As IT teams aim for green enterprise networks, they may find that simply investing in traffic monitoring, security and mobility to enable unified communications will yield better results than buying costly new energy-efficient network components.
Investing in a robust network to support unified communications (UC) enables a virtual workplace, which is the most energy-efficient business model. UC results in increased ability to telecommute, reduced need for travel, and ultimately slashed emissions and use of nonrenewable resources.
So, if you want to invest in your network to enable or improve UC and teleworking, which technologies should you consider?
Network traffic monitoring and network QoS
Monitoring and managing the network for quality of service -- not just bandwidth use -- can make all the difference in enabling UC. Audio, video and presence applications depend on underlying real-time protocols that are sensitive to network performance characteristics. Latency and packet loss affect all UC applications from the simplest low-bit-rate VoIP stream to the most complex video/audio applications.
Because of the real-time nature of the protocols, there is very little room for recovery from packet loss, packet delays (latency), out-of-order packets or variations in timing (jitter). Inconsistencies in the network quality quickly reveal themselves by affecting the user experience: blocky video, choppy robotic voice and out-of-sync audio/video. When these kinds of problems appear in a UC application, the first impulse is to try and throw more bandwidth at the problem. Throwing bandwidth at the problem will hide it for a while, but eventually, when you get a burst of traffic or get closer to capacity, you will once again see UC traffic suffering.
Sometimes quality problems are architectural -- too many hops in the network, inefficient routing paths. More often than not, the problem is a lack of end-to-end quality-of-service (QoS) and traffic-shaping capabilities.
On multi-protocol and multi-use networks, quality is also subject to contention among the different uses. If you don't make real-time protocols "special" by giving them right-of-way and managing their prioritization, they will be at the mercy of less sensitive traffic.
End-to-end traffic shaping for network QoS
Traffic shaping and prioritization are end-to-end problems. It's not enough to fix the WAN or the LAN. It's important to monitor performance and apply traffic shaping across the entire packet path.
First, packets must be correctly marked where they are originated, on the client or server, using differentiated services markup in the IP headers. Then the QoS markings need to be enforced consistently in traffic-shaping algorithms at each hop in the network. If MPLS is used for the WAN, then the internal QoS markings need to be mapped to the appropriate MPLS labels. Constant monitoring of traffic flows is crucial because, when troubleshooting QoS, problems generally only emerge during periods of congestion, so they are intermittent and difficult to replicate.
Managing end-to-end quality is a more efficient investment than adding bandwidth. Improvements in quality will continue to draw return on investment (ROI) for a long time and will allow you to squeeze out the maximum performance from your existing network without investing in new bandwidth.
Investing in end-to-end network security
Adding network security features enables UC with lower levels of risk but also makes every other application more secure. Security investments can come in many forms, but the best ones are application- and protocol-agnostic, technologies such as:
- SSL or IPSEC virtual private networks (VPNs)
- VLAN segmentation and control
- Endpoint authentication (802.1x, NAC, NAP)
- Denial-of-Service (DoS) protections
Implementing end-to-end controls like encryption allows you to extend the security to wherever the user might be, unlike employing perimeter-based controls that protect only those inside some notional (and increasingly perforated) perimeter.
End-to-end security supports the use of all your applications, anywhere, anytime, from any device and thus enables and empowers the virtual workplace. Ideally, an organization will apply all of the technologies above in order to build several layers of defense. At a minimum, VPN technology is a basic requirement for operating UC across a distributed network.
Investing in mobility for unified communications in a green enterprise
The final network investment for UC is mobility. UC applications want to be mobile, if only your network would let them! Investing in mobility means building wireless networks in the areas you control (i.e., the campus and branch offices where you can deploy hardware) and enabling third-party wireless integrations (Wi-Fi, 3G or WiMAX) everywhere else.
You have to make the parts of the network you own work with the parts of the network you don't own. Above all else, this will involve extending the same quality and security we discussed above to devices on mobile networks you don't control. Security and QoS are both end-to-end issues, and you have to figure out how to make a BlackBerry in, say, Korea connect over three or four networks to your data center in Kansas, securely and with high performance.
Every dollar you spend on the network improves your ability to support all IT applications that run on that network and reduces your operating cost for every application. Investing further in a UC-capable network takes that leverage and extends it to the people and business processes, bringing greater productivity and lower operating costs for your business overall.
About the author: Andreas M. Antonopoulos is a senior vice president and founding partner with Nemertes Research, where he develops and manages research projects, conducts strategic seminars and advises key clients. Andreas is a computer scientist, a master of data communications and distributed systems, a Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) and a self-professed geek, with an engineering, programming and consulting background.