Convergence war looming

As voice and data traffic begin to share the same pipes that make up the modern corporate network, a turf war is heating up within IT departments. The contentious issue at the heart of the battle is, who will control this new-style network – the data experts or the voice managers? Who will survive and who might be looking for a new job?

Although many analysts, vendors and network managers themselves admit that the tussle could get ugly, others believe that peace can rule the day – so long as network managers converge the voice and data departments along with the technology.

Rod Martin, manager of network infrastructure at Algonquin College in Ottawa, oversees a converged workgroup of both types of managers. He says the phone experts in his organization are “moving up the food chain” as they learn more about data. When Algonquin decided to deploy IP telephony, which sees voice traffic running over data lines, the school integrated the phone workers into the IT department. It just made sense, Martin says. After all, IP networks converge voice and data. It stands to reason that IP would require convergence among voice and data workgroups, too.

Martin figures voice gurus have a place in the IP world, but “they won’t be doing the same work,” Martin said. “Things will change somewhat because…when it comes to adds, moves and changes (when a phone must be added, moved or reprogrammed), with the voice-over-IP phones there’s a lot less fooling around. You just have a data jack, you go and plug it in.”

Instead of playing with cables, Martin said telephony experts would spend time making sure the network is up to par, minding bandwidth requirements and learning the intricacies of IP routing.

Martin also said hostility between voice and data experts at Algonquin are low. “I don’t see it as a tug of war between the two groups. As things evolve, the job function changes.”

Algonquin College kept two phone experts in house so the school wouldn’t have to outsource every time it needed to add, move or change a phone. At the B.C. Cancer Agency in Vancouver, however, CIO Don Henkelman had traditionally relied on help from a third party for complex changes to its PBX networks.

That all changed when the Agency recently switched to IP telephony; it no longer needs the services of an outsourcee. Network complexities are now rendered simple, and Henkelman said the organization is saving a bundle of money that otherwise would have gone to a telecommunications maintenance firm.

For some organizations, scenarios like this one, where their clients are prepared to leave them behind, is bad news. For others, the trend simply suggests a new path to profit. Employees at Ram Computer Group Inc., the company that helped the B.C. Cancer Agency install its IP system, said this new technology has helped bolster their fortunes. IP is big business, said Dave Brereton, a region manager at Ram. And “it looks like it’s going to be huge business in the not too distant future.”

Rod Anderson, a network consultant with Ram, said the key to success in the new converged world is to understand IP. For those who don’t, “it’s going to be tough,” he said. Most systems integration firms like Ram recognize the groundswell of interest in IP and will likely start to install networks from Cisco and other VoIP equipment makers in the future, Anderson added.

Like Henkelman and Martin, Anderson said he doesn’t think IP sounds the death knell for voice experts, neither the in-house telephony brains or those hired from outside.

“The implementation of IP telephony requires some specialized network skills: installing transcoders and figuring out IP routing, for example. The day-to-day management is very similar to the PBX world. It’s just simpler.”

“[Voice experts] will still have the same job. [IP will] actually enhance their skill sets and allow them to do more.”

That’s what’s happening at Netricom, a telecommunications maintenance company. Stephen Kell, Netricom’s director of sales in Ottawa, said the firm jumped on the IP bandwagon more than a year ago. Since then Netricom has trained its erstwhile telephony-only experts to learn about data networks as well.

The company recently received a silver reseller level from Cisco Systems Inc., and “in order to do that you had to have some particular specialties, and also bring some people from within up to the engineering level,” Kell said. “As far as Cisco was concerned, it wasn’t enough to try to go out and hire engineers, because they try to limit the movement or theft of people between companies.”

Brent Rebus, Cisco Systems Canada’s director of channel operations, confirmed that this is Cisco’s philosophy. It’s not that the company wants to tell its resellers how to run their businesses, but Cisco would prefer they trained their own, rather than steal from others. As a result, the manufacturer can rest assured that its partners have the skills required to roll out its IP equipment. And Cisco also doesn’t want to see its resellers fighting over talent.

Asked if he thought other firms similar to Netricom would follow suit and teach data to telephony experts, Kell seemed skeptical. “That would require a fair amount of breadth in their technical staff, so some straight cabling companies may not be able to make that kind of a jump.”

Although Henkelman and Martin said they confounded any potential fracases between voice and data in their outfits, it’s too early to predict how IP will affect the B.C. Cancer Agency and Algonquin College overall.

Martin suggested that this new way of doing things would have ramifications for network managers, their staff and their clients, but just what those ramifications will be, he couldn’t say. After all, IP “is new technology. As we get up to speed, we’re learning.”