By Jeff Wilson
Convergence" is on the tips of everyone’s tongues this year. But when spoken, it
might mean one thing to one person and another to someone else. For some, the word
conjures images of new carrier infrastructure, built of glass and carrying voice and data
in packets. Other people think of a personal computer (PC) with a microphone and a
speaker–the termination point for all communications, regardless of their origins. Talk
to the data network equipment manufacturers, and they will tell you about gateways and
gatekeepers, multiservice access devices, integrated frame relay access devices (IFRADs),
PC-based private branch exchanges (PBXs), computer-telephony integration (CTI), H.323 and
Internet protocol device control (IPDC) protocols, voice over asynchronous transfer mode
(ATM) or voice over frame relay. For the enterprise customer (and purposes of this
article), "convergence" refers to the consolidation of enterprise wide area
network (WAN) infrastructure for voice and data using one of the following three
technologies: voice over ATM (VoATM), voice over frame relay (VoFR) or voice over IP
Why the buzz about convergence? In a word … simplicity.
People are tired of the contradictions and duplicated efforts of daily life. We drive
to work because it saves us an hour and the effort it would take to walk or bicycle, and
then we stop at the gym for an hour after work to get some exercise. On any given day, we
use at least four different devices (e.g., home phone, work phone, cell phone, laptop PC)
to communicate with others … A lifestyle that is decidedly unsimple.
That’s the symptom. Here’s the disease: Companies have built completely separate
networks for communications–one for voice, and one for data. Each network has its
strengths and weaknesses, but fundamentally, they both do the same thing. Technology now
enables us to take those two networks and combine them.
Many enterprises are already enjoying the benefits of a converged WAN, and many more
are about to step into the world of convergence. In a 1998 study on enterprise network
management conducted by Infonetics Research, San Jose, Calif., 73 percent of the
respondents (all from organizations with 1,000 or more employees) indicated that they
would converge their WAN infrastructures by May 2000. (See graph.)
Companies such as Micom Communications Corp. (now a product line of Northern Telecom
Ltd. [Nortel]/Bay Networks Inc.), Simi Valley, Calif.; ACT Networks, Camarillo, Calif.;
and Hypercom Corp., Phoenix, have been successful at selling VoFR solutions to enterprise
Recently, however, many networking companies (such as Ascend Communications Inc.,
Alameda, Calif.; Lucent Techno-logies Inc., Murray Hill, N.J.; and Sonoma Systems, Marina
del Rey, Calif.) have built or are building ATM access devices that will allow
consolidation of voice and data on the same ATM WAN connection.
And, everybody is getting into the VoIP business. Although most of the current VoIP
buzz is about carrier deployments, many enterprises are seriously considering upgrading
their existing IP networks to handle VoIP.
The most obvious first question is, Which technology will enterprises choose? The
simple answer: all of them, or none, or one, or two. All three technologies have strong
play, depending on an individual company’s existing infrastructure, the reach of their
network, their geographic location and many other factors.
A company with one or two headquarters sites and 100 branch offices, and that has
already built a large frame relay WAN, is likely to choose VoFR. The rollout is simpler
than it would be with the other two technologies; they already have a relationship with
their frame relay service provider; and depending on whose frame relay access devices they
bought, they may not need to do a forklift upgrade.
As competitive local exchange carriers (CLECs)–and some incumbents–get ATM services
up and running, many regional enterprises will look at ATM for a total multiservice
network. Often, companies look at ATM because they believe it is best suited to deliver
real-time and non-real-time data, voice and video. The trick is, they have to be able to
get ATM services for all locations, and they have to be willing to pay for those services.
VoIP is the noisy newcomer in the convergence. Enterprise customers read magazines and
surf the web, so they know that VoIP is here; a few brave souls have found ingenious ways
to deploy VoIP in a limited capacity already, connecting offices in far-flung locations
and escaping international toll charges; but it is a technology that is not quite ready
for wide-scale deployment.
As in any early market, the convergent communications revenue opportunities for service
providers are scattered. Customers have not yet chosen their convergence technologies, and
they still have many concerns, from voice quality to equipment vendor selection. To
capture business in the short term, service providers should help potential customers
understand the voice and data traffic flows in their networks, help them design a solution
based on those flows and show them how the solution can be implemented in a way that does
not disrupt existing voice or data services.
The biggest concern many enterprises have is that their users will complain endlessly
about the quality of the new service. Quality of service (QoS) and service level
agreements (SLAs) must be included in any convergence offering. Service providers should
tailor QoS to the unique requirements of a converged WAN, and offer SLAs with real-time
reports or tools that customers can use to verify SLAs.
Convergence, like virtual private networks (VPNs), may be the door-opener for a host of
services such as day-to-day network management and help-desk outsourcing. Service
providers’ sales forces, engineers and technicians who visit customer sites should keep
their eyes open for any additional service opportunities.
Jeff Wilson is
director of Access Programs for Infonetics Research Inc., San Jose, Calif. He can be
reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.