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Network Assessments Key to Successful Convergence Deployments


RESEARCH FROM MULTIPLE INDUSTRY

sources suggests that 2006 will be another big year for the deployment of VoIP and other convergence technologies.

According to a November 2005 report by Synergy Research Group, the worldwide enterprise IP telephony market increased by 30.6 percent in third quarter 2005 compared with the same period one year earlier.

A report from In-Stat published in August 2005 cited a surge in the sale of IP PBXs and projected that by 2009, IP PBXs will represent 91 percent of all PBX sales worldwide.

Integrating voice with data via IP PBXs gives corporate customers new ways of doing business, which is helping drive demand for the devices, In-Stat notes. With these platforms, businesses are adding presence capabilities to their communications networks, giving workers more flexibility about when and how they can be reached. It also will support the addition of video to corporate communications networks, enhancing the effectiveness of business collaboration tools.

Two separate surveys commissioned by the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA) also suggested strong interest by businesses of all sizes in VoIP and related convergence technologies.

A survey of approximately 300 U.S. businesses with 20-500 employees found that 40 percent is evaluating new communications solutions that deliver voice and data applications over a common network or intend to do so within the next 18 months. Another 18 percent of these businesses is deploying a converged solution or will do so in the next 18 months.

A second survey of more than 300 North American businesses found two-thirds of the companies are in the planning or evaluation stage when it comes to convergence technologies. Their top five expected future uses are wireless LANs, mobile e-mail, video conferencing, VoIP/IP telephony and messaging.

All this is good news for technology resellers and solutions providers, many of which will be providing these solutions to customers in 2006 and beyond. But the rosy outlook also carries with it potential challenges.

One set of challenges occurs when a customer wants to buy VoIP or some other technology buzzword because its the flavor of the month. Some companies and resellers are willing to sell in this fashion rather than try to understand what the customer is trying to accomplish in order to find the right technology to meet that need. They see this as an opportunity with big dollar signs attached to it. But if the deployment doesnt go as planned, the dollar signs quickly go away, and the disappointed customer may follow.

The solutions provider must understand not all network environments are ready or appropriate for VoIP. That needs to be assessed before the sale is made and communicated clearly to the customer. The larger the customer, the more likely they are to have a high-level technology executive who can provide a reliable and accurate picture of the companys technology infrastructure. But among smaller customers, where IT personnel typically come from a data background, the answer is almost always our network is fine and can handle new applications such as VoIP without impacting service levels or network uptime. Too often, the solutions provider discovers the network is not where it needs to be to deploy VoIP and related converged solutions.

Network design and capacity can make or break a VoIP deployment. Lessthan- peak network performance doesnt necessarily impact data operations, but it will affect voice. In a data environment, if some of the packets arrive later than others, it may cause some delay but nothing noticeable to the end user. But delay, jitter, packet loss or unreliability in the delivery of voice packets are other issues entirely. When voice packets are lost or delayed, the result is clearly noticeable to the end user, whether its a poor-quality call or a lost call. Delay, jitter, packet loss and unreliability pose problems for any real-time application. Businesses simply cant afford to make assumptions about call quality.

Thats why pre- and post-deployment network assessments are absolutely essential to successful implementation of convergence solutions.

A needs analysis will tell whether an IP-based solution really is required to meet the customers need. Does it make sense economically, operationally and technically? Is it worth moving to a converged infrastructure; and if so, at what pace? For some businesses, the pace will be dictated by its comfort level with a new technology. For others, depreciation schedules or obsolescence of legacy voice equipment will be the determining factor. Budget availability and return on investment factors will help other customers make the decision.

The solutions provider must understand not all network environments are ready or appropriate for VoIP. That needs to be assessed before the sale is made and communicated clearly to the customer. The larger the customer, the more likely they are to have a high-level technology executive who can provide a reliable and accurate picture of the companys technology infrastructure. But among smaller customers, where IT personnel typically come from a data background, the answer is almost always our network is fine and can handle new applications such as VoIP without impacting service levels or network uptime. Too often, the solutions provider discovers the network is not where it needs to be to deploy VoIP and related converged solutions.

Network design and capacity can make or break a VoIP deployment. Less-than-peak network performance doesnt necessarily impact data operations, but it will affect voice. In a data environment, if some of the packets arrive later than others, it may cause some delay but nothing noticeable to the end user. But delay, jitter, packet loss or unreliability in the delivery of voice packets are other issues entirely. When voice packets are lost or delayed, the result is clearly noticeable to the end user, whether its a poor-quality call or a lost call. Delay, jitter, packet loss and unreliability pose problems for any real-time application. Businesses simply cant afford to make assumptions about call quality.

Thats why pre- and post-deployment network assessments are absolutely essential to successful implementation of convergence solutions.

A needs analysis will tell whether an IP-based solution really is required to meet the customers need. Does it make sense economically, operationally and technically? Is it worth moving to a converged infrastructure; and if so, at what pace? For some businesses, the pace will be dictated by its comfort level with a new technology. For others, depreciation schedules or obsolescence of legacy voice equipment will be the determining factor. Budget availability and return on investment factors will help other customers make the decision.

At a minimum, the network assessment allows the solutions provider to gauge whether the network has the bandwidth to accommodate VoIP. The customer needs to understand up front what challenges they will face. The network assessment should take into account the customers current and future applications requirements. The assessment also should take into account the customers future business plans, including factors such as expansion through growth or acquisition. The network assessment also should occur several months before the new technology rollout because if a major network overhaul is required, it will impact plans for introducing new technologies.

Consider the example of a business looking to deploy a VoIP solution that includes not only the headquarters office, but remote offices and homebased employees as well. While the headquarters location might have high bandwidth availability, that might not be the case for other locations. To ensure high quality of service at all times to all users, VPN or virtual LAN connections may be necessary. The pre-deployment network assessment exercise will help the solutions provider and its customer make that determination.

Another important consideration for the pre-deployment assessment is to make sure the network can handle extra voice traffic during busy hours. Peak data traffic periods should be compared against peak calling times to determine how much bandwidth a VoIP application will add.

There are many network assessment tools available today (see some options on Page 52). Some are designed for the pre-deployment stages; others for ongoing network testing and monitoring of call quality once the converged solution is implemented. Traffic patterns will change as new applications are added, employees are relocated, or networks are reconfigured. Regular and routine monitoring of network capacity and performance can help prevent problems from occurring.

Ongoing monitoring will assist network operators in making business decisions on current and future capacity needs based on historical usage of the network. Armed with this information, they can identify opportunities to reallocate network assets without affecting service performance; avoid unnecessary expenditures and free up budgets by accurately showing where network resources are adequate to handle demand; and increase buying power by precisely forecasting, months ahead of time, when and where more capacity will be needed.

Converged technologies like VoIP require a real and continuing education process for solutions providers and their customers. The successful reseller realizes that an educated consumer is its best customer.

John A. Venator is president and CEO of CompTIA, a global trade association of 20,000 member companies in information technology and communications.

Links
CompTIA www.comptia.org
In-Stat www.instat.com
Synergy Research Group www.srgresearch.com

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