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Voice and Data convergence changing the nature of the game

A few years ago, the network was only used to carry to packets of data and those that were dropped could simply be resent. But voice and data convergence has changed the game recently and the network is now much less tolerant of failure. In the next few years, things will get even tougher as video is increasingly added to the fray but what does this continued evolution mean for the channel? ARN - in conjunction with LAN Systems, Emerson Networks and Cisco Systems - hosted a discussion recently with a table of integrators to find out.

How has the convergence of voice and data changed the role of the integrator?

Craig Somerville, Somerville Group (CS):We see both sides of the fence because we have a traditional voice business that is worlds apart from our IT business. One of the stumbling blocks we have had is that our Cisco engineers get really excited about voice but when they get down to the reality of implementing it they realise it's about call forwarding and customer functions that really don't excite engineers all that much. We are lucky that we have some of those traditional guys who understand voice for what it is. When it comes to our role with the customer these days, we are still at a point where we need to educate a lot of them about where a converged network is going to deliver value. We are still getting through the perception that it is a new technology but there are a lot more opportunities on the table. As people change PABX systems we don't look at anything but IP voice going forward.

Ed Jeffers, Alphawest (EJ):Our customers are maybe a little more mature. IP is IP and we are all going that way. We are seeing more conversation around collaboration. Adding content and applications is where we are starting to see some pick up and maturity. I wouldn't say VoIP is a foregone conclusion just yet but we are certainly reaching a point where that's the case. We went through a bit of a transition trying to get traditional communications engineers to take it on-board but I think we have probably got there. We are struggling to keep up with demand because of that and customers just expect us to show up, put the stuff in and make it work. As a CIO I talk to on a regular basis said: "Look, I want my phone to work, I want to get my email and I want it to be secure. After that, I don't really care."

CS:That's TDM. It's old technology and it's exactly what we're still doing. We are talking about applications but the general community rolls out IP voice and they go: "Dial tone, voicemail, happy days." It's an education thing. We have a younger generation of people coming in now that are used to video-on-demand and instant communications. They will drive a lot more but sitting in most businesses today that run IP voice, they are using dial tone.

Are customers aware that integrating voice onto a data network will impact on reliability requirements?

Chris Fydler, Oriel (CF):There's an expectation now that the LAN will be of sufficient quality to support various applications. From a staffing point of view, the people who have traditionally done switching and routing are being forced to step up to voice. There is a bit of pushback there but how often do you hear about major technology releases in switching and routing anymore? You don't because everybody is focused on the applications that sit on top of it. We are finding that customers expect things will run on the network and we have upgraded most of our customers to an environment where they will. Reliability is something we talk to our customers about but we are not going to have dual WANs running, for example, because the reliability of kit is better than 5-10 years ago.

Ed Phillips, Getronics (EP):Our market message has changed a lot recently. Two years ago, the argument for convergence was primarily a cost consideration with a fluffy productivity message. People are now taking it for granted - you still need to make a case for the infrastructure but they are going to buy it. The unified communications message is now about productivity. Most customers in Australia seem to be pretty educated about what you need in order to realise the productivity gains. There's a bunch of fairly mundane stuff you need to do first to get the infrastructure ready and I think people accept that.

What are the relative difficulties of coming to convergence from a voice or data background?

Jules Rumsey, Telarus (JR):A lot of service providers have tried to get into data from the voice side or vice versa. Similarly, the integrators have tried to do the same. There have been barriers to entry coming from one side or the other but for me it's been more of a mental thing. Some of these guys find it a bit confronting to move into an area that is outside of their comfort zone. That's going to change but a lot of our channel partners are still looking for support when it come to things like QoS, network design, disaster recovery and power.

Kevin Bloch, Cisco Systems (KB):I think the key is experience. It's easy to read the manual on a course but it's the details that make the difference. Our challenge five or six years ago, talking to existing data partners, was convincing them there was a new world we could help them be involved in. That worked to a point but accelerated when we told voice partners that their world was going to be shut down. Some of them didn't believe it at the time but I think they believe it now. The best example is in the call centre. There weren't a lot of data vendors that understood the contact centre because it was the realm of the voice guys. The customer interaction is so important in that environment and comes predominantly through the telephone so we needed to engage with people that understood that interaction. We have come a long way in six years and have partners that are pretty savvy. They are bilingual.

Maree Lowe, ASI Solutions (ML):The difficulty has been cross-training engineers when they have been 100 per cent data but are suddenly expected to be 25 per cent voice. The industry is moving so quickly and you have the continual problem of up-skilling. The second problem is customer expectation. They have the feeling that the unified messaging employed on current systems can just be moved across when they upgrade but some of those are not entirely compatible. Setting a schedule of works for what you are going to deliver, and who is going to deliver it, becomes absolutely crucial. Having your engineers sitting around because somebody hasn't turned up when you are supposed to be doing a weekend install are the sorts of complications we have to come to terms with on the voice side.

Tony Heywood, ComputerCorp (TH):We seem to be focusing on the engineering side but we almost need a different kind of sales person - somebody that asks questions based on emotions rather than fact. If the managing director doesn't get his data on time, he can handle that; but if his phone doesn't work, he's going to crack it. If his major customer interface doesn't work, he's really in trouble and the sales person that can talk to those needs develops a different rapport than someone talking about ports and switching. Andrew Lowy, Efficient Data (AL): The problem is finding those resources. It's really hard to find somebody who understands the technology but can also communicate that to the client and ask the right questions.

TH:That's why there's a lot of buying activity around voice integrators at the moment.

AL:We work very hard on retaining resources and bringing them into the culture of our company.

Brad Engstrom, Cisco Systems (BE):My brother's a diesel mechanic and has been for a while. He spends a huge amount of time in training; it's all chips and electronics but that's just part of being a diesel mechanic now. I think we are just a little bit earlier in that cycle. The engineers at Cisco are already across both [data and voice] and there are no real specialisations.

EJ:It might be those young engineers who are going to drive this technology. I hate to say it but all of us around this table are digital immigrants. We are already seeing engineering staff making demands on the company that reflect back on the technology. These guys expect video applications on a device in their hand and they will sometimes not take a job if they can't get that. Like I've said, IP is a foregone conclusion as far as I'm concerned but we have to get it out there and step up to the training aspects, which are a huge challenge because you still have data engineers that have been on the job for 20 years and it's hard to get them to come across. IP has become so critical that you can attach an engineer's IP directly to the revenue of our company, which tells us that is what the customer is paying us for. We all need to take a broader view and realise the way we communicate has changed. It's not changing, it has changed. Everybody thinks the phone is the number one interface but it's no longer just a phone. I can do word processing on my phone and it's a whole different way of thinking about things. For me it's a very exciting time and it's all good for us in this room. We're all going to at least keep our jobs for a little while.

Nathan Godsall, LAN Systems (NG):I have to agree with you. LAN Systems is a fairly young organisation with a lot of people who are Generation Y. If my Instant Messenger goes off it's a disturbance and I don't like it but I walk around our company floor and they average about three screens open each. They way people communicate has changed and I am watching it happen around me.

Ralph Marshall, LAN Systems (RM):This generation is growing up in an age where they are used to YouTube and instant messaging. They are in our organisations but also those of our customers and they are getting to the levels where they are going to influence, if not make, decisions.

JR:We are seeing people using VoIP at home but then plugging the same box into the office network and starting to have issues. They are looking for somebody to provide a solution and that generates opportunities for us.

ML:Experience at home is a huge driver. They come into work and don't understand why they can't do the same things.

AL:We have started putting Skype gateways into our clients now, which is pretty funky stuff and we get a cost reduction from the telco.

Gary O'Sullivan, Intelligent IP (GO):It's also having different ways to communicate with your customers - mobile phones, desk phones, Skype, MSN. Regardless of which way you interact with them, it's all going through the IP network one way or another.

CS: We are all selling IP-enabled networks. One of the early parts of the sales cycle that killed all the Cisco resellers was having presence and all this technology to offer but then pricing it up and finding it was eight times the cost of a TDM system. So we turned back to concentrating on selling IP voice and then installing the applications as they became available. When you have the base dial tone, the incremental cost of things like presence then becomes a very small decision. That's where I think a lot of us are now. It's all upside for us now as these applications become viable and are required by business.

Bjarne Munch, Gartner (BM):I talk to clients that have been looking at the technology for a long time and they understand the technology but don't really know how to evaluate it. They don't know what they need to buy and what the consequences are.

EJ:The network is IT and if you don't think that way now you are probably going out of business. The challenge is working out how improving IT will make your company better in its market segment. IT was the stepchild but now it's about beating your competition because you have a better network. The last dramatic change was Y2K but there are still hundreds of old PBXs out there and we are sitting on another one of those transitions.

KB: It is important that phone systems are up but, in the context of collaboration, 70 per cent of communication might be coming through email. Most kids are on SMS and there are about a dozen other ways to reach somebody. There are still some companies with PABX systems but more than half the enterprise would have an IP infrastructure with unified communications.

BM: I agree with your vision but based on what I see it still sounds like a vision. I would question if those buying today have that vision. TDM systems have declined dramatically but IP on a TDM system is still more popular than pure IP systems.

EP: It depends on the vertical. In companies that really understand communications are core to their business we have seen them acknowledge IT as a differentiator. It's not about IP telephony anymore; it's about a number of applications using common infrastructure.

JR: There's a critical design element when you start to put so many services over a single network because the growing number of applications thrown onto it are getting into all sorts of facets of business. The network is now so important that you need to design something robust so there's a way of handling the situation if something fails. People can have their various different collaboration tools but what happens if they lose power? It becomes complex and might not perform to the level people expect so you have to design for these contingencies.

BE: Some decisions are made without thinking about what is going to happen to the network. If they did that in consultation with IT, they could plan for that ahead of time. Resellers can understand the impact of applications on networks.


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