Managing converged IP networks: The next challenge

Enterprises are well-versed managing separate voice and data infrastructures, but they do not have the tools and training necessary to manage SIP-based VoIP and multimedia applications.

Recently there's been a lot of discussion on how the enterprise will manage its network to accommodate emerging convergence applications. The increase in the mobility of enterprise users -- whose workplace often shifts from the office, road and home -- creates additional networking and management complexities. The majority of an organisations' IT staff are well-versed on how to manage separate voice and data infrastructures, but they do not have the tools and training necessary to manage SIP-based VoIP and multimedia applications.

Convergence, starting with the rapid adoption of IP PBX solutions, is changing the landscape of enterprise networks. The emergence of WiFi-capable mobile phones and new SIP-based collaboration applications is accelerating the need for enterprise networks to provide secure, flexible connectivity for users beyond traditional networking boundaries. Session management technologies provide enterprises with operational visibility into the quality and integrity of their networks at the session level, while at the same time adding the control needed to adjust to ever-changing network conditions. To take advantage of this technology, a new breed of IP expert must be trained to architect, implement and troubleshoot the converged IT environment at the session layer.

Enterprises are rapidly adopting IP-enabled private brand exchange (PBX) solutions as part of their IT strategy to reduce operational costs. Infonetics Research reported that worldwide PBX line shipments totaled 6.5 in million in Q2 2005, with nearly 70% of the PBX line shipments for hybrid PBXs and pure IP PBX systems. Hybrid PBX systems are typically legacy PBX platforms retrofitted with a plug-in card that provides IP connectivity to packet-based handsets.

The advent of the IP PBX is the catalyst for voice and data convergence within the enterprise. IP PBX vendors, such as Cisco and Avaya, are constantly enhancing their solutions to provide a diverse set of collaboration tools that include desktop video and instant messaging. They are being pushed by competitive pressures from Microsoft and other vendors that are creating integrated methods of real-time collaboration, including instant messaging and user presence. While IT departments are adopting IP technology to reduce PBX TOC, they are also embracing a wider strategy of IP convergence that enables new methods of collaboration for their employees.

Convergence is a  departure from basic telephony and IP data networking, it requires specially trained IT engineers who understand the complexities of  an IP to support multiple apps.
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The Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) infrastructure is also key for the rapid and seamless introduction of new applications, which increase employee collaboration. SIP is a signaling protocol developed by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) for initiating, managing and terminating voice and video sessions across packet networks. Borrowing from ubiquitous Internet protocols, the flexibility of SIP enables it to accommodate features and services such as call control services, mobility and interoperability with hybrid and IP PBXs. More importantly, this protocol helps the enterprise future-proof their networks. Important vendor partners such as Microsoft, Alcatel, Avaya, and Cisco have already incorporated SIP into their products for the enterprise.

VoIP and collaboration applications, such as presence and instant messaging, provide new ways for employees to share information in highly distributed environment when coupled with broadband services such as DSL, cable, and WiFi technology. Now employees can communicate in real-time whether they are working in the office, are traveling or are telecommuting from home. The use of WiFI VoIP handsets enables enterprises to offer their employees flexible mobile access over different forms of wireless networks; early adopters of this technology can be found in the logistics and healthcare industries where increased mobility is essential. Widespread adoption of this technology is on the horizon, thus enabling a larger community of enterprise users to have more freedom to roam across wireless home networks, the corporate wireless LAN, and public W-Fi hotspots.

The use of IP and other Internet technologies to provide VoIP services and real-time methods of collaboration also provides the enterprise with some new challenges. The openness and programmability of this environment exposes voice and other mission-critical applications to threats from the Internet. Networking vendors are addressing these threats and other deployment challenges with a new breed of networking device called the Session Border Controller (SBC). This intelligent device appears to be a VoIP firewall because it is deployed at the edge of the enterprise network; however, it also provides session management capabilities to regulate and oversee real-time traffic flows within the enterprise IP networks. The SBC addresses a number of critical issues such network security, signaling interoperability, call admission control, service quality, and session routing. In effect, it secures the enterprise VoIP network, helps IT staffs manage VoIP traffic and other forms of real-time traffic, and enables the easy addition of new services and applications.

Networking vendors are addressing these threats and other deployment challenges with a new breed of networking device called the Session Border Controller (SBC).
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Intelligent network interconnects, powered and controlled by SBCs, provide the enterprise with a secure facility to mesh their network with other enterprises and service providers. VoIP peering exchanges are creating a new networking economy with open marketplaces that provide enterprises with flexible and direct connectivity for toll bypass and easy access to application service providers (ASPs) with new service offerings. This new peering environment facilitates the outsourcing of collaboration applications to service providers which can also provide new and innovative solutions for traditional IT problems such as disaster recovery and remote office support.

The use of IP and other Internet technologies to provide VoIP services and real-time methods of collaboration is presenting IT teams with new challenges. Session management technologies provide the operational visibility and control needed to meet these challenges head on, enabling the enterprise to leverage new networking phenomenon such as VoIP peering for greater collaboration inside and outside of their company. The effectiveness of this strategy is not wholly dependent on technology, but it is also rooted in technical know-how. Enterprises need an integrated strategy that combines the deployment of session management technology in their network with an educational program that steeps their technical teams in the nuances and complexities of IP convergence.

Because convergence is a major departure from basic telephony and IP data networking, it requires specially trained IT engineers who must address the complexities of using an IP network to support multiple applications, which may be in-sourced or outsourced, to a diverse set of mobile users. Furthermore, these complexities are compounded by the fact that the IP network is a best-effort network and users are utilising a wide variety of end-point IP devices to communicate. Session management technology enables enterprises to tackle these challenges, but it only provides half of the answer. Engineers, specialising in the engineering of the session layer, are needed to help design, build and maintain convergent networks. To be effective, these engineers must understand the flexibility of the new network technology and how it allows the enterprise to provide a continually increasing spectrum of applications to improve corporate productivity.

The accelerated adoption of VoIP, along with the emergence of other multimedia applications, has caused the existing IT workforce to be almost entirely void of VoIP and real-time services technical experts. The majority of today's IT teams are focused on router-based networks or PBX implementation. Their training has provided them with a narrow expertise in either voice or data, but has not prepared them for the complex needs associated with VoIP and other converged IP applications. This emerging environment dictates that IT engineers understand a broad spectrum of technological concepts and applications; they must have the background to focus on many aspects of the overlay network, latency issues, quality of service, and other concerns specific to real-time IP applications. The new breed of engineers must be facilitators of the new generation of communications technologies.

About the author:
Dearing joined NexTone in June 1999, bringing his extensive knowledge of telecommunications to the company. Dearing's insight into the challenges faced by NexTone's customers is the result of his professional experience with General Electric Information Services and Sprint International where he held positions in product development and service implementation. Dearing earned his Bachelor of Science in Computer and Information Science from Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. He also received a Master of Science in Computer Science and Applications from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Virginia. Dearing is also a General Electric Advanced Course in Computers graduate.

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