Anthony Holloway, CCIE No. 45633

Collaboration Migration

Let’s face it, time flies like a fruit…err…an arrow. Or was it a banana? The point is, Unified Communication (UC) systems often hum along in the datacenter, dutifully, for years, while maintenance contracts approach expiration, and original design practices are barely holding on. The output of your screen is showing 1,544 days of uptime, and you realize that you haven’t been keeping up with patch Tuesday for over four years. It’s time to make a call to your trusted Cisco partner, and begin the process of upgrading.

This seemingly tongue in cheek look at what might be happening out there, is actually an all too common scenario we see in the real world. I’d like to walk you through our process of helping out real businesses, migrate off of legacy hardware and end of life software versions, for a modern and feature rich system. For the duration of this article, let’s pretend that four years ago you acquired your very first Cisco UC system, running on bare metal, and would like to move to virtualization, and Cisco’s latest and greatest Collaboration System Release (CSR) version 11. What does that process look like?

In a typical UC system, or now otherwise called Collaboration system, we’re looking at replacing the hardware for the servers which run the applications we depend on. We’re also looking at the silent heroes converting analog and digital signals to IP packets, the voice gateways. For the purposes of this article, I will not talk about replacing IP Phones, despite there being a whole new line of 7800 and 8800 series phones; however, coming up in a later section we will take a look at some newer softphone capabilities which I think you’ll find interesting.

Cisco introduced UCS to the world in 2009, but it wasn’t until around 2011 or so that running Collaboration applications on UCS was supported. Even then, there were tight restrictions on which applications could run in VMWare, and whether or not you could run co-resident applications on the same platform. Cisco now requires you to run your applications virtualized. That’s right, they no longer support bare metal installations; it’s a thing of the past.

This is actually good news, in fact, it’s great news! Cisco UCS C-series datacenter servers are small, 1 or sometimes 2 Rack Unit (RU) systems, with very modern amenities and ample computing power. In fact, Cisco’s flagship Business Edition 6000 solution, runs on a single C220 with enough horse power to control 2,500 endpoints, provide 1,000 users with dial-tone, voicemail, voicemail in your email, instant messaging, desktop and room based video calls, auto attendant menu systems, call center queuing, multicast paging and more! Need more capacity? Then look no further than the Business Edition 7000, which can scale to tens of thousands of users!

Aside from all the newer, fancier tech packed into these small chassis, there is a hidden benefit when migrating from bare metal to virtualization, and that’s the ability to stage the new platform in parallel with the current production system. This enables engineering teams to design and build a stable platform from which the system will rise, without the need for lengthy, risk laden outage windows, impacting your business operations.

The same can be said about Cisco’s new 4000 series routers, which have superseded the 2900/3900 series routers of 2009, and have been available as replacements since 2014. These new routers pack new hardware modules with more capacity and density all in a completely new architecture, where the operating system is modular by design for the perfect blend of performance and fault isolation. Don’t be worried though, as impressive as its internals are, it still runs an IOS (albeit the new IOS-XE) as familiar to you as the day you purchased your first 2600.

Like the parallel installation of the new UCS in your environment, these new routers you’ve purchased can also go live on the network, running in perfect harmony with your existing system, just waiting to accept production traffic for their very first time. If you are currently on, and planning to stick with Primary Rate Interface (PRI) circuits during this upgrade, we would schedule a test migration of the circuits prior to the bigger migration, just to set ourselves up with a level of confidence, and address any issues prior to the cut.

If however, you’re taking this opportunity to also migrate away from digital circuit switch networks, to the modern Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) over your existing packet switched network, then even better! Because we can have your PSTN access 100% functional and tested, prior to accepting the porting of your business telephone numbers, with a set of test Direct Inward Dialing (DID) numbers. If you haven’t looked in to SIP trunking before, or maybe you have but are not quite sure it’s right for you, we’ll be covering this topic and much more in future articles.

On to the software, or applications, or programs. What are we calling these things these days? Apps? OK, apps. Most of the legacy systems we are running in to really only leverage three, or maybe four Cisco voice apps: CallManager, providing dial-tone; Unity (or Unity Connection), providing voice mail; Emergency Responder, providing E911; and Contact Center Express, providing call center functionality.

However, in Cisco’s lineup for 2015 there is so much more available. Some of which comes by way of completely new apps, and others by way of feature enhancements, within the apps we already know and love. To name a few, we have: Communications Manager (formerly CallManager) now offering video endpoints, mobility enabled remote workers, and PIN protected audio bridges; Instant Messaging & Presence for Cisco Jabber messaging, softphone video on the desktop, desktop screen sharing, and BYOD support; Unity Connection adds Unified Messaging with Exchange and Web Inbox; Paging for sending notifications across multicast enabled IP Phones; Expressway for Collaboration at the edge of your network, providing remote workers access to collaboration services while away from the enterprise, as well as adding direct business to business video enablement with your strategic partners and customers alike; Contact Center adds a new reporting client with customization built-in, and an all new web based Agent desktop; and finally Emergency Responder, which is still doing what it has always done, helping save live with proper 911 routing. Hey, it has a very serious job to do, so we’ll let him slide.

Additionally, legacy Cisco solutions come with an associated cost if you want redundancy. In nearly all of the newer versions of these apps, redundancy comes for free, you need only to provide the compute resources for them to run on. That’s a huge bonus when you think about the mission critical role your communications system plays in your organization. Or how about the peace of mind when it comes time to perform those oft-forgotten patches, and a reboot of a single system doesn’t equal downtime. As a part of this bug project, let’s go ahead and get those redundant systems setup and working for you; it only makes sense.

Users of CSR version 11 will be more enabled than ever before, to collaborate whenever and where ever, but most importantly from whichever device they choose. From browser to board room, Cisco has your user base covered with solutions able to make audio calls, video calls, join cloud based meeting rooms, and share content. With the Cisco Jabber instant messaging client, you can do all of these things, in a simple to use, stunningly beautiful, cross platform application. The best part is, most of those features come free right out of the box! And did I mention it’s good looking too? You have to see it.

Cisco has also released a new line of apps to help you in the ongoing operations of your system. Prime Collaboration is developing into a robust set of tools to help your staff monitor, maintain, and operate your Collaborations solution. From monitoring resource consumption and availability, to auto-provisioning endpoints for new hires, the suite of apps which makes up Prime Collaboration can do just about anything.

Next up comes the hardest part in the whole journey; migrating your data across platforms. Actually, it’s not so much that moving the data is hard, because we simply move data bit by bit, creating an exact copy from source to destination. This does mean however, that in under no known circumstances, is there a tool available which will automatically audit your system configuration and make recommendations to either improve system stability or prevent a future fault. And now it gets tricky.

You have probably heard of the adage: garbage in, garbage out. That’s where things stop being technical, and the art in all of this comes in. We have the experience necessary to look at a system and identify key areas of trouble, and provide best practice recommendations to remedy them. Sure, we can skip all of that, and just migrate the data. I hear some of you out there saying, “Hey, it’s working now, so why do we need to change it?” Well, the truth is, you’re right. In almost 100% of all cases we see, a data migration onto a new platform, is not going to break the system.

However, our thorough process of system discovery and documentation will address these key points, and a decision can be made en masse, or point-by-point on how we’ll proceed. We often even split the work effort with IT staff and tackle them together. Anything from cleaning up disk space to ensure patches can be applied prior to migration, to purging old data to minimize data loss or corruption during transfer. Our proven track record for successful migrations show us that now is the right time to look at current designs and potential pitfalls, and address them properly so that your new system is running as smoothly as it ought to be.

Once the data is safely stored within the apps running on the new hardware, we can begin testing out the various functions which are critical to a successful upgrade. To us, acceptance testing is really the key performance indicator of how the upgrade project will be measured. This is our opportunity to validate and confirm the features and functions the business depends on, are available and reliably going to get the job done. We also use this phase of the project to define and refine our processes for the actual migration to the new system. For example, we may need to run a few permutations on client software deployment strategies, before we land on the perfect balance of work effort and risk mitigation. Or another scenario might be to test out or phone migration plan on a pilot group.

In that last scenario, test devices will be identified to come over to the new side, and our migration strategy put to the test. We typically spend a week on average in this stage, testing out various functions and leveraging IT staff, if present, to facilitate in certain tests. Whether that is coordinating the testing efforts with the various business stake holders, or actually running with the client software installation procedures. Whatever the role, it’s an important partnership we have with the IT staff, one which relies on mutual respect and a common goal for excellence.

If we’ve introduced any new user interfaces in this phase, now would be the time to train the users, answer their questions, and make enhancements to the system. Often times I hear, “Anthony, it’s just a phone, how hard can it be?” The reality is, phone systems today are nothing like they use to be. From phone number formats changing to +E.164, to video being available to every user, it’s a whole new ball game, and we’re happy to coach. When the users are comfortable and happy, the customers are comfortable and happy; especially in a call center environment.

With the new hardware in place, apps configured, data migrated, functionality verified, what’s left to do? Oh right, go live on the new platform! Ok, so this is it, the moment of truth. We’re about to flip the big switch and begin routing production traffic over an already tested, well designed, modern system. We change the DHCP scope Option 150 to point to the new platform, and reset the phones. In about 30 minutes all of the phones are registered to the new system, and we’re live! It’s that easy. Now, we just need to perform a system checkout, and obtain your sign-off and we’re done.

When the work is complete, and the new system is now humming along in your datacenter, happily processing production traffic, we then prepare for first day curve balls which may come our way. It’s not uncommon for at least a few reports of strangeness to occur the day after a major migration like this. And rightfully so. Senses are heightened simply because of the knowledge that the migration took place, and we’re all holding our breath waiting to see if all of our planning and prior prep work has made us successful.

When calls, emails, or tickets arrive, we’re right there with you, helping to understand, diagnose, and respond to all inquiries. Sometimes, all it takes is a switch to a setting to resolve an issue, but by and large our earlier efforts will pay off, and no major events will surprise us on this day, or the next. We’re happy you’re enjoying your newly refreshed Collaboration system, and that’s what keeps us coming back to work every; helping others achieve their goals, in the best way we know how.