Cisco Systems is addressing a big question mark in its IP convergence strategy by improving the reliability of its data network gear for transmitting voice.
The company is beefing up its products for service provider requirements, stressing its software prowess, and investing in voice expertise, according to Don Listwin, Cisco executive vice president.
Cisco's ability to ensure voice network uptime has come under scrutiny recently, especially with the vendor's claim it will go it alone into the voice world.
Critics say Cisco may not be able to match traditional vendors, such as Lucent and Nortel Networks, when it comes to providing 24 x 7 uptime and 99.999 per cent reliability for global voice infrastructures.
Hoping to silence the critics, Cisco is now completing a two-year effort to make its products compliant with Network Equipment Building System (NEBS) requirements, Listwin says. NEBS is a set of equipment requirements used throughout the telecommunications industry to help ensure that purchased gear installs easily, operates reliably and occupies building space efficiently.
Listwin says Cisco will complete its initial product transition to NEBS by the end of January 1999.
Cisco also hopes to convince users that its software is up to the reliability task.
Reliability is "a software game", not a hardware-only issue, and Cisco is stressing that its IOS code, with features such as the Hot Standby Routing Protocol, is dependable, Listwin says.
"You'll hear from the incumbents that voice over IP or voice over ATM are science experiments. We're past the science experiments," Listwin says.
Cisco is also investing in establishing "best practices", or optimal operational policies, for voice reliability. This involves helping users establish firm guidelines and procedures for operating, upgrading and maintaining the network.
"The area where we actually have to improve the most is in best practices," Listwin says. "If users decide to upgrade the network at 3pm Monday afternoon, they should have a practice that says, 'Don't do that'. That is well-established in the voice area, and it's not well-enough established in the data area."
Most network problems begin when a practice that isn't well-described is executed, Listwin says.
Cisco is also aligning its best practices strategy with its ISO 9001 process, Listwin says. ISO 9001 is a quality-assurance model used by companies that design, produce, inspect, test, install and service products.
Cisco has been waging a reliability battle with traditional voice giants as well as sceptical analysts.
Lucent, for example, has an advertising campaign that questions whether data networks can provide the same level of reliability that circuit-switched voice infrastructures - and their suppliers - have maintained for decades.