Voice-data convergence not quite ready, user says

Don’t believe the vendor hype surrounding the convergence of voice and data services into a single network, particularly for new sites – because in reality the technology is not ready, according to one user who has considered all the options.

Speaking at Gartner Inc.’s “Networking Beyond the Enterprise” conference here this week, Robert Krestakos, director of the business technology group at office furniture manufacturer Steelcase Inc., said the company decided to opt for traditional voice and data networks at one of its new facilities.

“We did the analysis 8 months ago, and we chose not to go for convergence because the technology was not ready at that time,” he said. Krestakos said Steelcase, which is based in Grand Rapids, Mich., and has 50 manufacturing plants and 20,000 employees in 15 countries, did not believe the benefits of a converged network would outweigh the additional management requirements.

He explained: “It was not clear that voice over IP was going to be a good deal. What happens when the power goes down? There would be the additional cost of having UPS [uninterruptible power supply] systems in every wiring closet.”

Although he acknowledged that the technology is rapidly advancing and that the market may have changed since Steelcase originally evaluated vendor offerings, Krestakos believes that there is still value in using tried and tested products.

“Dedicated voice networks are going to be around for a while, so why take it out?” he said.

Krestakos’ comments echoed those of Bob Hafner, a Gartner vice president and research area director, who said a number of factors would delay the widespread implementation of end-to-end converged networks until after 2006.

He said that despite the introduction of fiber optics everywhere in the WAN, which Gartner considers a step towards convergence, the bundling of data and voice services from service providers at lower cost would delay the implementation of complete convergence. The appearance of lower-cost Ethernet metropolitan-area networks and the reduction in long-distance phone costs are stalling voice-over-packet networks.

Hafner also warned that users may not see immediate benefits from replacing traditional PBXs with voice-over-IP systems because the two technologies currently offer similar performance levels. “Are you going to pull out what you had and put in voice over IP to do what you were getting [from traditional PBX systems]? You have to think about when it’s time for you to move.”

Elsewhere at the conference, Gartner analysts said Ethernet would emerge as the standard access technology by 2006 and that its use in WANs and metropolitan-area networks would blur the traditional demarcation line between WANs and LANs.

According to Gartner, Ethernet-based services will offer up to a 100 times cost improvement over traditional WAN offerings. The firm predicts that by 2005, more than 30 per cent of high-speed WAN data services will be delivered over Ethernet. The casualties will be frame relay and high-speed SONET, said Mark Fabbi, a Gartner vice-president and research director.

Fabbi believes Ethernet will successfully move beyond LANs, because the cost of Ethernet will continue to decline 35 percent year over year, as it has over the past 15 years, and because its speed quadruples every 12 months.

“There will no longer be LANs and WANs. It will be Ethernet in and Ethernet out,” he said. Typical applications could be network storage and bandwidth on demand.