Making The Convergence Switch

Rapidly evolving business applications, particularly those that enable real-time transactions and unified communications, are often touted as the selling points for upgrading the IT network for voice and video traffic. But many businesses -- including those that move conservatively on the technology front -- are preparing their networks for converged communications.

"What I'm starting to see is customers realizing that they need to set the infrastructure even if they're not going to take advantage of converged networking right away," says Mike Saulter, systems engineer manager at Evolve Technology Group in Rocklin, Calif. "I think there's an understanding that we don't know what's coming, so we'd better get the network ready."

Even businesses that move conservatively on the technology front are setting the stage for merging their communications streams. Many businesses that postponed upgrading the network for several years following the bust are seeing their gear approach the end of life, and they want to future-proof the next investment.

AAA East Coast is a conservative organization that's rarely on the cutting edge of networking, according to Mike Gladish, director of corporate technology at the Cleveland-based auto club. The organization's network is made up of a hodgepodge of technologies from Avaya, Nortel Networks and Siemens, and Gladish is considering adding Cisco Systems into the mix. A spate of recent mergers has further complicated the voice and data systems.

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Bringing together instant messaging, videoconferencing, presence awareness, collaboration and mobile voice technologies will allow AAA's diverse businesses--from financial services to travel to insurance--to meet customer expectations and remain competitive. Gladish, nevertheless, says convincing managers who hold the purse strings has been challenging.

"I think the ultimate goal is that you want to be able to get to the right person who has the right information at the right time," says Gladish, who also serves as president of Just US, the Siemens user group in the United States.

The auto club's roadside service personnel have an especially high need for greater integration of voice, data and video. Historically, when motorists had car trouble, the AAA call center would contact the dispatcher, who would send a truck to the site. For the motorist, the process often meant long waits.

Today's AAA operators are better able to locate and communicate with drivers with the help of global positioning satellite technology.

"As a call is closed up, the AAA driver moves right on to the next call right from that site. We've been able to shave off, just with that process, about three to five minutes on our average response time," Gladish says.

Integrating mobile voice technology into the enterprise network, particularly the call center, would further reduce the response time, Gladish says. "What we want is for that [mobile] device to be part of our system back here. We'd like to have as few touch points as possible but still have communications with the members."

NEXT: Ensuring quality of service, plus reducing complexity and cost.

Many of the long-held concerns that left businesses wary of running voice over the data network have been addressed by the network equipment manufacturers. Quality of service, redundant power and security have been integrated into most lines of enterprise switches to ensure that the real-time imperative of uninterrupted, secure voice service can be consistently met.

"Over the past several years we've been adding functions to our switches to play nice with Voice over IP, QOS being one of the most important functions," says Joe McClain, a product marketing manager at networking alternative vendor Adtran. "Every piece of equipment that's in the path of voice needs to be able to give it priority."

Manufacturers have also built Power-over-Ethernet (PoE) into most enterprise switch lines to ensure business continuity when the main power supply goes down. Approximately half of the ports shipped by Cisco are PoE-enabled, according to Fred Weiller, Cisco's director of switching. "It's definitely becoming a standard deployment feature, instead of just being nice to have."

Evolving Switch Technology

  • Traditional data switch: Inspects packets of data, determining the source and destination, and forwards them over a shared network; designed to transfer huge volumes of data in bursts to optimize bandwidth; enables fault tolerance, adaptive routing and disaster recovery.
  • Traditional voice switch: Sets up dedicated circuits on demand between endpoints to carry call signals; designed to transfer steady signal streams for high voice quality, low latency and jitter; incorporates redundancy for "five-nines" availability.
  • Converged Switch: Merges packet-switching technology with voice signaling and call-processing technology, with QoS, redundant power supply and security features built in to deliver voice, video and data traffic.

Nortel recently shipped its 3 millionth PoE-enabled port, with about 30 percent of total shipments PoE-enabled, according to Mike Flaum, a Nortel product manager.

"One year from now, I would say 75 percent of our switches being sold will have PoE," Flaum adds. "If someone buys PoE, they may not install Voice over IP, but they're thinking about it in the next couple of years."

Some vendors are also releasing more switch options with 10-Gigabit Ethernet for high-performance networking. Recently, Alcatel-Lucent unveiled the OmniSwitch 9800, touted as bringing strong security and PoE, with twice the capacity of previous versions. The 9000 series is marketed for both the network core and edge to support converged applications.

Reducing Complexity And Cost

The latest switching challenges are less about incorporating new functionality into switches than about making the existing technology easier to handle.

Switch makers, including Cisco and Nortel, plan to build more automation and integration into their lines, making them easier to install and configure.

"What customers are looking for is ease of use and ease of deployment," Nortel's Flaum says. "It will be about simplification. You'll see more integration and ease of use if you build voice integration directly into the data products. We have enough complex technologies out there."

As manufacturers simplify convergence-ready switches, they're marketing them increasingly to small and midsize businesses. Adtran's NetVanta 7100, an all-in-one IP telephone and data networking system, was expressly built to provide SMBs with full capabilities in a single box.

"Literally, I can go out to a remote site with one box and I've got a PBX with voicemail and call attendant--with all these advanced features--and it's very easy to set up," Adtran's McClain says.

Businesses are also looking for better ways to manage converged switches. Later this year, Adtran plans to roll out voice monitoring tools that allow IT managers to collect metrics on network components from different vendors. The tools would allow voice quality to be monitored for potential problems, McClain says.

Adtran isn't alone in developing improved monitoring and management tools.

"It's nice to build a higher-grade network, but if it requires you to have 10 times more people to set it up and operate it, you're not really gaining much," Cisco's Weiller notes. "We're making sure that whatever can be automated, we provide the service to do so."

Cisco's Catalyst 6500 series comes with an embedded event manager (EEM) that allows the customer to set up scripts that run on customer-defined triggers. If there's a denial-of-service attack, for example, EEM can shut down a port or a module.

There's still a lot of work to be done to provide businesses with the tools needed to monitor and manage an IP network, resellers and end users concur. San Francisco-based FusionStorm generates its largest revenue stream from converged networking, but is has to use four different toolsets, according to Joseph Baker, director of the reseller's Networking Business Unit.

"There's really no toolset that encompasses everything. There's a visibility gap and a management gap," Baker says. "You still have security, basic LAN/WAN and voice all as separate technologies."

NEXT: Why SIP, the protocol that makes different vendors' basic IP networking technologies play together nicely, won't work for advanced business apps.

Call For Advanced Standards

Basic IP networking technologies from different vendors are largely interoperable thanks to Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), the signaling standard for IP-based telephony. However, the advanced business applications that are driving many IP network upgrades are not likely to be interoperable.

"Unfortunately with SIP, the standards are kind of loose," says Joe McClain, an Adtran product marketing manager. "Some of the advanced features aren't necessarily specified, but depending on where you sit in the network, it may not matter to you."

SIP enables users to make basic calls from SIP-compliant phones across different vendors' environments, but it doesn't necessarily allow them to put callers on hold, transfer them or set up three-way calls.

Attempts to develop standards for advanced business-calling capabilities have been made, but there's little incentive for leading manufacturers to participate. "I think for the next few years we may have to deal with multiple methods," McClain says. Adtran is vendor-neutral and often positioned in the middle of the network.

"We try to work with everybody, but it would be much easier for us if there was a single standard."

From the perspective of customers and resellers, greater standardization would save time and money. Nevertheless, the largest vendors will continue to set the pace, resisting further SIP standardization until IP networking is more commonplace.

"It's kind of a catch-22," says Mike Saulter at Evolve Technology Group. "Until you really see VoIP being more widely deployed, you're probably not going to see that interoperability. It's still a corporate advantage to have a somewhat proprietary technology."