MCI's Call Centers Move to NT 4.0

The NT architecture team is leading the way

In the fiercely competitive arena of global telecommunications, a company has to win and keep new customers. MCI Telecommunications continues to expand its core long-distance business while developing new and emerging markets. Windows NT is a key technology component in the company's aggressive $18.5 billion strategy to capture market share in paging, Internet, and specialized business services as well as in the $100 billion US market for local phone service. Founded in 1968 and headquartered in Washington, DC, MCI ranks 59th in the 1996 FORTUNE 500. About 55,000 employees work in 300 offices worldwide.

In 1995, MCI started an ambitious migration to NT 4.0 in 20 call centers across the US. The migration is part of an ongoing improvement process that includes upgrading MCI's NT 3.51 architecture to NT 4.0 in call centers that have already migrated, and installing new NT 4.0 workstations and servers in those that have not migrated.

"MCI needed a secure, manageable operating system (OS) platform for the 17,000-plus seats in our call centers," said Craig Ashapa (see "Interview with Craig Ashapa") manager of NT architecture-mass markets, MCI, Atlanta, Georgia. "The call center is MCI's primary vehicle for marketing new products and services to both current and prospective customers as well as for providing a high level of customer service to existing customers."

About 400 to 1000 sales and service representatives work at a typical call center. They conduct outbound telemarketing sales, handle inbound sales generated from ad campaigns, and answer customer service calls. Redundant T1 or DS3 lines connect each call center to MCI's main WAN/metropolitan area network.

"Before MCI went with the NT solution, it was mostly an OS/2 shop," said Ashapa. "The customer service applications ran on about 6000 OS/2 machines. But it was clear that industry support for OS/2 was waning, while support for NT was beginning to explode." So MCI decided to migrate to NT because of its industry support, systems security, application development, systems configurability and manageability, and compatibility with other systems.

Migration Takes a Team Effort
An NT architecture team, with members in Atlanta, Georgia, and Colorado Springs, Colorado, spearheads MCI's migration effort. The team is responsible for not only deploying NT, but also for managing enterprisewide systems, supporting third-level systems, documenting systems, and managing vendor relations. The team has migrated 4000 terminals to NT and configured more than 80 NT servers. The team continues to implement architecture migrations in the remaining call centers.

The NT architecture team spends a great deal of time planning, designing, pilot testing, and deploying migration techniques. After deployment, the team refines the migration process so that it can apply the improved process to the next assignment.

Although the architecture team is NT-savvy, it can't do everything by itself. "Various groups are involved in the overall systems implementation," said Ashapa. "The NT architecture team works with application developers, database architects and administrators, network architects and administrators, and call center support staff. Each person provides a piece of the overall architecture puzzle. Successful implementation of the NT solution depends on each piece fitting together."

The migration process occurs in several phases to reduce or eliminate downtime. First, MCI installs the servers. A typical call center features four to six Compaq ProLiant 5000R, 4500R, or 2500R multiprocessor, rack-mount servers with up to 512MB of RAM. Mass storage includes Compaq SMART-2 Array Controllers in RAID-5 with hot-swap spares, numerous (as many as 17) 4.3GB to 9.1GB drives, and Compaq DLT backup drives. Gammalink Fax boards and 100 Mbit Ethernet complete the hardware.

Specific configurations vary according to server roles, which might include domain control and systems management; file, application, and print serving; Web intranet services; fax and email services; and, of course, telephony. "The telephony applications servers interface with the MCI sales application, Oracle database, and a dialer/switch for coordinating the autodialing capabilities of the sales application," said Ashapa. "NT has provided a robust, stable, manageable platform for this component of the architecture." Existing servers run NT Server 3.51 Service Pack 5 (SP5), but MCI is upgrading these to NT Server 4.0. New servers run NT 4.0.

In the next phase, hardware personnel install new workstations beside the old machines after call center business hours. The call center's frontline workstation is the Compaq DeskPro 6000 (models 5166, 5200, or XL 5133) with 32MB of RAM and a 1GB to 2GB hard disk. A Matrox Millennium graphics card drives a 17" Compaq monitor to round out the typical workhorse machine. About 400 to 1000 of these NT 3.51 or NT 4.0 machines populate a call center.

After the servers and workstations are installed, the NT architecture team tests, configures, and loads OS software images. The release of NT 4.0 has made the team's job much easier. "For the migration of existing or new hardware before the release of NT 4.0, the NT architecture team had to develop and test specific OS configurations," said Ashapa. "Each machine architecture needed a unique NT 3.51 image developed to support various hardware configurations, such as video cards, IDE or SCSI, and Token Ring or Ethernet." The team built the required software images, stored them on a server, and used Microsoft tools (UPLODPRF.EXE and WINNTP.EXE) to distribute them to the respective machines. After distribution, the team used Systems Management Server (SMS) 1.2 SP2 to complete the system configurations.

"With NT 4.0," Ashapa said, "the team has developed a universal image that supports any workstation, regardless of hardware architecture. Along with the universal image, the team has incorporated many of the post-imaging configurations, streamlining the process even further. As a result of this universal image, the team gets to spend the majority of its time on implementation and rollout techniques."

It takes about a week to install, configure, and deploy the NT 4.0 server at a call center, according to Ashapa. The NT architecture team trains the call center operations staff during the rollout. After all systems are operational, a corporate training group provides basic Windows instruction to the sales and service representatives.

"The sales and service representatives have responded enthusiastically to the NT GUI," said Ashapa. "They really love it. Much more information is available to the representatives, so it helps them in their jobs quite a bit."

MCI administers the call centers both locally (through on-site NT administrators) and remotely (through the NT architecture team). "Each call center has several NT administrators on site," said Ashapa. "In addition, the NT architecture team uses SMS 1.2 SP2 for software distribution, system configurations and modifications, version control and inventory, remote control, and systems diagnostics. The team releases system enhancements or upgrades a few times a month to all workstations. With SMS, the team runs Compaq Insight Manager for progressive monitoring of servers. Team members also take advantage of tools in the NT and BackOffice resource kits, along with tools they've developed."

Migration Brings Benefits and Challenges
Because of the NT architecture team's continual refinement of the NT implementation and rollout techniques, the migration of the remaining call centers will occur at an increasingly accelerated pace. The team will likely finish the migration during the first half of 1998.

Although the migration isn't finished, MCI is already realizing the benefits. "With the migration to NT and the numerous hardware and network improvements," he observes, "MCI will have a universal architecture that will be able to support any function, at any call center, at any time. From the first deployment to the most recent, MCI has had nearly 100 percent uptime on NT."

NT is also helping MCI reduce costs. "NT's standardization saves MCI a tremendous amount of development and support costs," said Ashapa. "Each call center only needs two or three NT administrators to successfully support it. This ratio is unheard of in the industry."

With its benefits, NT brought an entirely new set of systems management variables and challenges. "With NT, the team applies sales applications or OS changes to thousands of workstations," said Ashapa. "That's completely different from releasing a single change to old VMS boxes. If an NT release were to fail, recovery would require tremendous resources. For this reason, the team conducts testing, pilot releases, and beta implementations to ensure systems integrity."

As for the challenges, Ashapa noted that NT 4.0 has some weaknesses, such as the lack of enterprise directory services and stability problems with Service Packs. "However, you can overcome both of these with proper planning and testing," said Ashapa. "In addition, NT will only get better in the coming years with new technologies and features, such as clustering, Distributed File System, Active Directory, and the Zero Administration Windows initiative."

MCI's 17,000-plus workstations in its 20 call centers need a high degree of security, manageability, data integrity, flexibility, speed, and OS reliability. Windows NT provides security and remote management capabilities through NT 3.51 mandatory profiles and NT 4.0 system policies and mandatory profiles. The AutoAdminLogon Registry feature guarantees that all machines are manageable at all times.

NT's many GUI features let MCI customer sales and service representatives minimize efforts while increasing productivity. NT's standardized architecture and hardware prevent inadvertent OS modifications, provide progressive support, greatly reduce downtime, and let administrators quickly deploy enhancements and upgrades.
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