My Way: WR Grace and Co
Effective communications are essential to Grace, a global chemicals and engineering company with operations in many territories and many different industries; when the company opted for an IP video conferencing solution, its plans certainly did not lack ambition, as its manager of global media networks Guy Welty tells E&T.
Engineering & Technology: How did your partnership with Grace first begin?
Guy Welty: I was actually brought on board to work on conferencing services eight or nine years ago, when we began doing ISDN video conferencing. We started with a couple of units, one in the United States, and one in Germany; and it was found to be very useful as well as cost-saving. We added a few other video sites by ISDN, and shortly after that went ahead and put in our first ISDN video bridge from Polycom. Within three months we'd paid for the bridge completely, which we were very pleased with. From that point on we began to expand out, starting with global audio. As it continued to grow, IP video was coming along, and we were looking for a more cost-effective way to do [the conferencing] because of the volume of calls at some of the locations.
E&T: So the volumes were building?
Welty: That's where Masergy came into the picture. I looked at a handful of vendors and started doing some comparisons. I was impressed with the Masergy folks that I met, and spoke with. Their engineering group was really good, and I decided to use them for the pilot.
E&T: How well did the pilot go?
Welty: We set up a pilot IP test between our Columbia, Maryland headquarters, and our Cambridge, Massachusetts facility. We put some T1s in there for IP video, and we had a very high success rate of calls - unlike ISDN, which is really iffy: sometimes you get connections, sometimes you don't. ISDN is sketchy in some countries - it's really tough to work with… We were really impressed with the Masergy solution, and so began to start deploying IP video where it was cost-effective for us and we're still continuing to increase its roll-out. Currently, we have about 83 video units globally, across 40-something locations and about half of these are IP-based.
E&T: Is the plan to change them all over to IP eventually?
Welty: Ultimately the goal will be to move everything to IP because of the reliability and total cost savings. The biggest problem for [Grace] is that in some countries the local loop [connection] costs are astronomical. This is the piece of phone line that is owned by the local telephone company; you have to lease that line from them.
E&T: How does that compare with costs in markets elsewhere in the world?
Welty: We have a facility in Dubai and we were going to install IP there, but although Masergy's costs were insignificant the local loop wanted US$50,000 a month. In some areas of China the local loops were going for $10,000 and $12,000 a month. It's a little hard, especially in these economic times, to justify something like that. But what we're beginning to see is a trend where countries are now bringing those down, and a lot of them have cut [those original figures] in half. We expect that to continue as traffic increases, as vendors negotiate better deals with the carriers in country, based on their volume of traffic.
E&T: Did you try out any other providers before Masergy?
Welty: I did some very small tests with a few other companies, and was just not happy with the service or the dealings that I had with them, so I wrote them off very quickly.
E&T: And that's why Grace went with Masergy?
Welty: I picked it because of my experience working with its engineers during the beta testing between the two sites. Any question I had it was instantly on to it for me. The other thing I liked was when you call into its support, you're not getting someone reading from a cue card, you're actually getting someone who knows what they're doing. That impressed me.
E&T: But you're bound to get a good response while a service provider is angling to win business, aren't you?
Welty: It was that way during the beta, and that way ever since. Masergy takes [service] all the way up to the front door of your network. It manages everything internally, bringing it right up to our connection going into our switch. You can't buy that any more in today's economy. Most businesses don't have that philosophy of really taking care of the customer.
As far as response time, and being attentive to your needs, they're the best I've ever dealt with. These guys are so proactive, a lot of time they're reporting something before I can even log in to check it. They're also very good at trying to find the best way to optimise paths for the traffic to improve the service. They've done a bunch of moves for us recently in Asia, working with the telcos there to find a better path for delivery of the IP video to increase reliability.
E&T: All the same, that's not going to deter competitors from trying to win you across.
Welty: I still have vendors all the time now trying to woo me, and I will not move. I've looked at a few of them, and to be honest they can't deliver what Masergy is doing. They're not doing it, so they're not going to get my money.
E&T: Okay, so the service is great; but what about the implementation? How straightforward was that?
Welty: It was truly plug-and-play, unlike Microsoft software where you plug-and-play with it until you get it to work.
E&T: Can you give an example of that?
Welty: We just brought on a new site in Spain, and made our first official call today. We fired it up when the (T-Carrier) was put in, plugged in the Masergy router, and within three or four minutes we had video traffic passing on it.
E&T: So how far towards the end-goal of global IP video capabilities are you?
Welty: We have about half of our video units on IP now, and the goal is to get them all there. It's really going to be based on the economy as to when it deploys. Unfortunately, everything took such a downturn with the collapse of the banking industry, so that's really put a strain on a lot of companies for expanding. We've been fortunate that we just brought this latest site online, as the company sees that we can justify the saving, so they're happy to move forward with these projects.
E&T: With respect to cost-management, roll-out is only the beginning of the story isn't it?
Welty: Looking forward we're going to continue to push roll-out, but for us the main test - like every company right now - is providing support, helping the company save money and get through the tough economic times. I think everybody's focus is on that right now, just trying to provide the best service they can to help the bottom line of the company.
E&T: Aside from this primary project, what are your responsibilities within Grace?
Welty: We provide the IP audio conferencing globally, both the Davison and Construction divisions. My group is actually within corporate communications and the electronic media group. We handle all the conferencing, all the video streaming. We provide that on our network service, streaming to the various locations for events and playback.
E&T: How many staff are you responsible for; and how do you delegate the work?
Welty: That's what's kind of amazing; we have a small team. I have a bridge operator in Shanghai, who runs night calls, then I have three other people here in the United States and that is my entire team, globally. [As a team] we're here 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
The reliability of the network, the reliability of the products that we use, means we're able to achieve what we have with a small, skeleton-type staff which a lot of people scratch their heads at. We do upwards of 1,500 to 2,000 audio and video calls per month with a staff of six people. Pretty impressive.
E&T: Managing that number of calls must keep you busy.
Welty: It keeps us busy, but we still have a good time, and it's very manageable. I have been lucky that I've been able to find young people that are very eager to learn over the years, and great at giving feedback and suggestions.
E&T: So with your background being so varied, was your knowledge of IT and communications technologies self-taught?
Welty: Sure. Grace was having trouble getting the ISDN video equipment to work, so it asked me to come on board, and I said absolutely. I hadn't done video-conferencing with ISDN before that point.
My background was in television production, I taught for a while at a community college, ran a cable television station, but I'd never done video-conferencing. Fortunately I'm a quick learner, and swiftly (worked out how to get it) up and running. They then said: "Hey, can we do this like TV, with multiple cameras?" I said, "Sure".
E&T: Were you really totally confident that you could make it happen?
Welty: Again, a little bit of ignorance there, and not knowing any better I went ahead and built the system. I designed it around the mentality that you'd use here in the United States for a community college with very low funding, so we built it out of components ourselves. I brought switches and pieces of equipment that I knew I could put together and get to work, and it did.
E&T: How many cameras are we talking about here?
Welty: We started with a four-camera multi-shoot facility, and that's how the video units began to get deployed out, once the conferencing concept got to a certain mass.
It was an interesting path to go from a background in television production to this with IP video. Similarly with the network, the network topography we have is separate from the data network. The network that I have for video-conferencing isn't a total separate network, it's an overlay. I basically taught myself, and designed it over the last 10 years.
E&T: There must be a strong element of convergence in all this. How has this impinged on your learning curve?
Welty: I've learned firewalls, I've learned to program routers and switches. It's been a very interesting and rewarding experience, growing and developing. I've learned a lot from folks on the networking side too. I've been very fortunate with [video-conference solutions vendor] Polycom: we've been a beta tester for it for eight years. And we literally have beta tested every product - even done a lot of alpha testing of raw source code for it. So again, I'm working directly with engineers, and I got to experience and learn a whole lot first hand from the people who really make things happen.
E&T: In your role, what information have you found hardest to find when it comes to things you need to do the job?
Welty: For me it hasn't been a challenge. I've developed relationships with companies that have experts very willing to share with me because I've provided support for them. I guess I've been fortunate. They also help guide me through some of the landmines I may have to deal with, making decisions around what and how we deploy.
So, for me the knowledge gathering hasn't been tough, but very few people have a relationship like this with these companies, so I've been very fortunate.
E&T: What about sourcing information from the public domain?
Welty: I do a lot of researching on Cisco's website - just general knowledge researching. I use Cisco switches, so I spend a lot of time on there looking at that. My search engine of choice is not Google, it's Yahoo. I get better results, I don't know why. Maybe it's the way I structure my keyword searches, but for me I get many more reliable hits when I'm looking for something on Yahoo than I do with Google.
E&T: What do you think of Google?
Welty: Google to me seems to be a waste - I can never find anything using Google. That's just the reality. It may be a structural thing, they way I think, process, and word things, but somehow [Yahoo] just does a better job.