Networks of the future unite

Networking vendors and telecom carriers are all putting their spin on it. Industry analysts and members of the trade press are all talking about it. End users are all wondering about it.

The “it” in question is voice/data convergence — the buzz phrase for 1999 and the next few years to come.

The idea of combining voice and data on a single infrastructure is not new — ISDN, frame relay and Asynchronous Transfer Mode were all designed with convergence in mind. But, the IP revolution has the networking industry re-examining its convergence strategies, leading many to conclude that IP — with its ubiquity and standards-based approach to communications — will be the underlying protocol for converged networks of the future.

The majority of vendors’ research and development dollars go to IP-related projects. Traditional data networking companies working on new features for IP equipment and software include Cisco Systems Inc., 3Com Corp. and Newbridge Networks Corp. In addition, a host of new IP telephony specialists, such as VocalNet Communications, is emerging.

And while Lucent Technologies and Nortel Networks/Bay Networks continue to develop their traditional circuit-switched equipment for the carrier market, both companies have made significant IP investments as well.

However, although these companies — and Cisco especially — are urging customers to architect their networks around IP only, analysts warn users not to get caught up in the “it’s the IP way or no way” religious war.

“The long and short of it is that most of the service providers and carriers we speak to are putting ATM in the core of their networks today,” said Michael Speyer, program manager for The Yankee Group in Boston.

“So certainly, while you might have IP at the edge of the network, today they’re going to use ATM in the core, so it’s a bit of a mixed bag,” Speyer added.

Bob Hafner, vice-president and research director at Gartner Group Canada in Mississauga, Ont., agreed.

“There are going to be carriers that will offer voice over IP over ATM. Underlying that IP infrastructure will be an ATM infrastructure,” Hafner said.

“We’re right at the verge of the roll-out of these services where the customers are going to mix voice traffic with data traffic and it’s going to run over a single infrastructure. And right now, the preferred or better-controlled infrastructure is ATM. The control mechanisms, the ability for quality of service, some of the compression methods are just a little bit better manageable on ATM.

“I think that IP will catch up, it’s just a matter of: is it one year, a year and a half, where the capabilities will be so close that I suspect it won’t make a whole lot of difference any more what the underlying infrastructure is.”

Hafner said he is not aware of any Canadian carriers who are currently building completely converged infrastructures. He said Bell Canada’s new national network company, Nexxia, for example, may offer voice and data services, but he expects the company will build both a pure IP and a pure ATM network, not a single infrastructure to handle both traffic types.

In the United States, long-distance providers AT&T and Sprint have announced plans to deliver broadband voice, data and Internet access on one line, but AT&T’s Integrated Network Connection and Sprint’s Integrated On-Demand Network services are still in the trial stage. The companies have not yet announced plans to roll out these networks in Canada.

New competitive local exchange carriers in Canada such as MetroNet Communications and Optel Communications are still building their networks, and Hafner said he doesn’t expect they will have a large enough customer base, or large enough customers, in the short term to justify offering integrated services any time soon.

“There’s certainly some opportunities for them to integrate their voice and data services over a single infrastructure within their own environment, but I suspect the services they will actually sell to customers will be separate data services and voice services, not integrated services to the customer directly,” Hafner said.

Some cable companies, such as Le Group Vid