Modernizing telecommunication at Fermilab

Rob Roser

Rob Roser

As we well know from our experiments studying tiny particles, just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it isn’t a big deal. Today’s column is focused on our unified communications strategy for the next year. This includes telecommunications, networking and conferencing systems, all of which are behind the scenes, but vital to lab operations.

The laboratory phone system, with its decade-old copper phone-switching gear in the Wilson Hall basement, must be replaced. AT&T has made it clear that they do not wish to support it after our present contract expires in a few years, and if they must, the price tag will be millions of dollars. Consequently, Computing is planning to modernize our phone system leveraging the state-of-the-art and now common “voice over internet protocol” (VOIP).

Using this technology, phone signals within the laboratory will travel over our networking infrastructure rather than the existing traditional copper cables. Replacing all the copper phone lines is a very expensive proposition. To control costs, we do not plan to immediately replace individual desktop handsets with VOIP-style phones. Instead, we will make a digital-to-analog conversion just as the main phone signals enter Wilson Hall, enabling us to use the existing copper phone wires and telephones. As floors in the building get modernized, so will the phone systems on those upgraded floors. New buildings, like the Integrated Engineering Research Center, would start out with full VOIP technology. Plans for other buildings are still to be determined but will be converted to full VoIP only where appropriate and if the costs make sense.

Making this move provides several advantages to the Fermilab community. First and foremost, we will be able to continue to have reliable and economical phone service going forward. In addition, those that so choose can deploy a “soft phone” option, which enables individuals who are connected to the Fermilab network to configure their desk phone to ring on a laptop or cellular device. With the soft phone, you can be anywhere in the world and still receive your office phone calls. And all of this should occur without any phone service interruption.

The second significant behind-the-scenes change coming up is that we are adding new network firewalls. While transparent to the Fermilab and its larger scientific community, these devices will provide greater segmentation between our business systems and scientific mission. As cyber adversaries get increasingly sophisticated, we must continue to modernize to properly protect our digital assets while facilitating the open nature of scientific research.

The final major change in our unified communications strategy is to review our existing audio and web conferencing system (ReadyTalk) and see if it remains the appropriate choice for the lab. Our goal is to continue to provide a reliable conferencing service while reducing our costs by several hundred thousand dollars each year. The major change in any new service will be the elimination of toll-free phone numbers. Otherwise, it should be a seamless transition. We expect to start the vendor bidding process within the next month.

Over the next year, these changes to our unified communications services, though not always noticeable, will provide long-term reliability in a cost effective manner.

Rob Roser is the Fermilab chief information officer.