Altogether now?

Vendors have been highlighting the benefits of convergence for several years. However, only in the past year have enterprises begun to transform their networks.

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By  Zoe Moleshead Published  June 26, 2003

Momentum|~||~||~|The case for converged networks has been banded around for the last three or four years. However, much of the talk around convergence has remained just that — talk. But the past 12 months has seen a growing number of enterprises actually streamlining their voice, video and data networks into one.

More encouraging for vendors operating in the regional market is the fact that local companies seem to be more convinced of the benefits of convergence than their American and European counterparts. While this can in part be attributed to the abundance of Greenfield sites in the region, the hospitality and education sectors are also pursuing convergence.

“Regional enterprises have been thinking about convergence for the last few years, but only in the last year has this been materialising into more specific needs,” says Yarob Sakhnini, regional technical manager, Foundry networks, Middle East.

“The main sector that is interested in the benefits of convergence is the education sector. Other sectors, like hospitality and media, are also showing great interest in convergence,” he adds.

Sakhnini says these sectors may also be more keen to converge their networks because they are actually running the three mediums — voice, video and data — unlike many other vertical sectors, which just have voice and data considerations.

“Most enterprises are talking about the convergence of voice and data. The challenge with video is not technical though, it mainly revolves around what content is to be provided. Obviously for the media, hospitality and education sectors, the content is available, but for other sectors, the content and the need for video are not so clearly available,” he explains.

Enterprises, however, have to consider a number of differing factors when they deploy a converged network. While voice assumes priority above video and data, enterprises also need to ensure their network can offer high levels of service for all voice, video and data applications

“Voice requires minimal latency, while video requires both bandwidth and a low latency. Additionally, administration applications require guaranteed availability. So network managers have to identify the applications running on their network and determine how much bandwidth is required,” says Emad Makiya, general manager, Extreme Networks, MENA region.

Vendors are trying to smooth the migration process for those enterprises that are moving away from existing legacy TDM infrastructures by loading their network products with in-built features that provide traffic prioritisation down to the port. Moreover, they stress the importance of using standards based solutions.

“Cisco’s technology has advanced features on a per port basis on the switches. On every port of the switch there is a queuing mechanism and a processing mechanism, which gives voice traffic the highest priority, while video traffic gets a higher priority than data and so forth,” explains Khalid Oshraq, strategy & business development manager, Cisco Systems, Middle East.

“With convergence, users have to have the right support and equipment that integrates together and is standards based,” adds Serjios El-Hage, Avaya’s director of government solutions, for the Middle East, North Africa & South East Europe.

Furthermore, for those enterprises that are migrating away from existing infrastructures, both vendors and analysts recommend a softly, softly approach.
“Most enterprises… are concerned about the reliability of the systems, so they’d much rather take it slow and get their feet wet,” confirms Chris Kozup, programme director for Meta Group’s infrastructure strategies advisory service.

As such, El-Hage advises carrying out a network assessment as a first step. This will help to identify which areas of the network will require most adjustments to support voice and video. From here, enterprises can gradually move their voice and video applications to the IP infrastructure

“When you are going into existing set ups you have to do a network assessment to make sure that the products they [customers] have installed currently have the right quality of service protocols, are standards based so they can hook up to our equipment,” says El-Hage.

“Because most customers are scared of change, we work in stages and when all the parameters are set correctly we do the final upgrade,” he explains.

||**||Benefits|~||~||~|Despite the lingering doubts of some end users, vendors say that the arguments for convergence are very clear cut. “To reduce costs, gain more functionality, simplify the management of the passive and active infrastructures, and acquire more security control,” states Makiya.

Moreover, vendors suggest that by converging voice, video and data networks, users can reduce the amount of problems that they may be encountering. The theory being three networks equals three times the complexity.

“If enterprises have three separate networks that are managed by three different people but still need to be connected, it is more complex. They spend more time, money and resources trying to make all three work together,” says Oshraq.

Assaad Assaad, vice president of IT with United Realty Company (URC) in Kuwait, also upholds vendor claims about improved management. Moreover, he says that the company, which converged its voice and data networks using a 3Com solution, is benefiting from greater feature functionality.

“We have deployed this [converged network] in a multi-tenant building and everybody is satisfied with the platform, with the flexibility of the network and with the range of features we are getting from 3Com’s NBX and the data network,” says Assaad.

“There have been very few problems, and it is very easy to manage it, especially in comparison to a traditional PBX. We have a traditional PBX and it is hard to maintain and very hard to retrieve specific network data from. But the NBX is very easy to administer and manage,” he adds.

In addition, network convergence can also pave the way for additional application integration and enable users to unify their communications. For example, users could do away with separate numbers for their mobile, office and home, and instead just have one contact number.

“Convergence will allow the user to get more benefits from the infrastructure. For example, users will know who is calling them and the background of this caller. The same user can also receive both faxes and e-mails in a single mail box,” says Stanislas de Boisset, network consultant, 3Com Middle East.

Furthermore, vendors also dismiss worries over the bandwidth demands of converged networks. Although they concede large enterprises may need to plan more carefully on their wide area network (WAN) to ensure they have the necessary bandwidth to support all their users, on the local area network (LAN) there are few concerns.

Meta’s Kozup says users need only have a switched 10/100 network to provide adequate voice support. “Voice, with current state depression, only takes up 15 Kbits, which is pretty small. Within the campus or LAN, bandwidth has never really been an issue,” he explains.

“In terms of the WAN, most businesses use leased lines or ISDN and they run 56K or 128K. But if there are 100s and 100s of users to support between branches then we have to make sure that there is enough bandwidth to support them, so they might need 2Mbits/s,” adds Oshraq.

||**||Scepticism|~||~||~|Despite the claims of vendors that converged networks can be deployed with relative ease and provide multiple benefits for customers, including streamlined management, analysts still remain sceptical about the cost reductions that can be amassed through convergence.

“Vendors will obviously push the story around the return on investment (ROI), but our analysis has shown that this is not necessarily correct. We have seen some companies save money with call bypass. But that’s not really the same as running IP phones to the desktop,” says Kozup.

Assaad echoes this sentiment, explaining that URC has yet to see any real savings from its converged network. However, he does suggest that the platform may yield savings in the long term.

“It is not a cost saving because at the time we deployed the technology it was still expensive. Today it is a different story, it is much less expensive, but I cannot say the ROI is high. But may be in a couple of years we will be feeling the cost benefits,” notes Assaad.

Furthermore, Kozup suggests that users can in actual fact rack up expenses in the process of re-engineering their data network to make it capable of supporting video and more importantly voice.

Vendors, however, hit back with claims that while enterprises converging existing network infrastructures may incur some upfront costs, they will reap substantial ownership cost savings. Furthermore, in Greenfield sites the initial costs will be further reduced because there is no reengineering required.

“Sometimes the upfront cost of a converged network will be more expensive, but if you look at the real costs, the total cost of ownership it will be far lower because there is less maintenance and fewer employees,” says de Boisset.

“Migrating slowly for existing networks is a good idea. But for new installations it makes sense to just go for it — they realise savings immediately,” adds Oshraq.

In addition to questions over the realisation of cost savings, analysts have also dismissed much of the hype surrounding staffing issues. While vendors frequently claim that a converged network allows enterprises to downsize their IT department by merging their voice and data teams into one, Kozup says maintaining significant voice and data skills is vital.

“There are still different voice and data skills required, especially within large enterprises. So there are still going to be different people interfacing into the management framework,” he says.

Although vendors concede that in the initial stages of migration to a converged network, it is important to maintain both voice and data employees, they suggest that in the long term enterprises will be able to employ staff skilled in all areas.

“Over time the voice people will become more experienced in data and vice versa, the data people will get more voice experience. Certainly it is not at the stage now where you can have one person managing the network who will understand everything,” says Ivan Kraemer, sales & marketing manager, ProCurve networking business, ISE, HP.

However, merging the IT teams may help to streamline management and troubleshooting processes by providing employees with one centralised point of contact for any problems. “Users just call one help desk whether it is a video, data or voice problem,” affirms El-Hage.

Despite the lingering doubts of analysts and those end users that are yet to be convinced of the reliability of running voice and video over IP, there remains little doubt that the convergence will gain momentum. Locally, the plethora of new buildings and developments, most of which are likely to require some form of network infrastructure, will provide a substantial target market for vendors.

Additionally, as the technology matures, product prices are likely to drop and features and functionalities will improve.

“The question is pretty much the same as whether you would want to buy the old model car or the latest car, which is full of features and will drive automatically for you,” says de Boisset.

“All the people that have invested in convergence today are realising that they will save costs tomorrow,” he adds.||**||

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