New Belgium Brews a Potent Unified Communications Combo

IT pros Jay Richardson and Travis Morrison tell how integrated email, presence, conferencing, and VoIP will support the craft brewer’s growth

Executive Summary:

IT leaders at New Belgium Brewing Company decided to migrate to a Microsoft-based unified communications (UC) environment when they realized that their new Cisco Systems VoIP phone system could support UC. The microbrewery’s UC setup--which includes Microsoft Exchange Server 2007, Microsoft Office Outlook 2007, Microsoft Office Communications Server (OCS) and Microsoft Office Communicator 2007, and Microsoft Office Live Meeting--will support business goals by letting the company’s remote sales seamlessly access IM, voice, and Web conferencing, so that they can communicate with corporate headquarters, customers, and business partners more efficiently.

From its start 16 years ago, New Belgium Brewing Company (located down the road from Windows IT Pro headquarters in Loveland, Colorado) has been ahead of the curve in implementing brewing and manufacturing technologies. Nevertheless, New Belgium IT director Jay Richardson and senior systems administrator Travis Morrison hadn’t planned to be early adopters of unified communications (UC), a technology that’s arguably still “emerging.” But while upgrading the company’s phone system to VoIP, they saw an opportunity to implement Microsoft’s UC product suite-Exchange Server 2007, Office Outlook 2007, Office Communications Server (OCS) and Office Communicator 2007, and Live Meeting-to enable employees to more easily interact with each other and with business partners. I recently got a firsthand look at the new UC system, set to go live in November, and talked with Jay and Travis about the system’s business benefits.

Q: Why did you consider a UC solution?

JR: A year ago, we recognized that we were reaching the limits of our current phone system. We had to rely on a service provider in Denver \[to maintain and repair the system\]. We also didn’t like the environmental impact of two hours in a car just to complete a simple 30-minute task. So those considerations pointed us in the direction of VoIP phone systems, and after a fair amount of due diligence, we landed on a Cisco Systems solution.

At about the same time, we decided to move from a Novell- to a Microsoft-based infrastructure. The more we learned about new Microsoft products, like Exchange 2007 and OCS 2007, and their integration with SharePoint and Office 2007, we realized that a lot of the functionality we hoped to enjoy with the new phone system would be enhanced if we migrated to the Microsoft environment. So in July, we put the phone system implementation on hold temporarily and partnered with 3t Systems to migrate to Microsoft.

Then we resumed conversations about rolling out the phone system, and it hit us that with Communicator, we’ve already put a soft phone on every PC in our organization. We were thinking about the coworker experience. It was appealing to us to avoid introducing yet another tool \[to coworkers\]. We certainly didn’t set out to be an early adopter of Microsoft’s UC platform, but the more we started to learn about our new Microsoft environment, the more it made sense to at least give it a shot.

We had conversations with our Microsoft account team and with 3t about the feasibility of using some of Microsoft’s new UC products. And it ended up with all three companies—Microsoft, 3t, and New Belgium—wanting to prove that this Microsoft/Cisco UC environment could really work.

Q: What tasks are users currently doing that UC would make easier?

JR: We have 290 employees, and about 80 to 90 of them are remote workers in our sales force. They all have notebook PCs and work out of their homes. We have another 150 PCs here at the Mothership \[New Belgium headquarters\]. It’s a mix between notebooks and desktops but headed more and more toward notebooks. Coworkers \[often\] strike up impromptu meetings, even when all our meeting rooms are full. We have Wi-Fi in most parts of the building, and coworkers have their notebook PCs with them. UC should enable convenient access to multiple communication modes across these different work location scenarios.

TM: I think what we’re really gaining from the level of integration \[in Microsoft’s UC products\] is how quickly an IM can escalate into a voice call. Then you can video in, open Live Meeting, look at a document \[via Communicator\], and everyone’s looking at the same thing. We also use Live Meeting Server, which gives us the ability to host our own virtual meetings. And once we’ve implemented our OCS 2007 Edge server role, we’ll be able to do enterprise IM and host our own Live Meetings for people outside of the company, complete with our own audio/visual.

JR: One thing that’s especially appealing about Microsoft’s soft phone with Office Communicator is that it ties into Contacts in Outlook and Global Address List details from Active Directory, both of which can be accessed from Windows Mobile devices. From an IT administration standpoint, it means there’s just one place we have to maintain all this information. From a coworker standpoint, it means that the same information is available in many different places. For example, thirty minutes before you came in here, Travis sent me an email that said, “Click on the orb next to my name.” The orb indicated his presence. And \[after I clicked the orb), I \[had the option to\] reply with an IM, start an impromptu meeting with him, call him on his PC, or call him on his mobile phone. One click presented all those options, coming out of AD or my own Outlook contacts.

For IT planning purposes, we have to consider that our company’s growth over the next five years is going to come primarily from greater sales capabilities. Thus the bulk of our new coworkers are going to be remote workers. So we need to have a communications infrastructure that will make it easy for them stay connected with each other and the Mothership, and vice versa.

Today, in order to get in touch with a coworker in our sales force, I have to go to a shared drive, browse to a particular folder, open it, find the Sales Phone List spreadsheet, open the spreadsheet, scroll down, find the person I want to call, and dial \[that person\]. And with this system, I go into my Communicator client, start typing the name, and it lists people in the company that directly match that, and then I right-click and select “call.”

TM: One of the best examples that I can recall is when Jay was at a conference, and we had an issue with a server. He VPN’d in, started a Communicator call with me, enabled video, shared his desktop via a Live Meeting, did a Remote Desktop into the server here, and we both looked at the same desktop. We discovered the issue, fixed it, and were done.

Q: What problems have you encountered in the UC migration?

TM: Most of our hurdles have been related to integration between OCS and the Cisco system. Furthermore, as expected, there’s been a limited amount of documentation and experienced technicians to reference. Thanks to collaboration between Microsoft and 3t, we continue to make progress.

JR: At New Belgium, since the IT director is a member of the senior management team, there are far fewer obstacles in determining where the company is headed and translating that into what \[IT\] is going to do. Additionally, since New Belgium is employee-owned, there exists a higher degree of motivation to ponder company success beyond the present.

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