GST Corp

Adding VoIP to its VPN gave Transportation and logistics company GST Corp. a more stable, scalable network at a substantial cost savings.

February 27, 2004

8 Min Read
Network Computing logo

Voice gets priority delivery on GST's VPN, which replaced the outsourced frame relay WAN service used for data and the PSTN for voice. The Cisco Systems V3PN (voice and video enabled VPN) network separates voice and data logically so the voice network doesn't talk to the data network and vice versa. This configuration protects the voice network from computer viruses and other threats. GST is swapping out its nearly 30 PBXs for Cisco's CallManager VoIP software.

The draw for GST was the ability to manage its growing network centrally. "Anyone can open up new locations, but if you're not careful, the cost of managing your network can double and triple [as it grows]," Meewes says. That's why the internal VPN with integrated voice and data was the way to go. "I save money by having my own staff remotely manage it, and we reduce any interruptions to business," he says.

GST also is shifting gears from its roots--mostly in truck to rail to truck, also called intermodal, delivery--to an even split between intermodal and truck-only delivery, Meewes says. The company hopes to hit $700 million in revenue in 2005 through regional expansion and by moving more of its business onto the highways, now the hot spot for freight transportation. It currently has 33 sites around the country and handles shipments and deliveries for Hitachi, Procter & Gamble, Toyota and other big companies.

Making It Mesh

With the new VPN, GST brought its network in-house. The goal was a hub-and-spoke data architecture for management and security reasons, and then a fully meshed voice architecture. But earlier this year, when the IT group began configuring the routers and voice equipment with Cisco's GRE/IPsec VPN tunnels for the peer-to-peer meshed architecture, the company found out the hard way that voice just wouldn't mesh. "Manually building a meshed network with GRE/IPsec tunnels was not a scalable [strategy]," says Jason Smith, lead engineer for GST. "We were going to have to configure an enormous number of tunnels."That's nearly 1,000 individual voice tunnels, to be exact, so that GST's sites could place calls directly to one another without forcing the calls to be routed through the data center. GST considered writing a script that would create router configurations for each site dynamically, but that never got off the ground because GST's lower-end Cisco 1760 routers didn't have the horsepower to support all the tunnel interfaces, Smith says. And Cisco's DMVPN (Dynamic Multipoint VPN) feature in its routers, for building the meshed VPN, doesn't yet work with Cisco V3PN. Cisco's CallManager currently supports only a hub-and-spoke environment, though Cisco plans to add support for meshed networks, too.

"Until that's complete, companies can't take full advantage of having calls sent directly between two sites for fear of oversubscribing the real-time, low-latency queue with voice calls," Smith says.

The trade-off with this approach is a bandwidth drain at the hub site, where the calls are routed initially. And the Cisco 7206 VPN routers have to decrypt, re-encrypt and then send out the voice packets arriving at the hub site. For now, though, the DS-3 pipe at headquarters is plenty, Smith says, so there's no performance problem. Still, GST would like to get its voice network fully meshed to eliminate a single point of failure.

The existing architecture is ideal for GST's data traffic, however. "The spokes are prevented from communicating with each other, so network-aware viruses can't spread rapidly throughout the company," Smith says.

Quality, Not QuantityVoice gets priority delivery at GST. Phone traffic over the LAN is a no-brainer, thanks to GST's gigabit backbone, and GST uses quality-of-service parameters there just to prevent bursts of voice traffic from clogging buffers and then dropping packets. It's in the WAN where QoS is most crucial. GST uses Cisco's Class-Based Weighted Fair Queuing/Low-Latency Queuing feature in its internal 1760 and 3725 routers, and built-in QoS features in its Cisco Catalyst 3550 and 6509 switches for prioritizing voice at the edge and the core.

The trick was ensuring that Cisco's QoS matched that of GST's Internet provider, AT&T. GST chose an AT&T CoS (class-of-service) profile that supported its real-time voice traffic, Smith says, giving voice 50 percent of the pipe and top billing. Synchronizing the QoS parameters was straightforward, since AT&T uses Cisco equipment in its backbone.

Next in line for bandwidth and delivery is network management and upcoming video traffic. "At this point, we don't treat any other applications besides these as critical," Smith says.

But voice isn't the end of the road for GST's VPN. Next year the company will add videoconferencing to the network to save on travel expenses to customer sites. "That allows our salespeople to connect and do demonstrations of our supply-chain solutions via videoconferencing, too," Meewes says.

And video will be easier to deploy than voice, Smith says, because it's not as sensitive to packet loss or delay. Still, GST will likely need to allocate a larger percentage of its bandwidth to the "high" class for video, he says. For now, it's at 25 percent, which is about 384 Kbps of a full T1 (1.54 Mbps) pipe.The company also is considering integrating its employees' wireless phones and handheld devices with the VPN, and it may add voice recognition within the next five years.

Tell us about you Network and we may profile it in a future issue. Send e-mail to [email protected] or call (516) 562-5914.

Post a comment or question on this story.

Donald Meewes

Donald Meewes: Senior VP and CIO, GST Corp., Memphis Tenn.

Donald Meewes, 51, is responsible for all IT activities at GST, a Memphis-based transportation and logistics company. His tasks include managing the IT department, purchasing equipment, developing applications, providing user support and running the company's integrated voice and data VPN. He's been with the company for 18 years and in IT for 14 years. Meewes holds a bachelor's degree in business administration and management from Southwest State University in Minnesota, as well as several technical certifications, including Novell, Microsoft Networks, SQL DBA, C/C++ and Java.

Next time, I'll: Learn something like yoga, so every time I sit in a status meeting about how long it will take to get new circuits and phone IDs ported over, I will keep calm.Biggest mistake made in IT: Not aligning technology with the business.

Most ill-timed VPN outage: Within 30 days of installing the data VPN at our Garland [Texas] facility, our service provider suffered a major line cut that took the office down for four hours. Nice way to start out our VPN. Since that time, we have gone over 24 months without any significant data outages. Knock on wood; we've had no voice outages at all.

In-house versus outsourcing the network: In-house, we tend to operate with a sense of urgency. Outsourcing: I'll let you draw your own conclusions.

For fun: Visiting our granddaughter, daughter and son-in-law in Iowa, attending University of Tennessee and University of Illinois football games with our sons there, and attending our youngest son's sports and school activities. Swimming, water skiing, yard work, home improvement.

Wheels: Honda S2000. Gets me where I need to be when I need to be there. I deny any rumors that I've been spotted on the Nonconnah Expressway driving in excess of 140 miles per hour.Donald Meewes and his IT team at GST produced a foot-high stack of documents and technical drawings for their proposal to company execs on the benefits of VoIP (voice over IP). Among the carefully prepared presentation and background materials was a list of ways that adding voice to the company"s VPN would save GST money"in equipment, conference calls, maintenance and service contracts with AT&T. In the end, it didn"t take all that to seal the deal with GST"s CEO and CFO."It came down to one piece of paper that guaranteed [VoIP] wasn"t going to cost us any money," recalls Meewes, the transportation company"s senior vice president and CIO. "When they saw the substantial savings, the meeting only took a few minutes."

Ironically, Meewes hadn"t really emphasized cost savings in his pitch for VoIP, which had been given the green light before that final meeting at GST"s Memphis headquarters earlier this year."That piece of paper certainly eliminated any doubts," he says. "As we deploy the new VoIP system, if there are any objections, cost savings is always an item that everyone understands."

Meewes" main argument was that adding voice to the VPN would make for a more reliable and scalable network. "I said it would be a better network that would reduce outages, and we could manage it remotely ourselves," he says. When GST built the data VPN two years ago, the plan was to consider adding voice later.

Still, money talks. GST spent about $710,000 for the new voice hardware and maintenance, and expects to save nearly $800,000 next year in voice costs alone. "The savings were a bonus," Meewes says.The toughest part of selling VoIP to company execs was explaining that it wasn"t just a new phone system but rather a whole new infrastructure with more features.

"When I evaluate new technologies," Meewes says, "the first requirement is that it must improve our capabilities."0

Stay informed! Sign up to get expert advice and insight delivered direct to your inbox

You May Also Like

More Insights