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The Programmable Network

Posted: 05/1998

The Programmable Network
Multipurpose Platforms to Populate the Network

By Paula Bernier

The telephone network with an individual box for each function is fast becoming
a thing of the past.

The convergence of computers and telephony is ushering in a new paradigm in
which a single "box" can easily serve multiple functions–and at a much lower
cost–in both public and private networks.

Microsoft Corp.’s Peyton Smith calls it the "programmable network,"
where various functions and applications can be programmed on a single platform.

Dialogic Corp. President and CEO Howard Bubb, meanwhile, refers to the computer
telephony (CT) server.

It’s the Software, Stupid

The key to the CT server, Bubb explains, is not so much the box itself as it is the
software that runs on it.

"Today we have many hardware boxes, but no standard software," Bubb says.
"Most of the open systems (today) are just CT hardware.

"About 2.5 percent of the value of CT today is software," Bubb adds.
"That will be 40 percent by the year 2000."

Middleware, meaning the layer of software upon which applications sit, is key to making
that happen. This software layer acts as a baseline on which hundreds of applications can
ride.

"There’s a movement to a middle layer of software that will let applications be
mixed and matched," says Tom Bunch, vice president of business development for
enterprise solutions at Compaq Computer Corp.

Allowing multiple applications to be mixed and matched on a single server or network of
servers means network operators can choose only the applications they want, get services
to market more quickly (because they don’t have to write applications from the ground up
and set up new hardware) and lower their investment (because they don’t have to buy new
hardware every time they want to add new functionality).

The draw of this new architecture is becoming apparent to both private and public
network operators, say vendors.

"Deutsche Telekom wants to add CT servers as part of its infrastructure,"
says Bubb. "Instead of wheeling in a second box, Deutsche Telekom can use existing CT
servers and link them."

One Server, Many Networks

Not only can these new servers support multiple applications on a single network, they
also can support multiple applications across various networks–including wireline,
wireless and circuit- or packet-switched.

"Applications will be able to connect seamlessly to any other network
element," whether that’s a PBX, wireless network element, asynchronous transfer mode
device or whatever, Jamie McComaty, vice president/general manager of the Enterprise
Networks Group at Ericsson Inc., told the crowd at a recent trade show.

Because the workplace is becoming increasingly mobile, the ability to do all the same
services, including messaging, speech recognition and other enhanced offerings, on
wireless and wireline networks is growing in importance, he says.

"Traditionally, multiple switches were required to address different enhanced
services needs," says Robert Madonna, chair and CEO of Excel Switching Corp., which
recently unveiled its ONE Architecture. "For the first time, these services can be
integrated into one switching platform."

And the single-box promise can go well beyond just enhanced services, as vendors such
as Excel Switching and Summa Four Inc. have demonstrated. Indeed, in addition to hosting
advanced services, their boxes also can perform basic network functionality such as
switching or acting as a gateway between circuit-switched and packet-switched networks.

So as the computer network did in the 1970s, the telephone network likewise is expected
to become a landscape of nodes that can each support a multitude of mix-and-match
applications with little more than a software upgrade.


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