Any device, any place?

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Converging networks, the idea of putting everything in the enterprise onto the one IP-based network, is an idea that has been around for a long time and some of its component parts such as Voice over IP (VoIP) have been around even longer.

But with Gigabit switches, which make up the core of the converged network infrastructure becoming cheaper, there are strong indications that the market is on the brink of fulfilling the vision of converging disparate storage, voice, data and video networks into one network infrastructure that can be accessed anywhere using any device, and resellers are already positioning themselves to take advantage of this trend.

While networking outfits such as Cisco, with its AVVID (Architecture for Voice, Video and Integrated Data) model, Nortel, Avaya, Foundry and Extreme have all been heavily marketing the idea over recent years, it has been slow to gain popularity and even now only parts of the overall concept, mainly IP VPN over the Internet and VoIP, have achieved any real acceptance.

According to a survey of 200 companies done late last year by IDC's Research Director, Infrastructure and Communications, Joel Martin, and Senior Research Analyst, Next generation networks, Landry Fevre, IP VPN and VoIP have made major inroads into the enterprise.

Of the organisations surveyed, 30 percent had already installed IP VPN, 20 percent were installing it within the next 12 months and 27 percent were evaluating products.

While the take up of VoIP is not as great, only 20 percent of companies having already implemented the technology and 11 percent planning to within the next 12 months, it is significant that 51 percent of the enterprises surveyed are evaluating the technology.

By contrast, IP video conferencing and IP voice conferencing had only been rolled out in 9 percent and 5 percent of the companies surveyed, with 5 percent and 7 percent planning to implement it in the next 12 months.

'Clearly IP VPN and VoIP are making some inroads into the Australian market,' says Fevre. 'And a second pack of technology is starting to emerge with IP video conferencing, Web-enabled call centres and unified communications. However, IP video conferencing will [only] be implemented by companies once VoIP has made its case as a cheap, reliable, scalable solution,' he says.

While no enterprise in Australia, and few, if any, in the world have wholly embraced the totally converged network strategy, according to IDC's Martin, one IP-based network which can accessed by anything from a desktop to a data-enabled phone, still remains the ultimate end game and an objective worth aiming for. 'That's the ultimate goal, to be able to access anything, anywhere all the time,' says Martin. 'The main thing that is driving this is the movement towards one basic core infrastructure being IP-based, then the enterprise can start developing the applications rather than waiting on a third party to provide it.

'Having a single network allows people to do that, but then you have issues with mobility and security further down the track as more bandwidth becomes unwired through third-generation mobile and wireless LAN networks.'

Nortel's Director, Enterprise Marketing, Asia Pacific, Ian Ross, believes that there are strong business reasons for converging networks.

'The concept of converged networks is the concept of combining applications, useability trends, access devices, as well as various business requirement all onto the one networking vehicle,' says Ross.

He adds that there are advantage using this method from a decrease in operational resources, a reduction in investment and the ability to leverage the benefits of all different parts of the network.

'So typically when we talk convergent networks we talk about the ability to integrate voice and data networks. [But] what convergence also means is looking at access devices and converging them all so that it becomes agnostic as to how you retrieve information. In the grander vision it is not just wireless within the enterprise, it could be wireless in the public space so we are talking about notebooks, PDAs, mobile phones, PCs in the office and at home all being agents to the network more or less.'

Avaya's Channel Director, South Pacific, Peter Dillon, believes that the gathering momentum towards converged networks is providing resellers with great opportunities to get into new markets and to increase overall skill levels within the organisation. 'We are seeing the main opportunities coming out of certain sectors such as government or education,' says Dillon.

'Every major tender or opportunity now they're talking about can you IP-enable it. Very few large networks looking at doing a technology refresh would contemplate using traditional TDM voice technology, they are looking IP and convergence. Video is still a bit of a niche, it is important in some sectors but it is not a driver. Storage is becoming more important and it is another driver [towards converged networks].

'It's providing the resellers, number one, with new opportunities in the market and it's allowing them to skill up, they're making the transition from voice into convergence and data. It also gives them the opportunity to sell more tools, like the network readiness tools and the network management tools, so it's giving them broader service offerings as well.”

Foundry Network's regional sales director, South Asia Pacific, Gordon Vick, believes that the greatest opportunity offered to resellers by the move towards converged networks is the chance to become integrators again.

'I think we are seeing a huge opportunity for people to go back to being integrators,' says Vick. 'Actually adding value for their customers and actually being able to charge a premium. People aren't going to buy all this stuff with one vendor's label on it. If you are going to want to get the best of breed, you are going to find that vendor A has the best wireless access, vendor B has perhaps got the best IP telephony, vendor C has got the switches to hang it all together and what you need is someone that is capable of advising customers, designing the whole thing and then integrating it.'

NSC's Managing Director, Craig Neil, believes that converged networking as a concept has come of age and he had positioned the company to take advantage of what he sees as a growing trend. 'Convergence, or putting all communications traffic, voice, data, video, across the one network has really come of age. There are some very high profile organisations running mission critical telephony over this technology now. And the more that happens, the more confidence will build up in this application.' says Neil.

While NSC has mainly been implementing voice and data converged networks he has also seen strong take up of video conferencing in the government and education markets. “The Department of Veteran's Affairs has been doing video conferencing over the IP network between offices and the Australian National University are very big users of video conferencing over IP.”

Neil suspects that while the technology is in the current transition stage where it is slowly but surely moving into the mainstream, some companies will be looking to outsource. 'A lot of businesses looking at migrating to a converged network, the biggest challenge to be faced, if you do have your own technical people, is that if you have a good voice engineer you need to teach them about data networks and vice versa. There is a cost to that and we are starting to see a lot of outsourcing because companies don't want to do the training.'

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