Voice and data – is this network big enough for both of us?

IP convergence slowly emerges from shadow of own hype

Briefing Note

The convergence of voice and data over a single Internet Protocol-based network infrastructure is, at least at first glance, an elegant way of reducing the complexity and costs associated with managing enterprise networks.

Sending voice information in digital form over a converged IP network as discrete packets rather than by using traditional circuit-switched protocols across the public switched telephone network means that corporates can have just one physical cabling infrastructure which can be managed from a single point.

Additional benefits include the dramatically improved functionality that can come from combining voice, video and data services over a single infrastructure, bringing on board next-generation communication technologies such as unified messaging and computer telephony integration (CTI).

IT and telecoms analysts largely agree that IP convergence is making its way into the mainstream enterprise networking world. At last, the technology has matured to the extent that firms can see it delivering technological and commercial advantage in real world deployments. In addition, falling prices for core VoIP equipment such as IP Private Branch Exchanges (PBXs), IP phone handsets and the replacement of legacy Time Division Multiplexing (TDM) PBXs have all helped to drive adoption of IP convergence in the enterprise. The relatively recent deployment of network-hosted IP centrex offerings by service providers, together with the development and deployment of Multi-Protocol Label Switching (MPLS) carrier networks that can guarantee quality of service are also crucial drivers.

Throw into this mix the fact that all calls sent over the converged network are free from telco tariffs - a compelling value proposition for firms with branch offices over large Wide Area Networks (WANs) and staff working remotely - and it would appear that IP convergence must be a recipe for success. But the technology's reputation has long suffered from eager vendors touting it as the Next Big Thing when it was simply too immature to deliver tangible business benefits.

Clive Longbottom, service director at Quocirca, says: "There has been hype for so long, and there are still companies out there over-hyping convergence; they do not actually do quality of service and on a heavily used network the voice service just collapses."

But IP convergence technology is now mature enough to stand up for itself, he says, noting that commercially viable technology, which offers full prioritisation and quality of service, is available from 3Com, Avaya and Cisco and other tier-one networking companies.

Steve Kennedy, head of product futures at Thus, also thinks that IP convergence has been the victim of its own vendor hype: “I think the whole technology has been hyped in the past as a panacea to everything and in fact if you do it properly it’s actually difficult to do. Because if you go into an office and say you will put IP phones everywhere and run everything off the 10Mbps shared LAN, the performance will degrade horrendously and you just will not get any quality of service.

“So actually installing IP convergence into an existing infrastructure can be relatively expensive, but if you go into a greenfield site you can design it from the outset with switches everywhere, with VLANs and quality of service.”

According to Longbottom many companies are missing out by taking an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" approach to convergence. Many firms surveyed in Quocirca’s primary research are happy to just keep on going with their existing legacy PBX equipment: "The biggest competitor to VoIP in the UK is simply inertia,” he says.

"It is coming in at a departmental level; so for example if the helpdesk is being updated, then the new call centre being installed will be IP-enabled and the technology will spread. As firms are looking increasingly to deploy fully convergent collaboration and communications systems - such as unified messaging - VoIP will become a necessity."

This view is echoed by Joe Foster, acting director of network engineering for Telewest Business: “Now that the convergence technology and standards have matured, it is a natural evolution of hosted business voice services, such as centrex and contact centre services, to hosted IP converged services. Our customers are focussing on the benefits of the new capabilities enabled by convergence and how this integrates with their current infrastructures, rather than the technology for the sake of technology.”

According to Mike Kiely, business development manager for Broadband Communications at BT, increasing use and acceptance of integrated communications such as SMS, email and instant messaging are driving IP convergence deployments.

"At the core of most telecoms networks you already have a great deal of convergence. So this is already a reality. At the end user level this is just beginning. While plenty of technology exists to enable convergence, this needs to be supported by propositions, which deliver true user benefits such as increased convenience or better prices."

The vital importance of cost savings is highlighted by Forrester Research in its recent report, The price of VoIP in Europe. The study estimates that a domestically focused European company will cut five-year voice costs by more than a quarter with IP connections. The biggest potential cost savings come from the replacement of private WANs based on leased lines and frame relay with public VPNs based on MPLS or IP Sec. By combining VPN technology with route optimisation kit from vendors such as Sockeye Networks, firms can build what Forrester calls redundant arrays of Internet links and shave obetween a fifth to a half from their bandwidth bills.

Craig Thomas, head of marketing at Tiscali UK Business Services, notes that broadband is having a profound effect on IP convergence deployments by reducing access costs for remote workers and branch offices. “The arrival of DSL as a business grade – not consumer – service is making it cost effective for the whole of corporate networks to go voice over IP. Voice convergence is really going pan-corporate with DSL as it can now be cost justified. Before the only way to do this was with voice over frame relay and it was just the major sites that were converged.”

Forrester recommends that enterprise corporates evaluating the business benefits of IP convergence should conduct a three-stage audit. "First, check with existing vendors to confirm that LAN switches are QoS-enabled with support for 802.1p traffic prioritisation.”

Next step, call on presales consulting help from major IP equipment vendors to model network bandwidth requirements for packet voice; and use testing tools to investigate the performance of existing gear. “Finally, verify whether existing firewalls can support packet voice based on the H.323 protocol and SIP," Forrester advises.

Almost 90 per cent of the 23 European telecom managers interviewed for the Forrester report expect to deploy packet voice within five years, says lead author Lars Godell. But he notes that although 100 per cent of today's adopters are happy with VoIP, they currently “packetise”, on average, just three per cent of their voice traffic.

Alex Winogradoff, Gartner vice president and chief analyst, points out that the operational benefits of VoIP to end users are well-documented - but enterprises are still viewing the technology pragmatically. "For VoIP and convergence to take off, end users must be convinced that VoIP is not just a tactical return on investment-based decision but a strategic decision and commitment that will involve some risk," he says.

IDC is more bullish in its predictions for IP convergence growth, citing a recent study which shows that 20 per cent of UK firms consider VoIP a "must have" technology. According to the research firm, VoIP equipment sales worldwide will grow 45 per cent a year through to 2007, when sector revenues will hit $15.1 billion.

Paul Strauss, IDC research manager, acknowledges that security problems and standards issues remain, but adds that the IP approach has “seized mind share as a strategic technology and is now strongly supported by such enterprise telephone stalwarts as Avaya and Nortel. This comes on top of such early players as 3Com, Alcatel, and the giant of the sector, Cisco,"

It is clear that a strong consensus exists among leading industry analysts and service providers who, while conceding that IP convergence uptake has been dogged in the past by hype and immaturity, predict that the technology is now poised for strong growth. ®

This data networking briefing note is sponsored by Telewest

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