CONVERGED NETWORK: Future Foretold

Gone
are the days when the network architecture revolved around the
efficient transmission of voice. Skim the surface of the new
breed of network, which is about to take off. It is all about
integrating voice, data, and video into a single network
infrastructure. Dig in a bit deep. You will find the low cost of
optical networking in the core and high-speed Internet access
technologies like cable modems and ADSL. Simply defined,
convergence means moving to a single layer network protocol–IP,
which spells doom for those who still believe their networks
should be optimized for voice telephone calls.

For enterprises, IP
convergence is a lucrative deal. Apart from simplified
management, converged network offers business customers
considerable cost savings and a host of new applications to gain
a cutting edge. A white paper on convergence by Cabletron points
out that by developing a Voice-over-IP (VoIP) implementation
strategy with an initial WAN deployment, an organization can
realize immediate savings in its IT operations. Consider these
staggering figures: You can save up to 60 percent by using
packetized voice and Fax-over-IP (FoIP), bypassing Public
Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) tolls. You can avoid costly
forklift upgrades by leveraging your exiting voice equipment.
And since you will have just one combined network, you will save
on management costs, enjoying a fast Return on Investment (RoI). 

The new age infrastructure
will also make it possible to deploy multimedia and video
streaming applications that can be shared by employees,
partners, and vendors alike. This would mean a distinct
competitive advantage and a better way of doing business. So is
it any wonder that an increasing number of Indian corporates are
taking a serious look at network convergence? 

The Genesis

The
roots of network convergence can be traced to the advent of
digital communications, which reduced information into discrete,
identifiable and thus, more easily transferable pieces of
information. It also efficiently maximizes the transfer of
information by allowing more signals to move through a single
communication path. Network convergence utilizes this attribute
of digital communication to efficiently and effectively
distribute different types of information–voice, video, and
data on the same communications network. Moreover, network
convergence reduces the inefficient flow of voice, video, and
data whose different characteristics led to the development of
separate communications network that were designed differently,
and are often incompatible. Various studies point out that given
the advancement of ubiquitous digital technologies for the
transmission of information, the greatest value of information
will be realized by network convergence.

Network convergence has
also developed from the implementation of digital
packet-switching technologies, such as IP telephony that permits
the transmission of voice, video, and data over
computer networks that were originally developed only for data
transmission. Moreover, because of the platform-independent
nature of IP telephony, the data networks, which were originally
designed as ancillary networks, are soon surpassing the capacity
and use of the traditional telephone and cable networks because
of the efficiency provided by digital telecom through a network
convergence architecture.  The New
Paradigm

With
the blurring of geographical boundaries, thanks to the distance
insensitive Internet, majority of business and individuals are
becoming part of a high-speed networking fabric which will
enable secure digital communication of voice, data, and video to
or from anyone, anywhere and anytime. Till recently, it would
have sounded like a chapter straight out of science fiction.
Fortunately, the technology now exists to deliver it. Customers
now want to pick and chose from narrowcast and broadcast. They
want a fusion of voice, data, and video in all possible mixes.
In other words, this means the availability of multiple
technology choices to fulfill the customer’s desire for
anytime access to people, information, and commerce. According
to an Ernst & Young study, this would be most obvious in the
cornucopia of emerging terminal devices. But convergence does
not necessarily sound the death knell of age-old technologies.
In fact, it leaves enough room for many technologies to co-exist
and one will not replace
the other outright. This is
because no one technology can meet all the requirements of the
market-place. Hence, each technology will find its niche and
redefine new and old classes of service and user terminals. In
this context one can safely assume that there will be a rash of
new user terminals that will let us communicate in ways we
dream.

Hues and
Colours

According to
3Com, one of the leading vendors of convergence products,
converged networking encompasses several aspects, all of which
are related to the aggregation of networking
activity. A 3Com white paper puts it down thus:

  • Payload
    convergence
    is that
    aspect of converged networking wherein different data types
    are carried in the same communications format. For example,
    in the past audio and video traffic was carried over
    circuit-switched network as Layer 1 bit streams, while
    bursty data traffic was carried over packet-switched
    networks in Layer 3 datagrams. Payload convergence describes
    the trend to carry both audio/video and bursty traffic in
    Layer 3 datagrams. However, the payload convergence does not
    prohibit the network from handling packets, according to
    their service requirements.

  • Protocol
    convergence
    is the
    movement away from multi-protocol to single protocol
    (typically IP) networks. While legacy networks are designed to
    handle many protocols and one type of data, converged networks
    are designed to handle one protocol and provide the services
    necessary for multiple types of data (such as voice, one-way
    video, and interactive video).

  • Physical
    convergence
    occurs when
    payloads travel over the same physical network equipment
    regardless of their service requirements. Both multimedia and
    Web traffic can use the facilities of an edge network, even
    though the former has more stringent bandwidth, delay, and
    jitter requirements than the latter. Resource reservation,
    priority queuing and other Quality of Service (QoS) or Class
    of Service (CoS) mechanisms within the network are used to
    differentiate the service requirements of one type of traffic
    from another and to deliver the necessary service to each.

  • Device
    convergence
    means the
    trend in network device architecture to support different
    networking paradigms in a single system. Thus, a switch may
    support Ethernet packet forwarding, IP routing and ATM
    switching. Network devices may handle data, carried by a
    common network protocol that have separate service
    requirements. In addition, an end system may support both
    Web-based data applications and packet telephony.

  • Application
    convergence
    represents
    the appearance of applications that integrate formerly
    separate functions. For example, Web browsers allow the
    incorporation of plug-in applications that allow web pages to
    carry multimedia content such as audio, video, high-resolution
    graphics, virtual reality graphics and interactive voice.

  • Technology
    convergence
    signifies
    the move towards common networking technologies that satisfy
    both LAN and WAN requirements. For example, ATM can be used to
    provide both LAN and WAN services.

Network Utopia

If
the promises of network convergence are so compelling, why do
separate networks for voice, data and video still predominate
the enterprise network landscape? To answer this question, one
has to take a cursory glance at the biggest concerns about
moving to a converged network. Top of the list would be
reliability and complexity involved in the change. Following
suite the fact that voice-over-data services are still unproven
and lack of standards here are holding back many enterprise
customers from migrating to an unified network. But this is not
to say that companies are cold-shouldering network convergence
because it is still a work in progress. In fact, many are
testing the water as the potential benefits are too luring to
turn a blind eye. Forward looking companies
in US and Europe have already embraced convergence as they have
been able to drastically cut down networking costs by turning
voice into data packets and running them over efficient IP, ATM
and frame relay networks. You don’t get any prices for
guessing that soon Indian corporates, who have already seen what
enterprise networks and applications have done for their
counterparts elsewhere, will be in a hurry to catch up. Most of
companies which are toying with the idea of a shift are
primarily interested in the multimedia applications such as
video collaboration, unified messaging, voice-data call centres
as they consider it strategic to their business. And convergence
offers them what they exactly need–cutting cost. On the flip
side, howerver, is that many of the carriers and switch makers
have not been able to demonstrate the savings involved and if
they succeed in doing so, convergence market is bound to
skyrocket.

Battle for the
Convergence Cake

Network
equipment, which traditionally delivered either functionality or
performance, is no match for the new environment. Software-based
routers, while richly featured, are slow. Hardware-based Layer-2
switches are fast but lack the functionality to be in the
backbone and lack the scalability to be in a large network. This
has necessitated the need for a new set of products and blazing
the trail are vendors like Cisco, Nortel Networks, 3Com and
Cabletron. All these companies are hedging their bets on
convergence and are vying with each other to grab a pie of this
cake. All these vendors have rolled out products that will let
carriers offer converged network services.

Nortel Networks has
recently unveiled a new suite of products for unified networks.
To effectively manage the deployment and operation of this new
breed of network, Nortel and Nortel Networks plan to combine
their respective management strengths to create unified network
management. This combined product leverages the best features
from the Nortel Networks Optivity Network Management System and
Nortel’s Open Management System for Passport (OMS). This
solution provides application intelligent management across LAN,
WAN, and PBX, campus, and enterprise.

Cisco’s new WAN backbone
switching solutions meet the needs of service providers and
large enterprises for integrated ATM, Frame Relay, IP, Internet,
voice, and video services. It also offers the industry’s
highest performance and QoS for delivering multiple types of
traffic over a consolidated backbone network.

Not to be outdone,
Cabletron has come out with its new family of switching routers
which deliver wire-speed Layer 2, Layer 3 and Layer 4
functionality. Built for the enterprise and ISP backbone on a
foundation of Gigabit Ethernet, Cabletron’s new SmartSwitch
Router solutions offer massive table capacity, a multi-gigabit
non-blocking backplane, low latency, and seamless scaling.

Another leading vendor,
3Com, is already shipping out its CommsWork IP telephony
platform which integrates seamlessly with existing network
infrastructures including the PSTN and Signaling System 7(SS7)
network. It’s an open, standards-based solution that lets one
take advantage of new service opportunities like VoIP, FoIP,
Signalling System 7 (SS7)/Intelligent Networks (IN),
Internet call waiting, web-based call centres, unified
messaging, etc. Convergence at
What Price?

Though
this plethora of products and services bodes well for the coming
era of converged networks, there are not many takers for this
new breed of networking equipment because of the price tag. And
naturally, only those companies with pressing business needs are
taking the leap. This could be one of the serious hurdles to
network convergence in a price sensitive market like India.

However, there is no
denial of the fact that a wide range of applications and
business environments will benefit from network convergence in
the coming years. Whether or not an organization’s immediate
plans include convergence, today’s infrastructure investment
should include features and capabilities that position the
network to support 
these applications in the future. Else, it’s the simplest
formula for gradual extinction. 

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