How This Billion Dollar Mall Operator Virtualized its Unified Communications System

Forest City Enterprises is a massive real estate management firm based in Cleveland, Ohio. With nearly $11 billion in property under management, Forest City’s best-known properties include the Westfield San Francisco Centre mall in downtown San Francisco and the Atlantic Yards mixed-use redevelopment project, which includes the new Barclays Center basketball arena where the Brooklyn Nets, play.
 
Forest City reaps more than $1 billion in revenue a year and employs more than 2,500 people nationwide. Despite its size, the company’s workers were largely content with its old phone system – a stable first-generation VoIP-based system for internal calls and PRI and T1 connections for outside ones, says Bradley J. Coyne, telecom specialist for Forest City, who candidly shared his experience in a talk at the International Avaya Users Group’s Converge 2013 conference in Orlando this week.
The bread-and-butter system was 7 years old. While it was not loaded with features, it boasted Five 9s (99.999%) reliability, says Coyne – the most important factor in an old-school business like real estate. “If the telephones are down, we are closed for business,” he said. 
Nevertheless, Forest City was looking to upgrade its communications system and add SIP underneath in order to gain full Unified Communications capabilities, as well as consolidate its networks. The organization was already two months into the upgrade to the latest version of Avaya Aura when its system integrator, NACR, approached them with an enticing proposal: besides upgrading to Avaya Aura, why not also virtualize Aura, in order to gain efficiencies, better uptime and disaster recovery, and scalability?
 
Despite being potentially NACR’s first customer running Aura on VMware, Coyne and his compatriots in IT were enthusiastic. Forest City was no stranger to VMware. Over the past 5 years, Forest City had virtualized 80% of its servers using VMware – virtually all (pun intended) of its non-communication servers. That had allowed Forest City to boost the number of applications it ran (it now had 500 virtual machines) while slashing the number of physical servers it maintained from 150 to 50.
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Slides courtesy of Bradley J. Coyne of Forest City Enterprises.

Convincing Forest City’s top brass took some effort, mostly because of worries that this last-minute change would delay the new Aura rollout, says Coyne. But he and his team were able to show that rolling out Aura on VMware would be worth any delays.
More difficult, ironically, was for Coyne and his communications team to build relationships with the server infrastructure team it never had had close dealings with – and upon whom they would suddenly have to rely heavily. Post virtualization, they would have the power to wipe out servers controlling phone routing and user data information for thousands of employees with the incorrect push of a button. Not only were processes created to prevent that scenario from happening, but new relationships and a spirit of teamwork between formerly siloed departments within IT were created as a result of this upgrade, says Coyne.
 
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Through diligent work, NACR and Forest City were able to get several weeks ahead of the original schedule. But the switchover to the new virtualized communications systems did have some scary moments due, ironically, to miscommunication. 
During the weekend cutover of the main phone system, Forest City realized that it had told NACR’s engineers that it had already signed up a SIP carrier. In fact, its phones were still using the H.323 protocol. Moving forward could’ve resulted in the erasure of the routing data and phone numbers of thousands of deskphones. 
For a moment, Coyne thought, “Uh oh, we might not have jobs next Monday.”
Fortunately, Forest City and NACR were able to roll back to backups of the old phone servers before continuing on its upgrade. “We dodged a huge bullet,” he said. When Monday morning rolled around, no employees called to complain. Only the employees’ phones’ call logs were missing. “It was such a smooth cutover that users couldn’t tell that their entire phone system had changed. When they asked what we’d done, we’d reply, ‘Oh, nothing big.'”
Similarly, the changeover of the voice mail system to the new Avaya Aura Messaging also resulted in minimal complaints from users, who only noted that the touch tones sounded different.
From 22 physical communications servers, Forest City now runs 43 virtual and physical server instances. Besides running far more than twice the number of applications than before, these servers are more secure, easier to recover and move around in case of server failure or disaster, and easier to manage. For instance, firmware updates to the virtual servers take just 5 minutes, versus 28-30 minutes as before.
These will all combine to save Forest City’s IT big-time, predicts Coyne, especially when the company completes its SIP trunk upgrades.
With Avaya Aura 6.2, Forest City’s many traveling workers will also begin to be able to use softphones and communication apps such as Avaya Flare Communicator and one-X Communicator on their laptops and mobile devices. Coyne isn’t rushing with those upgrades, though, as he wants to make them as painless as possible for the workers. He plans to use SAP Afaria to roll out the apps to mobile devices.
While Forest City uses LifeSize for video conferencing today, it is looking into replacing that with Avaya Scopia and Aura Web video conferencing, says Coyne. He and his team are also working on turning on other Aura features such as faxing over IP.
“Every week we install another application or turn on another feature, all without impacting our users,” Coyne said. “We’re getting gold stars in IT from the business units, which is really gratifying.”

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Avaya Aura® Platform—The Original Pragmatic Hybrid Cloud

In a recent InfoWorld post David Linthicum wrote of “an organic movement driven by rank-and-file enterprise IT people who simply want to solve their issues using the best technology and approach.” Linthicum called this the “pragmatic hybrid cloud.” Reading this from the perspective of someone with decades of experience in the enterprise communications market, my immediate reactions was, “Aha, he’s talking about the Avaya Aura® Platform.” He isn’t, but here I’ll explain why this thought struck me.

Linthicum writes, “What this movement has discovered is that you can combine the public cloud and modernize some of your legacy systems to be more cloudlike.” That is exactly what Avaya customers have been achieving in an evolutionary process spanning almost two decades. Long before the term cloud came into vogue, Avaya customers have been able to gain the benefits of the cloud paradigm while avoiding the need to comprehensively lift workloads to a public cloud provider and the need to wholesale forklift and abandon existing investments.

Today, many Avaya customers—including a large swath of the globe’s most notable organizations in industries ranging from financial services, to healthcare, to government, and many small and medium businesses—process their mission-critical workloads using a combination of premise-based solutions and both public and private cloud-served applications. It is a “pragmatic hybrid” approach that since the mid-2000s has provided these Avaya customers with unparalleled reliability, cost savings, and business agility.

The Avaya Aura Platform is the reason why. Avaya Aura had its genesis in a time tested methodology for allowing geographically distributed organizations to link islands of resources to gain economies of scale. Back in the day, to create either a contact center that followed the sun or a single enterprise communications solution that served the needs of a worldwide workface, expensive dedicated circuits were required. As IP Telephony evolved, companies began to use packet-switched technologies to more cost-effectively link together distant resources into single holistic systems. Rather than centralized in isolated locations, communications applications could now be seamlessly and cost-effectively shared across distances. This made new ways to organize communication assets and the work that depended upon those resources possible.

Avaya’s great insight was to take advantage of the session initiation protocol (SIP). Over time Avaya’s customers have “pragmatically” converted the networking connections of their existing standalone investments to create fabrics of SIP internetworked appliances. The Avaya Aura® Session Manager lets companies treat their owned assets as part of a private cloud and combine those resources with public cloud capabilities both from Avaya and from a growing ecosystem of additional providers. It is a strategy that has resulted in significant cost savings while unleashing new innovation.

Today the Avaya Aura Platform has moved far beyond simply a “pragmatic hybrid” for sharing resources. It has become a strategic tool for many organizations. It gives companies a flexibility and agility to adapt and reconfigure at the speed of business. Avaya Aura has also opened the doors to both internal Avaya inventions and new external development.

Avaya Breeze™ Platform is but the latest application development platform that takes advantage of Avaya Aura. Avaya, Avaya’s customers, and an industry of third-party companies are leveraging Breeze with their own creativity for solving business problems. Breeze allows the creation of unique ways to leverage the inherent capabilities of Avaya products in combination with cloud and third-party capabilities. Whether those assets reside in a private data center, on premises-based servers, or in public clouds, because of the Avaya Aura Platform, the only barriers to progress are the limits of human ingenuity.

Linthicum concluded that, the “pragmatic approach is very sensible. It makes the most of what you have, reducing the need for new resources and letting you transition to the cloud at a pace you can handle, both in terms of cost and time.” Your Path, Your Pace, Your Choice, where have I heard that before? Avaya circa 2004 maybe? Nice to see the industry finally following Avaya’s lead.

 

Zang Serves Up a Special Delivery for Your Mom this Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day is the one day in the U.S. when the most phone calls are made. According to this cool Mother’s Day Facts site, 122 million calls are made to mothers on Mother’s Day in the United States alone. Considering there are only 85 million mothers in the U.S., Mom must be pretty busy taking calls from her multiple children, and Dad must be busy making reservations at the favorite family restaurant (Mother’s Day remains the top holiday for dining out).

To help make sure Mom gets that special call on Mother’s Day, Zang today announced a Zang-built service for those who 1) are multiple time zones away from mom (ie: military, working or studying abroad), 2) just want to send another thoughtful gift to Mom to let her know she’s loved, or 3) frankly, for those who have a track record for forgetting (you know who you are). With the Zang Forget Me Not service, anyone can record a voicemail for their mom before Mother’s Day, designate the date & time the voicemail should be sent, then receive a text confirming the voicemail was delivered. The new service was created using  cloud-based Zang Comms platform as a service, which allows anyone to create communication applications and services just like Forget Me Not.

How does it work, you ask? Simple. First go to www.zang.io/callmom and complete four short steps:

1)  Enter your telephone phone number
2)  Enter recipient’s telephone number
3)  Pick the time you would like the recording to be delivered
4)  Zang Forget Me Not service will then call your phone number for you to record, review and approve your message for delivery.

 

Go ahead—give it a try! It’s just one more surprise you can give Mom this Mother’s Day.

Next time you visit Dubai, take a public transport

With happiness being a key focus in Dubai, government agencies are looking towards contributing to the goal of raising the quality of life of customers and ensuring public happiness. These agencies are quickly realizing that the key to delivering a better and more personalized experience is technology. Using the latest services and solutions paves the way to guaranteed customer retention and loyalty.

One of the leading organizations in the area of customer care, winning multiple awards for its contact centre operations including a Hamdan bin Mohammed Smart Government Award, is the Roads & Transport Authority (RTA).

The RTA has a wide remit including Dubai’s Metro, public buses, private road vehicle registration, traffic management and more, so it has a diverse customer base negotiating Dubai’s busy transport system, with a volume of customer enquiries to match. It therefore comes as no surprise that the RTA is investing in multiple channels of communications with its customers, to improve standards of service, increase efficiency and gain valuable feedback from its user. It is also looking to technology to help improve the quality of interactions with clients and to improve overall levels of customer satisfaction and engagement. It has utilized a number of different solutions to increase its outreach to customers, and over time the focus of these efforts has evolved, to include voice communications, smart apps and multi-channel engagement.

From projects and operational perspective, RTA has a big focus on alternative smart channels. It offers 173 smart services under nine apps, that can help customers complete their transactions with a click of the finger through the automation of the main services the authority provides. It is dedicated to opening up more channels of communication, with an omni-channel strategy, that includes delivering services through channels such as self-service kiosks. At present the RTA has deployed around 16 kiosks, which offer smart services to users in RTA service centres, and in future it plans to have around 100 kiosks all over the city. The Authority has a well-established customer care line, which handles enquiries across the range of its activities, running on Avaya contact centre solutions. In 2015, the centre handled over 2.5 million calls, with over 80% of calls responded to in 20 seconds, and 90% of issues resolved in one call.

To make this possible, last year the contact centre underwent a major technology refresh, to put in place the latest generation of solutions. With Avaya Aura, RTA is now using the most recent software to increase the efficiency of the contact centre. With the aim to deliver the best possible interaction experience to transport customers, Avaya aligned with RTA’s Customer Resource Management strategy to consolidate channels and mediums into RTA’s first, best-in-class contact center to host multi-channel interactions. Among the capabilities that the new technology has enabled is an advanced Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system, which has helped to improve operations by automatically handling some of the more common customer enquiries. On New Year’s Eve the centre received some 12,000 calls, with the IVR handling one third of all enquiries.

The RTA is a pioneering example of how technology can make the difference in delivering quality to customers through the creation of a seamless and hassle free experience. As we share the RTA’s vision in excelling in customer experiences to achieve happiness, my advice to you is that, next time you visit Dubai, remember to take a  public transport.