TSRI Telecommunications Aims for 99.999 Percent Reliability

By Mika Ono

How many times in a work day do you effortlessly pick up the phone to make or receive a call—from across the street, across the country, or across the world? Phone service always seems to be there when you need it.

"There is an expectation of reliability," says Tom Thistle, The Scripps Research Institute's (TSRI) director of Telecommunications. "In the business, we call it 'the five nines.' We aim for telephone service to work 99.999 percent of the time."

For an institution the size and complexity of TSRI, achieving this kind of reliability is no mean feat. It involves: o Designing, selecting, purchasing, and installing telephone and data lines; o Continually reviewing the reliability and cost-effectiveness of the system; o Managing numerous databases, including those containing phone numbers, pricing information, and calls made; o Negotiating and implementing contracts with service and equipment providers; o Communicating information and services to TSRI scientists and staff; and o Trouble-shooting problems on all levels.

The department's staff are organized to reflect these responsibilities. Manager Randy Rosa, Technician Eric Hernandez, and Technician Bob Zimmer make up the technical team that installs voice and data lines. Dave Buchter and Jason Bowers are the analysts who assess telecommunications needs with the input of the scientists and staff involved. Database Manager Paul Savoie oversees the databases. Administrative Assistant Cheryl Martel is the point person for many communications with the larger TSRI community, training new employees on the phone system in addition to her administrative duties.

When Thistle started at TSRI in 1976, there was no Telecommunications team. In fact, he began his tenure as the sole telecommunications technician on campus and an employee of International Telephone & Telegraph. He was hired by the institute in 1978. "I was going to stay at TSRI two years then move on," he says. "Here I am, almost 24 years later."

Over those two and a half decades, Thistle witnessed the dramatic growth of the institute in which its population quintupled and its physical facilities (including telecommunications) expanded accordingly. This constant growth has kept Thistle at the institute, still excited with his work.

"My favorite part of the job is opening new buildings," he comments. "It's great to be involved from the ground level, anticipating what kind of science will go on in the building and figuring out how best to accommodate it."

During his career at TSRI, Thistle also participated in a revolution in the telecommunications field, in which the industry was deregulated, data devices such as the personal computer and the fax machine became commonplace, and new fiberoptic technology emerged.

The technical revolution in the field is far from over. Thistle notes that the fields of telecommunications and that of computing are becoming increasingly intertwined. In fact, the standard telephones used on campus—which Thistle describes as "data devices"—can work using an internet protocol (IP) address, enabling them to run off the network run by Research Computing. While it is not yet cost-effective to hook up telephones in this way on a large scale, one day it probably will be.

Telecommunications staff are always upgrading their skills to keep up with the ever-changing demands of the field, focusing much of the time on mastering new software. Staff are alert to opportunities to turn new technology to their advantage. One example of this is the Telecommunications web site which provides those on campus with much useful information, including how to use the voice mail system, submit installation or repair requests, correct information listed in the TSRI directory, obtain or cancel pager services, connect to data networks, understand billing, and set up conference calls.

For more information on Telecommunications, log on to the department's web site at http://www.scripps.edu/services/telecomm/ or pick up your phone—I mean, data device—and dial x4-9701.




Tom Thistle, director of Telecommunications, has worked at TSRI for almost 24 years
Photo by Mika Ono.