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Convergence presents new struggles for admins

Experts at Networking Decisions warned attendees against underestimating the complexity of adding voice to the network, because small details, like out-of-date network maps and inaccurate traffic forecasts, can mean big headaches.

ATLANTA -- Network convergence involves much more than simply adding voice traffic to your network. During a panel discussion at last week's Networking Decisions conference, experts offered tips for getting your network in shape for VoIP.

Speaker Carrie Higbie, a global network application manager with the Watertown, Conn.-based cabling firm Siemon Co., said that convergence involves combining the electronics, applications and physical layers of an organization on one data network.

For network managers, that means paying attention to a whole new set of issues. For starters, Higbie said, businesses need to have an up-to-date cabling diagram.

"If you don't know where a cable ends and where it begins, then five minutes of troubleshooting can easily turn into three days of the skinny kid climbing through the attic," she said.

Rich Products Corp., a food manufacturer in Buffalo, N.Y., launched a VoIP system in one of its facilities in July 2003. Attendee Amy Picinich, a communications analyst at Rich, said that the value-added reseller (VAR) she worked with on the voice migration had previously labeled the cabling in the building, and that was a "big help" in ensuring a smooth implementation.

Businesses also need to have current network diagrams, said panelist Kevin Beaver, a founder and principal consultant with Principal Logic LLC. Beaver recommended that businesses auto-discover their network devices once a quarter to track changes and keep diagrams up to date.

Once diagrams are accurate, Beaver said, businesses should then analyze their needs and develop a plan. During that process, businesses need to understand the risks they are taking with network convergence, he said.

"All your electronic business functions -- e-mail, phones, voicemail -- are being put into a single point of failure," Beaver said. For that reason, he said networks need to be reassessed from the ground up.

In addition to understanding the physical network, Higbie said businesses need to understand network traffic.

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"Eighty-five percent of enterprises have no clue about what happens on their networks," Higbie said.

Specifically, she said it's important to know what types of traffic are moving across the network at any given time, so administrators know what traffic levels to expect.

"Plan for the busiest time of day and assume that will be your load," Higbie said.

Convergence also requires a lot of communication between voice and data departments, and turf wars are likely to flare up, said Jean-Pierre Garbani, a vice president with Cambridge, Mass-based Forrester Research Inc. He said there is no simple answer to fixing those conflicts, other than getting support from upper management.

While those struggles can be overcome, the panelists agreed that a lack of assessment and planning can be crippling. Attendee Picinich credited her company's successful VoIP deployment to good planning and assessment services by her VAR, and now the business is looking at expanding VoIP service to more facilities.

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