McKenna Long & Aldridge faced a multi-faceted communications challenge that threatened to impede the company's technology adoption and office expansion.
For starters, the Washington, D.C.-based law firm ran into problems with its video conferencing capabilities. Video frames would freeze mid-call, or sessions would be subject to jitters. As a consequence, some attorneys became reluctant to use video conferencing for meetings with clients. In addition, the fast-growing 575-attorney firm needed to quickly equip new offices with communications services of all kinds -- data, voice and video -- to accommodate expansion. That chore takes some network carriers as long as four months.
McKenna Long & Aldridge's expansion via mergers with other law firms introduced another communications issue: Vendor management. The firm found that it had inherited at least four network service providers and myriad Internet service companies over the course of its acquisitions.
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"You amass different technologies and service provider relationships," says Patrick Tisdale, McKenna Long & Aldridge's CIO. "When that happens you obviously have administrative and economic reasons to right size and consolidate."
McKenna Long & Aldridge embarked on a rationalization task. The firm's engineering group evaluated the various service providers to determine which would be best-suited for the business going forward. The law firm selected Masergy Communications, a managed networking and cloud services company based in Dallas. The firm also selected a second provider for risk management purposes, Tisdale notes. The arrangement will provide failover between the different providers and their networks.
MPLS, VPLS Help Tame Video Glitches
Tisdale cites voice and video services as among his organization's top IT challenges, noting the quality-sensitive nature of those communication types. "Worry factors" include latency and the competition for bandwidth among voice, video and data traffic.
Voice and video communication touches both in-house personnel and outside customers, raising the profile of those services. "Those are the most visible uses of telecommunications," Tisdale says.
Few notice when an email takes an extra second or two to reach its destination, he says. But everyone notices a glitch during a phone call or video discussion.
Video can prove particularly problematic with respect to packet loss, jitter and latency. Tisdale says quality issues can surface when an organization connects to a third-party video service bridge through an unmanaged Internet circuit.
"You're taking this ... latency-sensitive traffic, packet loss-sensitive traffic and putting that on an unmanaged Internet circuit," he says. "Your experience [is] pretty much what you would predict."
Until recently, the risk that any videoconferencing session could revert to audio-only or encounter screen freezes was enough to dampen interest in video meetings at the law firm, Tisdale says.
Masergy's managed connectivity, however, has boosted the law firm's use of video. Specifically, the company's Managed Cloud Networking offering includes Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS) and Virtual Private LAN Service (VPLS) services. Tisdale describes those services as "very well adapted to handle sensitive network traffic like voice and video."
The video improvements have helped make video a more popular communications method. The law firm reports that the number of attorney/client video conferences have increased by a factor of three. "It has driven a rather significant increase of the use of video," Tisdale says.
Tisdale said Masergy's history with MPLS predates many bigger carriers, who continue to dabble in frame relay. Older networking topologies were never designed to handle voice and video in a meaningful way.
Robert Arnold, industry principal and program manager for unified communications and collaboration at the market researcher Frost & Sullivan, says video quality concerns have increased the adoption of managed network services or Network as a Service approaches that support videoconferencing.
"As more customers become aware of the network requirements to support high-definition video, they are seeking providers to manage not just the video endpoints and infrastructure but the network and network connections as well," he says.
Most of the top managed video conferencing service providers report an uptick in business amid increasing customer demand for reliability and quality, Arnold notes. "However, there's still a large segment of customers and users that have come to accept quality issues. For some, good enough is all they want to pay for -- and with that, there is risk."
Managed Cloud Networking Helps Customers Accommodate Growth
McKenna Long & Aldridge also uses Masergy's managed cloud networking approach to accommodate growth, both in terms of network traffic and office locations.
Tisdale said the volume of videoconferencing activity can vary significantly from one day to the next: An eight-session day could be followed by a packed, 40-session schedule. "That can create massive swings in the bandwidth and network resources needed to move high-definition video."
The Masergy network service, however, includes a "dynamic element" that adjusts the network's traffic carrying capability in real time, he notes. Masergy provides customers with a console that lets them increase or decrease bandwidth on the fly. The company refers to this cloud-based feature as Intelligent Service Control, and it allows for on-demand or pre-scheduled service modifications.
Tisdale says the law firm's engineers use the control panel to view bandwidth allocation to different business locations, see how network traffic is set up to handle voice and video, and make adjustments.
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The ability to make those modifications comes into play when dealing with unpredictable network demands, Tisdale says. This includes times when the normal baseline network configuration doesn't anticipate a large number of videoconferencing sessions scheduled for a particular morning.
While Masergy's network lets McKenna Long & Aldridge respond to sudden surges in network demand, the same can't be said for all service providers, Tisdale says. Carriers may require a customer to fill out a ticket in order to adjust network characteristics. That ticket might go to an account manager or an inbound ticket handling point. From there, the ticket travels to the carrier's contract review and approvals group. The carrier then sends back a form confirming the network changes.
Tisdale says the process can take more than one week. "That's still a prevalent model, but it's unresponsive to managing the dynamic demand for voice and video."
As for geographic growth, the managed cloud network helps McKenna Long & Aldridge deal with new office openings. Assuming the location has existing connectivity -- that is, no requirement to pull fiber-optic cable to a building -- Masergy can provide network services in 30 to 45 days, Tisdale says. In contrast, other carriers could take 60 to 120 days to accomplish the same task.
Expansion can sometimes mean closing some offices. An acquisition might result in two offices in the same city. One office could be closed, or both offices shut down in favor of a third office. "Several times a year, we're dealing with some sort of office consolidation or relocation," Tisdale says.
In those cases, Masergy's managed cloud network lets the law firm take systems offline quickly with no disruption to other offices, according to Masergy.
Overall, McKenna Long & Aldridge is fairly typical of Masergy's customers in the legal vertical, says John Marinucci, Masergy's director of solution engineering. "The legal clients we have tend to make full use of our [Quality of Service] platform and utilize a full range of prioritized applications, ranging from basic email to document management systems to real-time collaborative systems."