Joe O’Halloran sees what you can expect to gain from a single converged network for your voice, video and data requirements
Not so long ago, you didn’t have much choice – your IT and communications requirements were acquired, implemented and aintained very separately. Technological limitations meant that you had to use distinct separate circuits for each set of applications, such as voice and data.
These days you have choice. A lot of choice. The traditional methods, while technically proficient and delivering the service that you needed, were not an efficient way of utilising your networks, and were similarly likely not to have been cost-effective.
The onset of widely available, highspeed, always-on internet protocol (IP) networks has enabled companies like yours to break free of factors limiting how your services were obtained. Instead of separate services (each with their own billing structure as well), IP-based networks allow you to use a single unified network infrastructure on which to base all of your data and voice (and even video) requirements.
And this network adheres to an almost universally recognised and adopted standard and can be constructed, operated and aintained extremely cost-effectively.
Change agent for business
Put simply, IP and IP networks simplify your communication and information requirements. A converged, single IP infrastructure will very likely make extremely good technical and financial sense, making it possible to have access to an increased number of applications.
More importantly, IP can be a change agent for your business as a whole, making it punch way above its weight.
Not surprisingly, IP is increasingly being taken up by companies like yours.
Ivor Kendall, general manager for IP Infrastructure at BT says, “IP is on the radar of SMEs these days. IP simplifies the communication and information needs of SMEs. It can manage more efficiently the services people require to do their jobs and it provides additional flexibility to enhance communication and get
access to information where they need it. Some [SMEs] use IP as a lever to bring about a level to playing field when competing with larger companies.
The perception of IP was that it was about the internet; now it’s about the services it can deliver, with the internet being just one.”
Such services are based on having just one platform for your company to implement your business applications and services almost regardless of location.
That is to say all that you need to do is have access to an internet connection, preferably a broadband one. And with this connection the business advantages, whether in the office or outside, can be huge. Just imagine the productivity gains from having a single point of access for all of your emails, voicemails, faxes and text and multimedia messages. This is precisely what IP networks can deliver, cost-effectively, to your business.
Furthermore, your IP network will allow you to set up profiles and actions according to the importance of the message or its sender. For example, you could set up a priority whereby certain messages, regardless of their origin and form, get through to you, and other data, equally form-independent, can be stored automatically.
What such capabilities do is make flexible working much more feasible – and an increasing number of people are aiming to do this, thanks to the Government’s Flexible Working Initiative. Taking the concept one stage further, it is now possible to set up cost effective, real-time collaborative conferences utilising a variety of media using one integrated IP environment.
Mobile working in particular has consistently thrown up challenges, and there are, in truth, a number of such issues ahead for you if you decide to integrate mobility within an IP infrastructure.
These challenges are not just technical ones; there is also the task of integrating the mobility technology with your business practices.
Once integration has been achieved, imagine the benefits your sales force could gain from being able to obtain live customer data anywhere in the field. And imagine what your engineers could do if they could look at maintenance records and drawings anywhere.
Even though many would associate it with large companies, business continuity can be realised cost-effectively by companies such as yours by using the economies of scale and robustness of IP networks. It’s relatively straightforward to set up online data back-up using your IP network, with essential data mirrored to disk at a remote location.
The IP solution – with the necessary IP storage and security mechanisms – will provide far easier access to this data than would the use of offline media in special vaults. The key is that IP-based business continuity solutions do not have to place an undue burden on your bottom line.
But to take advantage of such features and functionality it is imperative that you look strategically at the whole issue of IP.
You have to consider a business continuity plan, including degrees of priority of data, and you have to consider which staff can work flexibly and what technologies are appropriate to them to do their jobs within your budget requirements. You need to pay attention to what IP-based technology your staff will be equipped with and whether different staff use different genres of product.
Unfortunately, strategic thinking has been something of an Achilles heel for SMEs. In a survey by Computer Weekly, in association with BT, only 55% of SMEs said that they had a formal strategy for IT and communications.
While this is an improvement compared with a similar survey in September 2003 which found that just under half of SMEs had a formal strategy, it is still a cause for concern.
If you are one of the 45% of businesses with no formal IT and communications strategy, then you will struggle to get the benefits that IP can deliver. It is almost inevitable that you will not be able to effectively deploy any business critical application system, regardless of what technological function it may offer, nor will you get value for your investment.
Explains BT’s Ivor Kendall: “Without a strategy you may spend money in one area without realising the benefits in others; it just becomes a point purchase. With a strategy you see how the spend contributes to your whole solution.”
IP telephony – which includes the most commonly known application of voice services using IP technology, voice over IP (VoIP) – is probably the best example of an application whose effective running depends on strategic thinking. It may be tempting for companies like yours to see the apparent benefits of replacing traditional PBX technology with IP-based voice networks. Yet such benefits of cost and performance, intuitiveness and ubiquity, will not be realised without being dealt with strategically.
The Computer Weekly survey also points out that those companies with strategies looking at voice services over IP have better managed networks overall.
A step further is IP-based technology that will deliver voice services using commonly available hotspot technology.
Products are already commercially available that allow seamless data transfer across WiFi and GPRS/3G mobile phone network technologies.
Once a guaranteed quality of service is delivered, and standards evolve, such services will be more commonplace. But when buying such services, you should carefully consider who you will be dealing with. With all IP networks, the key issues are ubiquity of coverage,
security, quality of service, reliability, redundancy, guaranteed line power across the network and ease of use.
Basing your business communications on IP-based networks will let you have, according to Kendall “a synergy of solutions”. He says: “It’s the synergy of having an overall strategy that helps you save money on [what you] spend and which [can be utilised] for the most benefit. It’s important for SMEs to realise how to use a strategy to be important players in the digital economy.”
The fundamental message is that the usefulness of IP of stands or falls on how you plan the technology to align itself with your business objectives. Once you’re sure that you have such a strategy in place, then, and only then, will you reap the benefits.