Voice, data camps prepare for war

Thanks to the advent of IP telephony, a battle is brewing between voice experts and data-com managers, a confrontation that industry insiders and analysts suggest could turn the network-operating centre into a combat zone.

Customers, industry analysts and vendors are bullish about IP telephony, the technology that sends voice traffic over data networks and offers a single-wire connection for both voice and data.

The proponents say IP spells simpler administration and lower costs compared to traditional phone systems, like PBXs, because this older technology relies on a separate network to push data. The dual-wire architecture is cumbersome and outmoded, they say. IP, with one wire, is the way of the future.

However, others worry that this convergence of data and voice systems could spell division among network caretakers. They say IP introduces a battleground, a plane of war where data communication experts and telephony gurus will fight for control of their companies’ connections.

The theory, said Dan McLean, IDC Canada’s director of enterprise network services research, goes something like this: “Once you had this whole notion of network convergence really starting to pick up steam and get established, it would create this turf war between the voice-com people within a business and the data-com. If we’re talking about technology that’s more familiar to data-com, [data experts] were probably going to win the war … You can infer that the days of traditional telecom people in businesses are certainly numbered if this technology takes off in a big way.”

Since IP takes its cues from the data network world, McLean’s words suggest a poor future for telephony experts. However, IP retains the voice features of traditional telephony and requires knowledge of voice systems. In this light, perhaps it’s the data network employees who should hold on to their hats.

Either way, this turf war could make the network manager’s job that much more difficult, said Rod Anderson, a network consultant with Ram Computer Group Inc. in B.C. “You can’t get them in the same room,” he said of the phone camp and the data commanders, particularly when they operate under different managers. “If you can, they’ll just throw buns at each other over lunch.”

Still, optimists say the situation need not be so hostile. Early IP implementers insist that there are ways to keep the peace between voice and data experts in the network-operating centre (NOC).

Don Henkelman is the chief information technology officer with the B.C. Cancer Agency, an organization dedicated to improving the chances of survival when people contract the deadly disease. The agency rolled out its own IP telephony system recently, architecture for voice, video and data created by Cisco Systems Canada.

Henkelman said the agency stemmed any brewing distrust between voice and data experts early. When it came to staff members and their areas of expertise, “about six years ago, we converged together video, voice and data,” he said.

This integration was the by-product of an experiment in teleconferencing at the agency. Henkelman said his staff members were on the verge of combining voice and video communication, so logic suggested they should work in the same department.

“At many other organizations, that hasn’t happened, and there are huge turf wars. When you’re finished this process (of implementing an IP system), you might need one or two people who are very familiar with your IP phone software, so they can do the advanced features on it – or you may choose to consult that out – but the whole telecommunications infrastructure is history. You don’t need a large group managing your phones, because basically the phone now is nothing more than an appliance.”

Just because the telecom wires have been replaced with data conduits, and the phones are easier to program, it doesn’t necessarily mean that phone experts have no place in the NOC.

“The technical person that did phone work was relocated into IT,” Henkelman said of the drive to integrate IT and telephony at the cancer agency. Once upon a time, the voice experts held their own corporate category, but now they’re part of the IT department.

The move gave the agency’s voice experts the tools they needed to compete in the world of data networks. “It’s resulted in an entirely new skill set. They’re more familiar with (data) networks, and able to assist with cabling requirements.”

As long as network managers deal with the potential skirmish, like Henkelman did, they’ll probably see benefits from IP implementation, he said.

During the summer of 2001, the B.C. Cancer Agency wired its Vancouver Island office for IP with 280 network-intelligent phones. Since that primary install, the organization has implemented IP in its Vancouver city office and in one branch office.

Henkelman said this new technology offers low long-distance call charges, because plenty of the traffic travels on the data network, instead of the PSTN. “We estimate our savings at $150,000 a year based on that alone.”

As well, Henkelman said the network cost less to install than would a PBX-plus-data system because IP requires just one wire, not two. And it’s easier to take care of than a traditional system.

“Because the IP phone is an intelligent device, you can relocate the phone … on the network and the phone re-identifies itself,” Henkelman said. “So when a person moves from one office to another, the phone just becomes another object, like the chair. You just move, plug it back in and it’s all operational.”

This happy situation represents a big change from how things used to be done, according to Henkelman.

“With a traditional PBX you have to reprogram the twisted pair that comes down to that physical location,” he said. “You’d have to do some punch-downs (direct the wires) and, depending on how distant the move is, perhaps reprogram the PBX itself to establish that phone as that person’s identity.”