Execs trade barbs on network convergence

Networking executives convened for a panel discussion at Networld+Interop to talk about network convergence: what it is, when it’s coming and why customers should care. They agreed that the convergence of data, voice and video into a single network is inevitable — but that’s about all they agreed on.

Network convergence is happening now, according to Marthin De Beer, director of marketing at Cisco Systems Inc., which recently rolled out some key components of its own convergence platform. Customers are deploying voice-over-IP systems today, and the cost savings of merging traffic into a single, packet-based network are clear, De Beer asserted.

Other panelists disagreed.

“Convergence spans more than the integration of voice, video and data,” said Romulus Pereira, chief operating officer of Cabletron Systems Inc. To build truly converged networks, businesses need better management tools as well as consulting and support services that aren’t available today, he said.

“Today’s convergence story is mostly just that: it’s a story,” Pereira said.

Other panelists said converged networks must encompass ATM, frame relay and other network types, besides just voice, video and data over IP.

Most of the panelists were stumped when they were asked to identify the applications made possible by converged networks that might tempt businesses to take the plunge.

“When people talk about the benefits of converged networks they talk about lower costs, ease of administration and applications,” said Karyn Mashima, chief technology officer with Lucent Technologies Inc. “The part that everyone’s still waiting for is, ‘What’s the killer app that will motivate customers to go through the pain of transition'” to a converged network?

After making their brief remarks about the state of convergence, the fun began when the executives began fielding questions from a panel of three industry experts, and from each other.

An editor on the experts panel caught Cisco’s De Beer off guard for a moment when he asked him when Cisco will complete deployment of IP telephones throughout its own enterprise.

The company has 2,000 IP telephones in use currently, De Beer answered, and even CEO John Chambers uses one at his home office — although he may still have a traditional phone on his office desk at work, the executive said.

The panelists then traded barbs over whose products are more interoperable — which is essential if customers are to be able to create converged networks, they said.

3Com Corp. was taken to task for failing to make NBX, its LAN-based PBX system, interoperable with products from other vendors. “Exactly which other vendor’s products does NBX interoperate with?” someone asked Bob Roman, 3Com’s director of business development.

Roman stumbled for a moment, then replied: “The system is currently deployed in a standalone environment, where it really only has to interoperate with itself,” which drew a hoot from the audience.

“Thank you for introducing a new concept: that a product can interoperate with itself,” quipped Jim Metzler, a principal with the consultancy firm Ashton Metzeler & Associates.

Cisco’s De Beer, meanwhile, said Lucent’s history in the “old world of proprietary PBX systems” would make it hard to take part in a new market where interoperability is crucial. “How do you propose to take part in this new, open world?” De Beer asked.

“That’s a great question, coming from a proprietary king,” Lucent’s Mashima fired back.

3Com was asked more than once to explain its decision to scrap plans for a joint venture company with Siemens AG to develop IP telephones. Creating a true joint venture proved too expensive, but 3Com and Siemens still plan to jointly develop IP telephony products, 3Com’s Roman said. He vehemently denied suggestions that the decision is a sign that 3Com’s convergence strategy has been derailed.

Cabletron was taken to task for being the only company on the panel besides Cisco that hasn’t aligned itself with a major telecommunications provider. Cabletron’s strategy starts not with the infrastructure, but with the management tools, Cabletron’s Pereira replied. Building the infrastructure for a converged network is “the easy part,” he said. The hard part is providing the management tools and services to accompany the products, and that’s where Cabletron will differentiate itself, he said.

The panel of experts, which included an editor and two consultants, seemed to agree with the executives that converged networks have a future, but said many questions remain unanswered.

“I was struck by how much work we have to do here,” analyst Metzler said in his closing remarks. “Reliability is the key, and there are fundamental disagreements on how we are going to get it.

“We also need some more conversation on why the enterprise should care about this,” he added.