VoIP Provider PAETEC Solves Disaster Vulnerability Puzzle

Geographic Redundancy solution places IP communications eggs in multiple baskets.

By Adam Stone | Posted Dec 21, 2007
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A recent announcement by PAETEC Holding Corp. and Alcatel-Lucent may point toward a new generation of solutions intended to safeguard VoIP performance against calamity, whether it be a simple power outages or a catastrophic hurricane.

The Geographic Redundancy solution promises to keep traffic ever on the move, by placing all switching capability in two physically separate locations. In the case of PAETEC, that would be just outside Rochester, N.Y. and in Chicago, Ill.

"We took something that was potentially an extremely rare occurrence, something that likely would not happen in any given year, and made it even that much more improbable," said Sanjay Hiranandani, vice president of engineering at PAETEC.

Even if a major crash never hits, PAETEC still is eager to demonstrate the stability of its service to an ever-expanding client base. The carrier has 42 Alcatel-Lucent 5ESS switches from Boston to Anaheim and serves about 47,000 business customers, from mid-sized businesses to larger institutions including Ivy League universities and major hospitals across the country.

The question of reliability has surfaced repeatedly as the company has courted clients new to the VoIP space.

"Our customers would ask us: What if you lose your call control? What if you lose the center of your network?" Hiranandani said. The company could assure that calls in progress would remain connected: Voice traffic, once in the IP world, needs no further controlling. But what of the ability to initiate calls? That could be harder to achieve if, say, a backhoe cut vital fiber or an ice storm took out the power.

A lot rides on finding a solution to that scenario. As Hiranandani put it, 20 minutes of downtime in a major city could cost the company a million dollars or more.

PAETEC worked with Alcatel-Lucent for 14 months to come up with a system that Hiranandani says can restore calling capability in a matter of seconds.

That kind of reliability is a natural corollary to the performance levels users have come to take for granted in the realm of traditional telephony, said to Mike Cooper, vice president of marketing and strategy in the convergence business group at Alcatel-Lucent.

"This is just a continuation of the very high reliability of the present telecommunications infrastructure moving into the next generation," he said.

A level of redundancy already exists in most VoIP equipment, Cooper noted. On a given shelf, duplicate blades stand side by side to ensure continuous operation.

But what if the shelf itself runs into trouble? Redundant blades don't help in that case.

Hence the notion of geographic redundancy—an entire, physically remote, duplicate switching center waiting on standby until it is called into service. At PAETEC the back-up unit can be brought into play manually if operators see the system failing.

Alternately, the handoff can happen automatically if the system itself detects trouble—for example if multiple gateways stop responding for a preset length of time. It's not meant to be a hair trigger, but rather a response to systemic collapse. "If there is just one gateway we cannot reach, maybe it means we have a power outage in New York city or a building on fire in Baltimore, so we don't want to trigger on a single gateway," Hiranandani said.

In addition to keeping the system running, the Alcatel-Lucent solution is equipped to keep billing records alive and well during whatever crisis might be at hand.

"Billing is a big deal," Hiranandani said. "You may lose service to 100 customers, but if those 100 customers are major businesses all across the country, and you cannot collect their billing records, that can be a major lost opportunity for us."

Looking ahead, Cooper said Alcatel-Lucent likely would market the redundancy concept to the largest telecom providers, as well as to a broad swath of mid-tier players. He suggested such providers may be eager to see such solution, especially as the physical footprint of their networks becomes increasingly compact.

"Would you really want to trust the reliability of a network that exists all in one room? The answer in the industry is, probably not. Clearly the telcos are not comfortable with that idea," he said.

Moreover, the promise of continuity remains a strong selling point for carriers looking to ensure the world that VoIP's stability is on a par with that delivered routinely by traditional telephony. "The whole idea with these large networks is to give quality of service. The whole value proposition includes a guaranteed level of responsiveness," Cooper said.

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