All roads lead to network convergence

While it has been widely discussed over the past few years, the convergence of voice, video and data over a single IP-based...

While it has been widely discussed over the past few years, the convergence of voice, video and data over a single IP-based network - also known as IP telephony - has recently gained mainstream acceptance. In the UK, users such as the Football Association, Surrey County Council and the RSPCA have put the technology at the heart of their IT infrastructure.

Traditionally, companies have had two "networks". A data network linking PCs to computers whereby staff communicated by e-mail, Internet, intranet or extranet; and a voice network linking phone to phone. Businesses are now considering merging the two to create a common networking infrastructure to handle all corporate communications. This new IP infrastructure would carry all voice and data traffic - delivered to desktops anywhere in the world.

Now that IP telephony is a viable technology, many IT managers are rethinking their network strategies. Research from Ovum predicts that by 2006, 23% of Internet users worldwide will use their computers to make phone calls compared to only 5% in 2000. Such statistics, along with the decline in PBX sales, mean that implementing an IP-based infrastructure is no longer a question of "if we should do it" but "when we should do it".

By converging voice and data networks onto a single IP-based network, an enterprise can lower its total cost of network ownership by reducing expenditures associated with equipment and maintenance, network administration and network carrier charges. A converged network facilitates employee mobility and also provides a solid foundation for a new generation of applications, based on IP telephony and unified messaging.

Unified messaging solutions are a good example of an application that leverages IP benefits; they deliver every message into a single inbox, giving staff the ability to access and manage their communications using any device. This is especially important for people who spend much of their time away from the office, but still need access to the same network capabilities.

Like unified messaging, videoconferencing has been in existence for many years but never gained widespread adoption. The high cost associated with acquiring and maintaining a separate network for video meant that even when businesses did invest in the technology, it was often reserved for use by a select group of individuals. A converged network gives everybody access to videoconferencing by providing companies with a cost-effective model, which is also easy to deploy.

Convincing the board to invest in new technology in these lean economic times can be daunting. IT initiatives must support core business strategies, but also provide quick returns. IP telephony can deliver both. But to prepare for migration to a converged network, companies must understand all the relevant factors.

It is important to understand your PBX supplier's future architectural plans for your voice network and how it plans to provide viable migration paths to IP. Convergence can potentially take many forms, but some supplier's strategies generate greater return on investment than others. Finally, IT managers must begin to evaluate IP telephony on its own terms rather than merely as a replacement for the traditional PBX.

This will be a gradual process for some, but companies that immediately grasp the benefits of IPT will create networks that effect and facilitate change and innovation rather than impede them.

Guy Tonti is director of systems engineering for Cisco Systems in the UK and Ireland

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