ATLANTA -- The network is back. According to a top Gartner analyst, the inevitable arrival of networking-centric applications is forcing companies to realize that the network is no longer an undervalued commodity, but is instead becoming the driving force behind their IT operations.
Mark Fabbi, a vice president with the Stamford, Conn.-based analysis firm Gartner, today told attendees at TechTarget's Networking Decisions conference that enterprises that haven't made significant network upgrades in the past five years could soon be required to replace 80% or more of their infrastructure. This will be necessary to accommodate next-generation converged applications, such as IP telephony and integrated instant messaging and video.
"As we move toward Web applications and have more issues with network security, network [performance] problems are coming back," Fabbi said, and they'll only get more prevalent. He said that in five years, many corporate networks will be entirely IP and Ethernet based, with wireless functionality being an extension of many networks.
Fabbi said that one of the most important network applications going forward will be IP telephony. Despite long-held concerns regarding downtime, latency and other service issues, Fabbi said those problems primarily occur because customers and resellers don't understand how important network upgrades are to the technology's success.
"Customers should ask [vendors] what IP telephony will mean to their physical infrastructures, and what kind of continued maintenance will be required," he said.
Another common IP telephony misconception, Fabbi said, is that it will require companies to "forklift" or replace their entire existing networks with new hardware. In reality, he said, many companies should aim for a hybrid IP-enabled PBX system that takes advantage of new technology while relying largely on legacy systems.
Firms may want to upgrade to full IP systems one day, but Fabbi said a hybrid configuration could extend the lifespan of many of today's core networks to 2006 and beyond.
Even though a period of rapid network evolution is beginning, that doesn't mean a company should hand its networking vendor a blank check. "We're not going to return to the days of infinite IT budgets," Fabbi said.
Fortunately, the new era of network convergence is creating new competition among vendors. Fabbi said voice and data specialists are bleeding into each other's markets, and both are incorporating functionality like CRM and ERP, which has traditionally been the territory of business applications vendors. With so many networking vendors extending their focuses, Fabbi said the increased competition is likely to drive prices down for customers.
Thomas F. Oleary, a senior network consultant with NCR Corp. in Roslyn, Pa., said his company began an IP telephony integration project approximately eight months ago, and will eventually provide VoIP service to all of its 38,000 employees.
Oleary said that his company learned that planning was the most important part of an IP telephony implementation, because -- though it wasn't easy -- the preparation helped him develop a deep understanding of what his current network was capable of handling.
Craig Borowski, an IS manager with Decoma International Inc.'s exterior systems engineering group in Troy, Mich., said a recent network failure is forcing his company to upgrade much of its infrastructure immediately. Though his network is more than five years old, he said it's unlikely that it will move toward IP telephony now, primarily because of his company's decentralized IT organization.
Borowski said he is also worried that, with IP telephony technology being so young, one vendor's vision may be different from another's, and ultimately be the wrong direction for his company.
"We don't do a lot of big IT investments like this," Borowski said, so there's added pressure for him to "get it right."
TechTarget is the organizer of Networking Decisions and owner of the family of Web sites that includes SearchNetworking.com.
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
Special coverage of Networking Decisions 2003
Best Web Links: Voice/data convergence