One of the most important decisions regarding convergence may not be what type of technology you buy, but from whom you buy it.Simon Quicke offers advice on how to find the right partner
Across the country right now discussions are taking place in boardrooms and across restaurant tables between IT and financial directors about when to make the funds available to introduce IP networking into their businesses.
UK PLC is on the cusp, according to analysts and vendors, of making a wholesale switch to embrace convergence technology. Having made that decision, the next crucial question those customers face is deciding which supplier to choose.
Delivering voice and data convergence is not something a wide range of suppliers are able to do. Expertise is required in both markets, with the additional ability to bring the technology together in a converged solution.
Understandably, because of that, you are well-advised to purchase from the handful of well-known players with proven track records.
"Because communications are critical we stuck with someone well known. Two-bit operators are okay until things go wrong," says Andy Veale, IT manager, European operations, at Waukesha Consolidated.
Like a large number of potential customers, Veale was looking for a way of linking two offices and then expanding the converged technology across a global business, thus gaining phone call savings and widening the capabilities of the network. "We had two sites in the West Midlands that had two different phone systems that didn't talk to each other. I looked at the options and the future business demands and went for voice over internet protocol (VoIP)," he recalls.
On the list of specific demands Veale had for its supplier was the ability to integrate IP telephony with existing Nortel legacy kit; the ability to operate globally (the company serves the oil industry worldwide); and provide quality hardware with ongoing service.
Most IT directors would echo those demands and only a few suppliers can meet them.
"You want to see a track record and see the evidence behind the hype and look at what the supplier has done with customers," says Mick Hegarty, general manager for ICT at BT Business. "There are very few suppliers that have got that track record and skills in those areas."
Any customer looking to buy converged technology needs to be assured that the supplier has skills in both voice and data and has the right partnerships with third-party suppliers in both arenas.
Mike Valiant, international market development manager for enterprise voice solutions at 3Com, believes that, ultimately, the best-placed suppliers are those with the experience and partnerships on the data side, because the network that forms the bedrock of an IP solution is best implemented by those with data skills.
"The supplier needs end-to-end capability because you are putting a lot of applications on your network. There are not many vendors who can do wide area networks (WAN), local area networks (LAN) and put applications on top. Look for a company with experience on the data side, although you are really building converged networks it is on a data network," he argues.
One of the dividers between the men and the boys is not just convergence skills but the ability of the supplier to back that up with a commitment to service level agreements (SLAs).
Hegarty urges you to ask difficult questions from the outset about the supplier's ability to assess and design the right solution for your particular needs and to ask for evidence of where it has been done before.
To prevent problems cropping up further down the line, a sensible approach would be for the customer to clearly set out their expectations before any contract is signed. "When building a converged network, prediction and monitoring are going to be key if customer satisfaction, business process efficiency and, ultimately, profitability, are to be maximised," says Michael Allen, global director of performance solutions at Compuware.
As Veale can testify, with free calls between UK and US offices there are real cost benefits to be gained, but you will only achieve them with the right supply partner: "We bit the bullet and it hasn't shot us yet," he says.
According to Mick Hegarty, general manager for ICT at BT Business, there are several things a customer should look out for when looking for a convergence supplier.
- Experience Is the supplier experienced in PBXs, LANs, WANs and security?
- Breath and depth Does the supplier have quality products, relationships with third parties and the ability to knit all the elements of the infrastructure together?
- Service support Does the potential supplier have professional service packages for assessment, design, implementation and cost-benefit analysis?
- Global or local Can the supplier deal with a global company with local branch offices providing support on-site?
- Roadmap Can the supplier support a step-by-step roadmap to full convergence to help those customers that want a phased introduction to convergence and IP telephony?