2023 Phone System Project – Part 1

My company has used an on-prem Cisco Call Manager and Unity system for years, but due to the challenges of the pandemic in 2020, we rapidly deployed Cisco Jabber to allow employees to work from home. However, the existing system had limitations and often experienced issues with call quality and dropped calls. In 2021, I began researching different options for a new phone system, comparing upgrading the current system, migrating to Zoom Phone, or migrating to Microsoft Teams Phone. Ultimately, the cost savings and simplification of Zoom One, which included both Meetings and Phone in one license, made it the preferred option over upgrading the current system or migrating to Microsoft Teams Phone.

Full story:

The company I work for has used on-prem Cisco Call Manager and Unity for years. Each office has their own voice router and local PRI telco circuit. Each office had their own set of DIDs. Each employee had an internal extension normally configured to reflect the last 4 digits of their 10 digit DID. Then the employee would be assigned a desk phone with the extension. Calls made to the extension or the DID would route directly to the employee desk phone. We forced an outbound caller ID number to be what the main line is for the employee’s respective office.

Then 2020 Covid happened.

Luckily in 2017 we had upgraded our Call Manager environment to support the ability to use Cisco Jabber, a softphone that can be ran our computers and cell phones, even over the internet. When Covid struck, we had maybe less than 10 users actually using Jabber, as there wasn’t much interest in it before then since everyone was in the office. I had to rapidly deploy Cisco Jabber across our couple hundred employees when lockdowns and quarantines started. This was quite a tedious task in Call Manager, but I got the whole company on Jabber in a matter of weeks. Oh I forgot, even though our Call Manager environment was ready for Jabber use, we didn’t have the licensing in place for it. And Cisco looooves their licensing. That was weeks and 10’s of thousands of dollars investment in licensing just to get our organization to be able to even use Jabber.

Ever since 2020, I have configured a desk phone and Jabber for each and every employee (they are seperate configurations that each take a handful of minutes). Our company has hired a large amount of people and brought on many new offices. Each new office meant a migration to a PRI telco circuit and site configuration in Call Manager. It would take sometimes 6 months or more to get a new PRI circuit in place, and many hours in Call Manager configuring the new site. 

All the while, Call Manager itself would be flaky at times. The PRI circuits would be flakey or simply just go down for hours or days. We didn’t have proper redundancy in place within the environment to make it so that if a site PRI went down, that the employee’s phones simply routed to a different office PRI, so if a PRI went down, that whole office phone’s were down. Even if they were using Cisco Jabber from home, because we had their phones route out of their office’s PRI circuit. People would regularly complain of calls dropping, call quality issues, and just a general dissatisfaction with our phones.

Back to 2020. When Covid struck and I spent weeks getting our company set up on Cisco Jabber, I had mentioned that it would be a good idea to consider a cloud-based phone system instead. That way we don’t have to worry about things like this. There was some push back because the perception of cloud-based phone systems was that they were only for small companies with a handful of employees, and they were generally unreliable.

In 2021 I mentioned that I wanted to do a full blown research project into what the best options would be for our organization. So at the beginning of 2022, I started the research and documenting potential costs and features of phone systems.
I landed on comparing the options of: 

1. Upgrading our current phone system
2. Migrating to Zoom Phone
3. Migrating to Microsoft Teams Phone

I was really wanting to use a system that we already had in place, to reduce the friction of change to the company. We had been using Zoom for years even prior to 2020, so we were comfortable with the experience. And we had started using Teams due to Covid. Honestly, the adoption of Teams was not that great within the org. We had some occasional “all-staff” posts, and we had departmental “Teams”, but I think the biggest use case for it was Chat. We even went as far as to disable Zoom Chat to make sure everyone used Teams Chat, for governance and compliance reasons, I believe.

Option 1 was upgrading our current Cisco Call Manager phone system, I knew what it would look like, because I had gone through it back in 2017. It was a massive year-long project that cost a ton of money and had a slew of VAR engineers and project managers and licening and hardware and config change. It was a nightmare. From the time we got a scope of work to the time of project close, it literally was a calendar year. And this was to go from Call Manager 8.6 to 11.5 with 2 physical servers.
I really did not want to go with option 1, and I presented the running cost of our current system since 2017, and it was very high. I will admit that most of the cost came from having individual PRI circuits at every single location, even offices with a few people in them.

Option 2 was to migrate to Zoom Phone. When I first started considering cloud-based phone systems, Zoom was not my #1 choice. I was leaning more towards Microsoft Teams. I did the reasearch anyway. Gathered how much we were already paying Zoom for Meetings, and got MSRP pricing for Zoom Phone. Right in the middle of my research, Zoom rolled out “Zoom One”, which was a license type that included Meetings and Phone in one license. This immediately piqued my interest for the simplification and for the cost savings.

Option 3 was to migrate to Microsoft Teams Phone. I had originally set this out as my #1 choice. I think primarily becuase I thought “hey, we’re already using Teams for chat, why not add calling to it” and because I thought it would be wayyyy cheaper than eanything else. I mean, we already had E3 licensing, it looked like a tiny add-on fee to get the phones! Well turns out that having E3 didn’t mean anything regarding their phones. I even trialed an E5 license because their marketing said “phone system was included!”. What a deal! Seemed like an easy sell to upgrade our licensing to E5 and get all of the other security and compliance improvements and a phone system thrown in for free!
Well, it turns out, the terminology was important here. To Microsoft, the “phone system” was essentially the equivalent to Cisco Call Manager, it doesn’t do anything unless you have a connection to the PSTN. So you would still need to pay a seperate license for a “calling plan” (the connectivity to the PSTN) or get a 3rd party provider to provide your PSTN connectivity.
All of this seemed expensive, complex, and exhausting. That option #2 of “a single license for all video meetings and phones” seemed much more appealing when I started digging into the Microsoft world.

So I started leaning towards migrating to Zoom Phone. I reached out to our rep and started gathering more information about features, pricing, and what a potential roll-out would look like. I got a demo license from Zoom and started seeing what the admin side of Zoom Phone was like. It was amazingly simple, especially for someone who knows what they are doing and hoping to accomplish already. I had multiple sites, auto attendandts, and call queues set up in a very short amount of time. No consultants, engineers, or project managers. Just me and my own understanding and an easy admin interface.

I made an official pitch to have our company migrate to Zoom Phone, got a quote, and we signed the contract.

I will be working on migrating our company over to Zoom Phone office-by-office this year starting now. This is a very exciting project for me and will provide updates as I go.