution consisted of Cisco CallManager Business Edition (for 500 users in the foundation’s Washington DC headquarters and VPN-connected remote offices), firewalls, intelligent Cisco ASA 5500 Series Adaptive Security Appliance-based Phone Proxy for about 60 IP phones in the Washington DC office, and 40 remote IP phones in 19 locations throughout Africa.
“For the small business that needs the same kind of phone capabilities found in much larger companies, Cisco Unified Communications Manager Business Edition offers advanced communications to meet changing business needs,” says Dawn Stem, Cisco Partner Alliance Manager. “It allows the USADF to cost-effectively integrate voice, video, messaging, and mobile communication capabilities on a single platform, eliminating the need to set up multiple servers for each application. And, as their needs change, they have inherent access to advanced communications features including customizable personal settings and the ability to listen to voicemail using the web, email, or phone.”
The Cisco ASA 5500 Series Adaptive Security Appliances, meanwhile, provided the customer with a range of security services for Cisco Unified Communications products, including Transport Layer Security (TLS) Proxy and Phone Proxy, a type of secure VPN. This highly secure connection afforded USADF with the security policies it required to conduct sensitive conversations with comfort and confidence.
Examples of the exciting new enhanced applications the USADF received included direct extension dialing, presence, and integration of voicemail into email. But the foundation was even more interested in the virtually limitless upward scalability offered by making the switch to an all-IP environment. Because effective communications is such a vital component of its work in Africa, the USADF was keenly interested in Cisco TelePresenceTM Technology, the ability to meet across vast distances via videoconference. “This is not a place they were ready for right now,” says O’Neal. “But when they are, this new communication platform will be ready without requiring a wholesale, forklift swap-out of infrastructure.”
By most standards, the implementation was not particularly large, but it was quite complex, given the geographical distances to be spanned, the connections required over multiple carriers, and the often unpredictable state of infrastructure in Africa. What gave Force 3 a critical advantage was its long experience in the federal market, and a proven methodology for designing and managing complex deployments.
“We have been very actively servicing the government sector since we first opened in 1991,” says O’Neal, “with our engineers performing about 90 percent of their work within various government agencies. So we are very familiar with their unique concerns about security, meeting strict regulatory requirements, and cost containment.” O’Neal related a story about a recent engagement.
“We worked with an agency in the intelligence arena. They needed phones, like anyone else, but as you can imagine, their needs were, shall we say, unique. They required a specialized type of encryption required of intelligence agencies operating under the umbrella of the Department of Defense. And we were able to guide them away from equipment that we knew would not meet certification standards for encryption, and into a product that would be acceptable from a security standpoint. It was a really consultative relationship, and I think our knowledge and experience of government standards helped them make the best possible choice.”
This kind of guidance is typical of organizations that select a managed services model for the delivery of essential business services, such as voice, data, and especially video. USADF recognized that managing and maintaining a complex, international phone system did not represent a core expertise, and that its time and resources were better allocated to those tasks for which it was better suited. Today, USADF easily plans its monthly communications expense and can budget accordingly, without the sudden and sometimes unpredictable increase in costs associated with unplanned outages, costly upgrades, or new equipment purchases. “It’s really made their budgeting and planning processes much smoother and more predictable,” says O’Neal. “And made a huge dent in their costs for technical staff and facilities.”
Force 3 employs a detailed and exacting methodology to its implementations, which includes a state-of-the-art lab where testing is conducted. In this case, Force 3 brought its data center, security, and Unified Communications practices together to create a robust and full-featured solution for the USADF. “The entire CallManager solution was staged in Force 3’s secure facilities in Crofton, Maryland and tested so Force 3 engineers could employ their best practices approach to building the platform,” says O’Neal. “The results are minimized downtime and optimized performance.”
The USADF reports that it is extremely satisfied with its newly deployed communications platform. Management and employees appreciate the extraordinary functionality of their IP phones, especially the productivity enhancements that have also reduced total cost of ownership. Moreover, they have reported no issues with the quality of the secure VPN connection between remote offices in Africa and Washington DC.
Says O’Neal, “They have told us of a noticeable uptick in employee productivity thanks to the new solution, and a stunning reduction in their international call expenses of somewhere between 50 and 60 percent.” These impressive savings were achieved by transferring international calling from the telephone providers to a VPN connection, a highly secure connection required to conduct sensitive conversations.
Economic development in Africa is hardly a static environment, so the USADF reportedly were pleased with the Cisco CallManager’s ability to handle moves, adds, and changes using a simple web-based portal. However the foundation’s workforce expands or shifts, the USADF can easily adapt its new CallManager Express solution to meet its needs.
The USADF had the vision to purchase a 500-seat license, so as its needs grow over the next five years and the foundation adds remote offices and users, it can do so without added expense or complexity. Additionally, the USADF is in a position to add advanced communications services such as telepresence. “There will be some infrastructure requirements to fully enable a telepresence rollout,” says O’Neal. “But their platform is already ideally architected to make that aspiration a reality.
“It has been a great year working with the USADF, and we will continue to be here for them as their development efforts grow and improve.”
- Cisco ASA 5500 Series Adaptive Security Appliances
- Cisco CallManager Business Edition
- Cisco ASA 5500 Series Phone Proxy
- Cisco Unified IP Phones 7960G and 7940G
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