Convergence technology is now mature enough to be deployed for applications such as IP telephony, e-learning and video streaming, say industry experts. However, the economic slowdown has caused networking users to be frugal with their capital expenditures. As a result, the rollout of voice/video/data convergence equipment is not progressing as fast as predicted 12 months ago.
“What you generally see in business right now is people are tightening (their budgets). They’re attempting to delay the things they’re in a position to delay,” said Dan McLean, director of enterprise networking services research at IDC Canada in Toronto. For example, a customer that was considering a trial of an IP-based PBX system, but was not fully committed to investing in a voice-over-IP infrastructure, has probably postponed its trial of the technology, McLean said.
Customers should know that voice over IP (VoIP) is a mature technology now, according to Jay Pultz, vice-president and research director of Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn. While generally speaking convergence is being rolled out at a moderate pace, most current VoIP users are getting beyond the pilot stage, Pultz said.
A recent research study on the PBX and key telephone system (KTS) market in Canada, published by NBI/Michael Sone Associates Inc. in Toronto, predicts 15 per cent to 20 per cent of PBX/KTS stations, or lines, sold in 2001 will be IP-enabled.
The convergence product market in Canada is essentially dominated by four vendors: Cisco Systems, Nortel Networks, Avaya and 3Com. “There is serious drop-off after those first four players,” McLean said.
Each of these players approaches the convergence market in a slightly different way. Although the technology strategies of Cisco and 3Com are similar in that both of their roots are in the data-networking field, Cisco’s convergence products represent an end-to-end solution for large enterprises and service providers, while 3Com focuses on the smaller end of the IP telephony business.
In the case of Nortel and Lucent spin-off Avaya, their technology backgrounds both originate in the telecommunications world. However, Nortel’s IP product suite is aimed at enterprises and carriers alike, whereas Avaya chooses to market only enterprise-class IP solutions.
The following is a guide to the convergence product offerings of Cisco, Nortel, Avaya and 3Com, including details about product line components, current capabilities and future technology directions.
Cisco Systems Inc.’s Architecture for Voice, Video and Integrated Data (AVVID) framework defines the elements of a converged infrastructure, including network client devices, network platforms, intelligent network services, Internet middleware and Internet business solutions.
The individual components of Cisco’s convergence product line include Catalyst switches, Cisco Media Convergence Server 7835-1000, Cisco Integrated Communications System 7750, Cisco CallManager call processing software, Cisco Unity unified communications server, Cisco IP IVR solution, Cisco IP telephones, Cisco IP/TV video streaming products and Cisco IP/VC videoconferencing products.
As an indication of the growth of IP telephony in Canada, Cisco Systems Canada Co. is projecting sales of almost 30,000 IP telephone handsets by the end of 2001, up from 15,000 IP-enabled handsets sold in 2000.
Colleges and universities are one market where Cisco Canada is seeing tremendous adoption of IP telephones. “There are about a dozen colleges that have rolled out IP telephony on their campuses,” said Brantz Myers, national solutions manager for Toronto-based Cisco Canada.
Environments where people move around a great deal, such as college campuses, put a strain on network managers who have to deal with the moves, adds and changes on the network. “The cost in Canada for an [addition], move or change is pegged at around $250,” Myers explained.
Students moving to residence locations would be able to plug their IP telephone into any network port on the campus and still maintain their current phone number, because the number is assigned to the IP handset instead of a fixed telephone jack. “This is a great opportunity to save a lot of money by deploying a telephone system that is location independent,” Myers said.
IP-based video streaming and video-on-demand are other market segments where Cisco Canada is seeing significant customer uptake, Myers said. Corporations are using video streaming to release quarterly financial updates while video-on-demand is making headway in the corporate e-learning market, he added.
When asked about future product plans, Myers said Cisco does not preannounce technologies. However, he did say the market could expect video-based telephony from Cisco in the future. He added the company would be reducing the number of components necessary to build an IP telephony system by converging many of the modules into fewer platforms.
The Succession brand of Internet telephony products from Nortel Networks Corp. is divided into separate solution sets for service providers and enterprise customers. Nortel’s carrier-focused solution sets are primarily based on the Succession Communication Server 2000 softswitch or Succession Communication Server 3000 Java-based softswitch, with the Multi-service Gateway 4000 and various Passport switches thrown into the mix.
VoIP products targeted at enterprise customers include the Succession Communication Server for Enterprise 1000, Meridian Internet Telephony Gateways, Business Communications Manager solution for small- to medium-sized businesses, Symposium Web Center Portal 3.0 modular business applications, i2004 Internet Telephone and i2050 Software Phone.
According to Dan Mangelsdorf, vice-president of carrier VoIP marketing for Nortel Networks in Brampton, Ont., this is the year Nortel has begun to deliver the equivalency of traditional PBXs and phone switches using packet technology.
In a recent deal with U.S. incumbent local exchange carrier (ILEC) Qwest Communications International Inc., Nortel is helping Qwest to replace traditional circuit-switched networks throughout the ILEC’s 14-state region by deploying a packet-based network infrastructure using Nortel’s Succession Communication Server 2000 softswitch. This represents a milestone in the industry because Qwest is the first ILEC to serve its customers using a voice-over-packet network infrastructure, Mangelsdorf said.
“The final milestone for the adoption of packet technology is when we can replace an end-office-class-size switch with a softswitch and an access gateway,” he said. He added Nortel is currently in discussions with some of its lead customers for that type of solution.
In terms of future strategies, Mangelsdorf said Nortel would continue to move from proprietary hardware to general computing hardware. “Hardware then becomes more of a commodity, which makes Nortel focus more on the software,” he explained. “By making our software portable – we use both Java and Linux operating systems – it enables more competition and service providers can have a choice of which hardware they use.”
Another area of focus will be integrating location-based technology into converged platforms. Mangelsdorf described a scenario whereby an ambulance equipped with wireless IP communications would be able to feed telemetry data, video and voice traffic about a patient to a hospital. With the addition of a global positioning system, the ambulance could be routed to the best available hospital, based on the emergency room physician’s assessment of the patient’s criticality and the availability of beds at nearby hospitals.
Avaya Inc.’s Enterprise Class IP Solutions (ECLIPS) include the Avaya IP600 Internet Protocol Communication Server, Avaya Definity IP Solutions Software, Avaya R300 Remote Office Communicator, Avaya Directory Gateway, Avaya IP Telephones and Avaya IP Softphone. For multi-service networks, Avaya also provides products such as the Cajun P882 MultiService Switch, Cajun P330 Stackable Switching System and CajunRules unified policy management software.
Avaya’s global fourth quarter 2001 financial results revealed the company’s IP port shipments had increased 28.2 per cent from the third fiscal quarter, growing to 50,000 ports from 39,000 ports. According to a company statement, this reflects continued customer interest in the migration to IP telephony.
One of the key applications enabled by a converged network infrastructure is unified communications, said Paul McDevitt, senior vice-president of service and support for Markham, Ont.-based Avaya Canada Corp. Unified communications means not only running e-mail and voice-messaging systems over the same converged network, but also merging disparate address databases or storage systems, he said.
“That’s when you start looking at true convergence at every level – at the desktop or end point, the application and the infrastructure over which you’re accessing it,” McDevitt said.
For companies with teleworkers, a converged infrastructure can help to support workforce mobility, he said. With the ability to do voice over IP and unified communications, mobile workers can not only get access to their office e-mail, but they can take telephone calls using a soft phone on their laptop or a headset plugged into their PC.
McDevitt said Avaya has not seen much demand for video-based convergence products from its customers, but he said he expects that may change due to customers’ concerns about traveling as a result of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 in the United States.
“I believe video will start to be adopted more quickly now, and perhaps this focus on not travelling will be enough to get people using video and adopting it to a certain extent where it becomes a self-sustaining thing,” McDevitt added.
Going forward, Avaya will build new solutions that may essentially be a mix and match of existing products, by taking current software capability and adding it to different devices, he said.
At the core of 3Com Corp.’s networked telephony solutions is the company’s NBX communications platform. The 3Com SuperStack 3 NBX Networked Telephony Solution is designed for central or branch offices with up to 750 phones per location, while the 3Com NBX 100 Communications System and the 3Com NBX 25 Communications System are targeted at locations with up to 200 devices and 25 devices, respectively.
Software components supported by 3Com’s networked telephony solutions include the NBX PcXset Client Software softphone, various NBX messaging software products and NBX ConneXtions H.323 Gateway software for connecting NBX solutions to PBXs and H.323 gateways.
Although Nick Tidd, 3Com Canada Inc.’s managing director, could not reveal how many NBX systems and phones his company has sold, he said 3Com Canada’s telephony business “has taken a quantum leap in the last three months.” He added 3Com Canada’s average phone system installation is now about 100 users, with the largest installation in Canada being up to 750 users.
Two of the main convergence applications currently being used by 3Com’s customers are unified messaging and the ability to tie together multiple branch locations into a single telephony environment, Tidd said. The company’s latest product release allows customers to create virtual tie lines so that NBX systems in different cities can be tied together in a virtual environment, enabling voice traffic to be transferred throughout the system.
“Down the road, we’re looking at a more comprehensive offering in unified messaging, so that I can embed the voice system right inside my application environment, so that it becomes seamless to the user,” Tidd said.
“We’re also looking at how we embrace wireless handsets in the NBX environment, how we can have seamless connectivity based on an IP address from device to device,” he added. “Perhaps down the road I could take my cell phone, walk into an environment that’s IP-based, that automatically recognizes who I am, and moves my traffic to that seamlessly.”
Tidd predicted this type of functionality would be available from 3Com in the next 12 to 24 months.
Linda Stuart is a Toronto-based freelance writer who specializes in networking, telecommunications and e-business issues. She can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.