The latest tech discontinuities

Every once in a while a technology discontinuity occurs, reinventing the marketplace and sending a shiver up the corporate spines of vendors. Examples include the transistor vs. the vacuum tube, the PC vs. the minicomputer and Internet vs. postal mail. This year, two major discontinuities will emerge, first confusing and then enticing customers, while perplexing vendors.

The first technology discontinuity is the arrival of IEEE 802.11 (Wi-Fi) for voice in addition to data. At first this does not seem to be significant, because Wi-Fi is not new and local PBX or IP-PBX access for voice was announced last year. The discontinuity is the January announcement of dual- or multi-mode Wi-Fi/CDMA/GSM handsets for delivery later this year. This new twist is significant. Voice is low bit rate compared with data, and new standards such as IEEE 802.11e and 802.11i will allow for quality and secure voice communications. Wi-Fi voice calls will be made using IP technology and Session Initiation Protocol. Handset vendors intend to be compliant with the entire “alphabet soup” of Wi-Fi standards by operating at multiple speeds across all country-specific versions of the 2.4- and 5-GHz unlicensed spectrum.

As cellular wireless technology has decreased the call minutes of switched wireline carriers, so will Wi-Fi technology decrease the revenue of cellular carriers. It will be possible to transfer calls in real time between Wi-Fi base stations, or between an intra-company PBX or cellular carrier and a Wi-Fi base station. Various technologies from multiple vendors exist to roam in the data world from Wi-Fi to cellular carrier networks, but not in the voice world. Because of the low bit rate of voice, roaming technological complexity is not an issue. The major unresolved issues are the use of a single common standard such as IEEE 802.11f for seamless integration, roaming agreements between carriers and Wi-Fi networks, and the mass propagation of consumer, public and corporate hot spots.

The second technological discontinuity that will occur this year is the creation of the blade server as a universal platform for computing and communications. The use of a highly reliable Gigabit LAN internally switched backplane chassis as a dense compute server platform is only the beginning of the blade revolution. The cascading of chassis in a rack or a cluster using an internal switched Gigabit or 10 Gigabit LAN will create a universal platform for computing, storage and communications appliances.

The blade server will change the way we look at the enterprise LAN. Because the blade server is a switched Gigabit LAN, the need to have a separate Layer 2 LAN switch becomes redundant. If intelligence is added for virtual LAN and other Layer 2 capability, a Layer 3 blade for routing, a Layer 4 to Layer 7 blade for load balancing and resource allocation, and so on, return-on-investment costs and management will be significantly reduced. Furthermore, because each blade is separate, communications applications such as unified messaging, IP-PBX and network management now can be integrated into the same chassis with IT applications. Benefits of this technology include reduced power costs, LAN management costs and floor space; increased reuse and life expectancy of resources; and decreased support and maintenance costs.

Vendors have tried to make the LAN switch or router the universal platform for communications functionality – from security to caching using the concept of add-in cards. Using the blade server in the same manner is more cost-effective and logical. In addition, because the major computer vendors are all looking at the blade server as the inevitable evolution of the server platform, expect cost reduction and expansion of processing capability. It also is anticipated that the blade server will become a quasi-open platform for third-party vendors.

This year these two major technology discontinuities will become reality and will begin to change the landscape of the communications industry. The effect of these technologies could be delayed, but their inevitability is certain.

Dzubeck is president of Communications Network Architects Inc., an industry analysis firm in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at