Four Factors Help a Major Railway’s IT Team Stay on Track

For IT managers in one of the United States’ major railroads—an industry that has grown to $68 billion in annual revenue—keeping up with the latest technology poses the greatest challenge.

The Need for Fast Troubleshooting in Far-Flung Locations

Our Railroad Company, remaining anonymous here, employs thousands, including its IT team, across 115 offices, some of which are in very remote areas. “The railroad has a lot of places that are hard to get to,” says the company’s senior voice engineer. “They’re just dots on a map, without addresses.” When hardware fails in a far-flung location, getting there rapidly is paramount—or it can seriously affect operations.

To avoid costly outages, any company must keep its network current and perform regular maintenance. Sound familiar? We all must do routine work to keep our devices, appliances, and cars up to date. For short periods, we can live without our phones or we can rent a car. But unlike us, for a railroad performing routine maintenance and keeping the network current can mean the difference between a profitable year and a financial loss.

True Cost of an Outage

According to a 2013 Ponemon Institute study, the average total cost per data center outage is more than $625,000. The cost associated with business disruption, which includes reputation damage and customer churn, represents the most expensive cost category. For railroads—tasked with moving time-sensitive containers of product to hundreds of locations on thousands of miles of track—the costs of an outage are even higher and more challenging.

The Support Services Solution

To help ensure they’ll have reliable unified communications and contact center solutions, the Railroad Company’s IT team looked for a partner that could provide maintenance to keep their infrastructure current and operating smoothly. Avaya was the selected Partner because it delivers four factors that keep the Railroad Company’s network on track:

  • Proven 24/7 alarm monitoring systems

    with more than 1,000 algorithms to proactively auto-resolve issues without human intervention, reducing the need to staff around the clock.

  • A support service for software release management,

    freeing up the IT staff to work on higher priority IT projects that will advance the company’s business goals.

  • Customer-controlled tools that provide secure remote access, advanced endpoint diagnostics and network monitoring

    at no additional licensing cost and from the comfort of the IT Manager’s desk

  • Teams that are familiar with the rail company’s environment and can reach remote locations faster

    than the railroad’s centralized IT team, cutting downtime.

Great Support Services

At the Railroad Company, technology now keeps trains and those supporting them running efficiently and on schedule. By relying on a managed services partner as an extension of its in-house team, the Railroad Company’s IT group gained proactive, automated diagnostics and restoration capabilities, and fast resolution that prevents and minimizes downtime.

Solutions are monitored around the clock, freeing the Railroad Company from having to staff during off hours. Most of the time, alarms proactively catch issues before end customers even notice. When a lightning strike took out a phone switch, the Railroad Company’s IT staffers were hundreds of miles away. Fortunately, the Partner team arrived on site to resolve the problem at least a day sooner than the internal team could.

The same goes for outages of network cards, which the Partner replaced within a few hours. Without such onsite support, the Railroad Company would likely suffer from longer downtime on phones—a critical lifeline. The Company additionally engages the Partner to implement relevant software updates and upgrades. A subscription to all upgrades frees the IT team from having to watch for notices and from the hassle of seeking approvals from Finance for every update or upgrade, which means updates are deployed in a timely manner and at the most convenient times.

The Railroad Company benefits from a close relationship with its Partner, which provides a single point of contact for global alarm receipt and trouble reporting. Additionally, a Partner manager oversees escalations across all locations, delivers reports and organizes regular meetings. Each month, key members of the Railroad Company meet with the Partner team to discuss any alarms and ways to reduce such instances in the future.

So, next time you get an alert in the middle of the night from a distant location, consider your options—even if you’re not working on the railroad.

How costly was your last outage? How quickly can you resolve software and hardware issues? Who supports your remote location? What does your alarm resolution system look like? Let me know your thoughts. Follow me @SandraSithomso

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Kari’s Law: An Emotional Journey Leads to a Bittersweet Ending

Our long journey leading up to the presidential signing of Kari’s Law began well before the precious life of Kari Hunt tragically ended on Dec. 1, 2013. (Learn about Kari’s story.)

For me, it actually began in the spring of 2013 when I noticed a sign on my hotel door, which read: “In case of an emergency, dial 0 for the operator.” I remember thinking, “The operator isn’t trained to handle an emergency. I should be able to dial 9-1-1 from my room phone.”

Sadly, this occurrence wasn’t an anomaly. I found it to be a common bad practice adopted by too many hotels across the United States.

There’s no doubt their intentions were good. Hotels were looking to be proactive, and they wanted to expedite not delay emergency response times. To make matters worse, direct access to 9-1-1 from Multi Line Telephone System (MLTS) was flawed because guests couldn’t dial 9-1-1 directly. They needed to dial an extra 9 just to get an outside line. That proved to be a fatal flaw in Kari’s case because her 9-year-old daughter couldn’t get through to 9-1-1. MLTS legislation also didn’t exist or, if it did, it was limited to a handful of states, and much of that dealt with the reporting location. It didn’t address the issue of access and notification.

Throughout the year, I used social media to increase awareness and drive meaningful change. I spoke at conferences and even began a podcast series dedicated to this very topic.

Then one day in December 2013, everything changed. My Google Alerts for 9-1-1 came up with a Change.org petition that was raised by Hank Hunt after his daughter Kari was brutally murdered in her hotel room.

I reached out to Hank on Facebook and offered to help him in his cause. Having an innovative tech leader like Avaya backing me increased Hank’s confidence in my ability to help him bring about the changes he sought.

My previous experience immediately proved useful, and we were able to go straight to the top at the FCC. (I had served on the Emergency Access Advisory Committee under Chairman Julius Genechowski, who had just turned the agency over to Chairman Tom Wheeler. Talk about timing!)

Following a number of tweets and letters, including an Open Letter to the FCC Chairman Wheeler, we received a call from Commissioner Ajit Pai’s office and a meeting was scheduled for Jan. 10, 2014. That meeting turned into a 45-minute discussion on the issues, the fix, and the challenges we faced.

Over the next several months, Hank and I garnered the interest of legislators in cities and states across the country: Suffolk County in Long Island, the state of Illinois, Maryland, et al.

In Texas, Avaya participated in hearings, and offered our unique expertise. We introduced the idea of a “Waiver Clause,” which stated that a business could obtain an exemption if they showed financial hardship. With the exemption was the requirement to register the make and model number of the system. This uncovered many systems that were actually capable of being compliant, and eased the adoption of the new law.

More states followed embraced the legislation—it was a full-on domino effect—except at the federal level where every attempt to bring a bill to life stalled. But then in 2018, that changed too.

After an all-night session ending on Feb. 9 on what would have been Kari’s 36th birthday, the House of Representatives passed the Senate amendment of H.R. 582, and it was officially on the way to the president of the U.S. for signature.

We quietly celebrated, knowing Kari’s murder would not be in vain.

The cherry on the cake was being invited by Hank, Kari’s father, to witness the president sign the bill into law on Feb. 16, 2018. I was both humbled and honored, and invited my former colleague Avaya Sales Engineer Dan Wilson to enjoy the moment with us. Dan had worked tirelessly on this legislation, clocking 12 miles of walking in the Maryland House and Senate.

The West Wing is everything you’d imagine: intimidating, wonderful and a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It was a pleasure to not only stand beside Hank and witness the signing, but to also be in the company of people who supported our endeavor since day one: Ajit Pai, my good friend and now Chairman of the FCC, Congressman Louie Gohmert who introduced the bill, as well as other Congressional reps with interest in public safety. After reading a prepared statement, President Trump uncapped the ceremonial pen and placed it on the paper. As it started to move, we were overcome with emotion. To think, 50 years to the day, and quite nearly the minute, following the first ever 9-1-1 call, Kari’s Law had become the “Law of the Land.”

Transforming Online Meetings for Team Collaboration

I find it interesting how companies choose to measure team collaboration. Most use surveys, some productivity data, and others standard review processes. Yet team collaboration is about so much more than all of this. If you ask us, it’s about putting people first.

We mean this quite literally. It’s important to provide employees with a suite of face-to-face collaboration capabilities that enable dynamic, real-time team collaboration. Communication staples like voice and chat are surely important, along with the endless other tools teams use to connect and share information. Meeting via video, however, is arguably the best way to collaborate, build relationships, create momentum and build morale. Face-to-face collaboration may not always be needed, but companies will want to make sure they have the best tools in place for when it is.

When done right, online meetings enhance team collaboration in several ways. Consider the most basic of them all: a good part of communication is non-verbal. Being able to observe team members’ body language can help prevent miscommunication and connect across languages and cultures. The technology has also evolved to the point where teams can flexibly share data, documents and other project details via screen sharing or virtual whiteboards. All the while, there’s the opportunity to initiate private chat sessions between team members to discuss simultaneously.

The bottom line: online meetings enable authentic human interaction that delivers real value, time and cost savings, and better business outcomes.

Now, imagine being able to quickly implement an easy-to-use, cost-effective service that skips the capital investment and technical hassle of a traditional video solution. This is exactly what Avaya Equinox Meetings Online offers: a cloud-delivered application that allows users—both employees and outside contacts—to connect with their browsers (no plug-ins required) or mobile apps to effortlessly initiate and/or participate in online meetings. The service places priority back on people, which is where it belongs. Simple as that.

Don’t believe us? Read Nemertes Q4 2017 Enterprise Business Value Matrix for Unified Communications and Collaboration to see what they had to say. If you like what you see, or if you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to our team for more information via our webchat.

The Easy Button for IoT

I am sure that I don’t have to tell you how the Internet of Things (IoT) is revolutionizing our world. Stop by any electronics retailer and you will find smart TVs, smart lights, smart refrigerators, and smart thermostats. Open up the brochure for a new car and you will find more space dedicated to intelligent sensors than horsepower. Tour a modern manufacturing plant and you will quickly discover that nearly every machine used in production has been equipped with an IP address. From the consumer to the enterprise, IoT is the driving force of innovation.

Of course, there is a dark side to this revolutionary technology: It’s not all that easy. As a consumer, it’s not a big deal to have one smart dryer that sends a text message when your clothes are dry. It’s also pretty simple to have your refrigerator email you a photo of its contents. In these cases, it’s just you and your machine.

However, what if you had a thousand dryers and ten thousand refrigerators. Let’s take it further. What if you were American Airlines and your fleet of airplanes had five hundred thousand different sensors reporting information every second. Now, imagine that some devices reported data using Bluetooth while others used Zigbee, WiMAX, LTE, WiFi, and NFC. Want to make it even more challenging? These different sensors report data reading using SOAP, REST, WebSockets, and a myriad of proprietary protocols. It quickly becomes an engineering nightmare to collect, store, and take the appropriate actions on this constant stream of data.

One Bite at a Time

Question. How do you eat an elephant? Answer. One bite at a time.

As with an elephant, the best way to conquer the IoT problem is to break it down into bite-sized pieces. Instead of trying to directly deal with all those different sensors and their unique forms of communication, have those sensors talk to gateways that understand multiple IoT dialects. Those gateways could then normalize the data before sending it off to a central cloud repository. Next, wrap the IoT cloud with web services that allow for a consistent and uniform way to access IoT data. Finally, use those web services to create a suite of applications for data visualization, event processing, analytics, etc.

Now, instead of being inundated with terabytes of data that may or may not be important, you only see what you need to see and only when you need to see it. You also have a scalable platform that allows you to add new sensors without having to constantly redesign and redeploy your business applications.

At Arrow Systems Integration (ASI), an Avaya A.I.Connect partner, we call this distributed architecture of sensors, gateways, and cloud services Arrow Connect™.

Arrow Connect

Arrow Connect is a software architecture that connects any device over any protocol to any cloud. Designed and developed by Arrow with security, scale, flexibility, device management, multi-tenancy, hierarchy, open APIs, and extensibility as its core principles, Arrow Connect is helping customers across multiple industries bring their products to market faster.

The Arrow Connect software development kit (SDK) helps enterprises leverage the full capabilities of any device while an extensible software gateway allows developers to add support for protocols and sensors not currently supported by Arrow Connect.

The Arrow Connect cloud platform enables secure provisioning and management of all its devices. It runs on multiple public cloud platforms and seamlessly integrates with Microsoft Azure, IBM Watson Bluemix/Softlayer, Amazon Web Services, and private data center solutions.

Breeze and Zang Workflows

While support for RESTful web services is essential to being an open and secure cloud solution, this comes with a price and that price is complexity. Despite being an open standard understood by most software developers, the fact that you must be a developer to use web services confines them to a very select group of people.

In our quest to find every possible way to simplify IoT, ASI has partnered with Avaya to add support for Arrow Connect IoT devices, sensors, and gateways into Avaya Breeze and the Zang Workflow Designer. With both of these platforms, access to IoT data and Arrow Connect services becomes as simple as drag and drop and non-developers can create powerful IoT solutions in a matter of minutes. Better still, this simplification does not come at the cost of accuracy, reliability, speed, security, or scalability. The visual tasks embedded in these workflow tools employ the same Arrow Connect web services a skilled software developer would use. The difference is that there is no need to learn Java, .Net, Python, or any other programming language.

 

The Easy Button for IoT

With integrated workflow technology, you can quickly turn an idea on a whiteboard into a fully functional and easily deployable solution.

Next Steps

McKinsey recently said that “Any business that fails to invest heavily in the IoT in the next 10 years is unlikely to be able to remain competitive.” While these may seem like strong words, industry after industry has taken them to heart and the IoT revolution is everywhere. As I stated at the beginning of this article, IoT is becoming pervasive for both consumers and businesses.

The simplification, scalability, and security of IoT offered by Avaya and Arrow Systems Integration helps an enterprise to create the solutions it needs to enhance its business, grow its customer base, and stay competitive.

Andrew Prokop is the Director of Emerging Technologies at Arrow Systems Integration. Andrew is an active blogger and his widely-read blog, SIP Adventures, discusses every imaginable topic in the world of unified communications. Follow Andrew on Twitter at @ajprokop, and read his blog, SIP Adventures.