- Jean-Pierre Bédard Director, Telephony & Unified Communications, CBC/Radio-Canada Media Technology Services
The purpose of this article is to inform users of the sizeable changes that will be brought to the Corporation through the implementation of Unified Communications (UC) within CBC/Radio-Canada over the months to come. These changes will be positive, in the sense that they will facilitate the ability of employees to communicate freely with each other and react decisively and in a timely fashion to the situations that arise within a very dynamic workplace.
The concept of UC can be somewhat difficult to understand for people who are encountering it for the first time. Essentially, within CBC/Radio-Canada, UC has the goal of unifying all communication modes (e.g., voice, video, instant messaging, text messaging, etc.) for any devices, regardless of their type (desktop phone, smartphone, tablet, PC, etc.). In a practical sense, this translates to the addition of a layer between the devices themselves and the back-end equipment that they depend on to run (such as a variety of different types of servers). This added layer unifies all of the diverse devices in use and allows them to communicate with each other by means of a universal communication protocol, the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP).
This article will take a close look at the challenge involved, Internet Protocol architecture, the project's various implementation stages, and what the end result will ultimately mean for CBC/Radio-Canada's employees.
Figure 1 – Unifying a Very Diverse Set of Elements
As you can probably imagine, the idea of unifying such a wide gamut of communication devices and methods does not come without its challenges, especially when the scope of the undertaking involves multiple departments within a large organisation. Traditionally within CBC/Radio-Canada, telephony and videoconferencing were responsibilities handled by Telecommunications, whereas Information Technology (IT) would handle the email system, SAP servers, and other large back-end equipment; therefore, the active cooperation of both groups is necessary to carry out the mandate of Unifying Communications.
Approximately four years ago, Media Technology Services (MTS) took a detailed look into the direction in which communications appeared to be evolving, and a determination was reached to develop multiple scenarios that would allow the Corporation to streamline its communications. Thanks to this careful analysis and development of a long-term vision to simplify communication within our organisation, CBC/Radio-Canada chose to adopt an entirely new communications architecture based on Internet Protocol (IP).
Internet Protocol Architecture
Figure 2 – IP: The Right Tool for the Right Task
Internet Protocol is at the basis of the architecture necessary to implement complex functionality within an environment comprising various communication systems. Without IP, one is essentially left with nothing but the least sophisticated options, such as a physical destkop telephone. Granted, this is not to say that a traditional Private Branch Exchange (PBX) telephone system is an entirely unsophisticated tool, as it technically allows for the implementation of about 700 different functions, such as conferences, bridges, transfers, call forwarding, and the like; however, there is no way of marrying video or adding mobile devices to a PBX system (and, in those rare instances when something truly complex can be undertaken, chances are that it will only be able to do so in conjunction with a short list of very specific devices).
If one were to look at the ensemble of traditional tools available to CBC/Radio-Canada right now, one would see a long list of communication devices covering voice, video, fax machines, desktop telephony, tablets, smartphones, etc. Our ultimate goal is, regardless of the communication device being used, to be able to:
- Communicate with others in any mode of communication available these days, whether by email, voice, video, instant message, or text message, amongst others.
- Be aware of a recipient's presence information, in the interest of being able to determine the best way of reaching them at the time, especially if they are busy doing something else.
Managing to do all of this requires an excellent and flexible architecture at the heart of it all to handle the wide variety of points of access that will be able to communicate with a plethora of different applications, including email, videoconferencing that allows bridging into meeting rooms and on Skype, Sharepoint, and a long series of other Microsoft and Google applications. What UC strives to do is leverage the equipment that CBC/Radio-Canada currently has and allow it to connect to all sorts of other applications, all whilst remaining vendor-agnostic and device-agnostic, just as long as the channel between both devices or applications follows SIP standards; that is the ultimate condition.
Figure 3 – Common User Experience
Given the segmentation that occurs as a result of the ample variety of devices available on the market, CBC/Radio-Canada's interest in all this is for employees to have a similar user experience every time they are in front of a screen and wanting to communicate with their colleagues and others. As such, if a user opens their tablet and chooses to call someone, they should be able to make that call using their office telephone number; if they want to add video to the conversation, they should be able to do so with one click and without disconnecting from the voice call; if they choose to call others and bridge them into the conversation, they should be able to do so instantly. All of this integration is accounted for at the heart of CBC/Radio-Canada's IP architecture. As such, unifying communications extends beyond just unifying the devices that make said communication possible, it is also a matter of unifying the user experience and providing the same user experience across the board, regardless of the device in play; consequently, Corporation employees will have the ability to go from one communication method to another seamlessly.
This initiative has been ongoing for the better part of four years now, and the cornerstone necessary to make it all happen is IP. As things stand right now, there are approximately 65 buildings within CBC/Radio-Canada, each of them with their own PBX system and, as one might expect, there are costs associated with all of these PBX systems. The general idea is to replace all of them with a single IP-based system and, as of the last twelve months, the Corporation is finally in a position to do so, thanks to the existence of CBC/Radio-Canada's Next Generation Converged Network (NGCN).
The NGCN allows the Corporation to have virtually real time connections throughout the network with almost unlimited bandwidth and that, in turn, makes large-scale IP-based communications a realistic proposition. Having an IP communications system in Vancouver with servers in Toronto and Montreal was impossible prior to the existence of the NGCN due to the transit time and quality of the data packets that would have travelled within the system, but it has become a perfectly realistic option now, thanks to the speed and capacity of the NGCN. Essentially, it is the backbone of our entire new system.
The first stage in the UC project is the implementation of the right IP architecture, which will result in CBC/Radio-Canada having two servers (one in Toronto and another in Montreal, in the interest of redundancy) fulfilling the same function that the 65 PBX systems had fulfilled until now.
This will allow the Corporation to centralise the intelligence necessary to establish communication between Point A and Point B, or even between Point A and a multitude of Points B simultaneously. Once this becomes available in IP, handling audio, video, instant messaging, text messages, and presence information is only a matter of purchasing licences for the servers. Contrary to what one might expect, it is not even a matter of capital investment in equipment, it is exclusively a software issue and, potentially, a small investment in a certain type of user profile. That will allow CBC/Radio-Canada to start working on the unification of all communication, which is the stage that follows the implementation of the IP core infrastructure.
The core implementation is what is covered in the request for proposals (RFP) that is out right now and vendor negotiations should come to a conclusion in January 2013, when the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) will announce the results. Equipment will be purchased in February and consolidation will begin during the first quarter of 2013.
The IP architecture will be put in place over the course of a two-year cycle, during which the PBX systems in the regions will be retired and everything will be consolidated in Toronto and Montreal. All of this activity will be followed by the next phase of the project, unification.
Once the architecture is in place at the Toronto Broadcast Centre and at La Maison de Radio-Canada in Montreal, the regions will be connected to the system. Telephones will be replaced with IP telephones, and CBC/Radio-Canada will then be able to fully open its doors to the mobile wireless world.
As a consequence of the transition to IP, thre will be employees who will cease using their office telephones or who will not want them anymore; instead of leaving them with a telephone and a voicemail box (as well as the infrastructure attached to that), those with a cellular telephone number will be able to keep their office number and have those calls routed directly to their smartphone instead. The person on the other end will not know that they are calling a cellular telephone, and this will allow the Corporation's employees to communicate with everyone without altering the numbering plan that is currently in place.
Ultimately, UC is all about simplicity of use. E.g., as things stand right now, if someone with a tablet wants to set up a conference call, that individual must know the names of all of the participants, their telephone numbers, whether they are within CBC/Radio-Canada or not, set up a bridge in advance, send all the participants an email with the conference number and access code… It is not the most straightforward process around. Once the UC project has been implemented, setting up a conference call will be simplified considerably and easily accomplished through a user's device; by the time a user has decided on the participants, all of the call's details will automatically be pushed to them, placed on their calendars, etc.
One of the great benefits alluded to briefly above is the integration of the concept of presence information. E.g., if a user receives an email from a colleague, their presence on the system will be indicated to the user upon opening the email; consequently, if a user knows that the email's sender is online as they are reading it, they will be able to click on the sender's name and immediately choose whether to call them, set up an instant messaging session, or any other convenient option, all this without having to go look the sender up in the corporate phone directory.
At the end of the day, CBC/Radio-Canada's Unified Communications project is all about simplifying, integrating, and elminating assets that have become obsolete, all whilst remaining transparent to users and, in turn, simplifying their lives as well. All of these goals have the added benefit of reducing the Corporation's maintenance and communication costs, as well as providing a welcome boost to the ability of our employees to work in sync by increasing the agility and fluidity of our communications.
The Unified Communications project is a key element of the Technology Strategy Board's vision for communications within CBC/Radio-Canada: it accommodates the infrastructure that is now being implemented as part of the Telecom Expense Reporting & Management Systems and is fully open to any Bring Your Own Device policy that the Corporation might choose to adopt, due to the fact that it is both platform and vendor-agnostic. Most importantly, it does more with less, as it is both substantially less expensive than what we had in place and much better suited to CBC/Radio-Canada's needs, which allows us to focus on what matters most to Canadians: our content.