Convergence puts new spin on networking and its vendors

The unification of voice, IM, presence, e-mail and Web conferencing applications promises easier enterprise communications, but network managers and vendors are scrambling to learn how to best position themselves for the future.

ATLANTA -- Network convergence offers the opportunity to link voice communications with instant messaging, video and desktop applications. But even as it simplifies contact among co-workers, a presenter at the recent Networking Decisions conference told attendees that convergence muddies the roles of even the largest enterprise networking vendors.

During his presentation, Irwin Lazar, a senior analyst with the Midvale, Utah-based research firm Burton Group, painted a dark picture of contemporary business communications.

According to Burton Group surveys, there are seven ways to get in touch with the average employee, including by cell phone, land line phone, multiple e-mail accounts and instant messaging.

By the end of next year, more than 50% of all employees will not be based in a single location, Lazar said, further complicating communications. Fortunately, Lazar said, VoIP and other converged applications have the potential to streamline much of this communications conundrum.

"Through convergence, all of these systems can be linked through a centralized controller," Lazar said. "Then you won't have to think about what medium to use to contact someone. You can just do it."

Standards are fast approaching the level of interoperability necessary to link voice, online presence, e-mail, and video conferencing applications together, Lazar said.

Lazar recommended businesses monitor three standards in particular: Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), emerging as the dominant standard for VoIP; SIP for Instant Messaging and Presence Leveraging Extensions (SIMPLE), which integrates voice with instant messaging; and Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP), a Web services standard that allows applications to communicate across different operating systems.

By integrating all of these systems, Lazar said, many business processes can be streamlined. For example, if a company's warehouse was about to run out of a certain product, the inventory management software could send an instant message to the person in charge of that inventory. That person could then use an integrated set of applications to determine which of his team members are available via e-mail or IM. From there, the employee could resolve the issue by launching a video conference that automatically included each member of the team.

Because convergence is joining so many once disparate methods of communication, Lazar said, vendors are stepping on each other's toes with increasing frequency. "All the vendors want to own VoIP," said Lazar.

To illustrate that, Cisco Systems Inc., once a data networking specialist, is now in the voice and video conferencing equipment business. Nortel Networks Ltd., known for its telephony systems, is adding instant messaging to its portfolio. And through its Live Communications Server, Microsoft is adding voice and video to its software portfolio, which is best known for Windows and Internet Explorer.

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Despite this vendor stampede, Lazar said, many businesses are still hesitant about convergence because the potential for return on investment has yet to be proven.

However, he added many enterprises are beginning to see the intrinsic value of combining all their methods of communications into one system.

But that promise is not enough to lure everyone. David Thomas, an attendee and executive manager with Atlanta-based consultancy Business Process Group, said that his business is not using VoIP.

"It's interesting stuff," Thomas said. "We just don't have a need for it."

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