Networkers adapt to an IP world

The industry shift towards running multiple forms of traffic over one network, brought on by the gradual adoption of Internet Protocol (IP) and all-IP networks by carriers such as Telus Corp., has raised the question of who will manage these networks – the data people or the voice people.

Front-line voice and data administrators say that cooperation, not war, has been the outcome of voice-data convergence. Indeed, they are even excited about this advancement in technology and what it means for their careers, skills and their companies.

“To me, this is more exciting than the step from analogue to digital in a TDM switching world,” said Darryl Wolter, manager of enhanced platform and switching technologies at Telus. “And now going to IP and converging the networks is probably the most exciting time in the communication technology, and challenging time, probably.”

His colleague, Bently Rolf, manager of IP backbone and distribution, agreed.

“From a careers point of view, it’s really brought the two sides together and it is really exciting,” he said.

“We get to understand what the voice side has been trying to do for the longest time as far as stability, reliability. You pick up a phone and you always have a dial tone. You don’t always have that on your Internet connection because of the congestion and the explosive growth that’s been there – the challenge for telcos is to maintain that.”

Both Wolter and Rolf said that the goal is to take advantage of the skill sets of each group, and that right now, it is unlikely that they would get to the point where they would have technical people versed in both sides of the application.

“They’ll have to understand – sort of – both sides, but because of the specialization required for the intricate details in the voice world versus the IP world, each is going to have to bring their strengths,” Rolf said. “So the big piece is going to be the ability to work in teams of two or more to solve problems.”

This corroborates what experts such as Dan McLean, director of outsourcing and IT utility research at Toronto-based IDC Canada Ltd., said. It is looking like the departments will unite, not to form an integrated area of expertise, but to take advantage of each other’s skill sets.

“There’s a need for both sets of skills,” he said. “It’s a matter of each group having a different set of skills that can both be applied to the new technology that’s emerging.”

Dr. Girish Pathak, chief technology officer at Telus, concurred. Telus is gradually migrating to an all-IP network, and right now they’re only running their data traffic through it. However, he said they will be migrating their voice traffic by the end of this year.

“As we were transforming the network we kicked off a project that we call the Next Generation Workforce because it is important to understand that if you’re transforming the network, you also need people who can manage that network…” Dr. Pathak said.

He said the migration to IP did change the size and structure of organization; some areas were reduced while others are growing. Telus constructed at 10-gigabit backbone network that is enabled through multi-protocol packet switching (MPLS).

“We made structural changes, and a number of people will not have a place in [the new department],” he said. “On the opposite end, there are a number of people who will be filling in the spots, so it’s a combination of both.

“The areas that are growing will be predominantly on IP and IP applications areas. And the traditional circuit-switched network is where we’d be losing the talent, or migrating them to the capability we need.”

Bad news for voice network managers? No. Dr. Pathak said that Telus is committed to retraining people and Telus only looked at technological ability as one of seven categories in devising its Next Generation Workforce.

In fact, he said that both IP and voice network administrators have different sets of invaluable skills that are pertinent to managing a VoIP network.

One of the categories in which Telus rated employees was a “reliability” factor – which didn’t pertain to the person’s reliability, but rather to their experience managing reliable networks that don’t traditionally experience a lot of downtime. This experience has traditionally bee associated voice networks, which are more reliable than data networks – there is less downtime. Thus, voice managers are accustomed to providing a high level of reliability, whereas data network managers are accustomed to providing speed.

“From a data perspective, it’s best effort,” Wolter said in regards to network reliability. “[With] traditional voice networks there was a guaranteed connection.”

“In the IP space, the focus had not been on reliability,” Dr. Pathak said. “When I’m asking my business customers to trust their communications service in our network, it’s utmost that we…offer the ranges of reliability in that the enterprise can trust us in performing the work.

“That was typically not factored into the IP network,” he added.

As a result, voice network administrators bring to the table a strong commitment to network reliability, and data administrators bring a strong commitment to speed. A marriage of those two traits is necessary for VoIP to work effectively.

In addition, McLean said voice data administrators are better-versed in the issues of management of voice networks, and that management tools used to manage voice networks are being adapted to fit IP networks, not the other way around.

“It is the functions that are important,” he said. “The ability to meet a call, the ability to set up call links between destinations…things like call-waiting, call-forwarding, and conferencing – all those things need to be adapted for IP.”

“These are issues of management and monitoring, so those tools that existed for [managing] circuit switching, have now been adapted to work for IP technology. But the way you use those tools is unfamiliar to anyone, generally speaking, who has been working in datacom networks.”

The advantage of the data network managers is their understanding of IP technologies such as Ethernet, and their familiarity with building those networks and using that type of equipment.

Both Dr. Pathak, McLean and Erone Quek, director of IP technology for Toronto-based Bell Canada, said it’s mostly about the two groups working together, and teaching one another their skills.

“At this point in time there’s definitely a multidisciplinary approach to mix various expertise into a team and let them cross-pollinate and cross-educate to build the skill set,” Quek said.

Although Bell has not committed to building an all-IP network yet, Quek said: “We are in a strategic direction looking at, not necessarily IP, but definitely packet-voice network as our core evolution strategy. IP is probably a main candidate on that.”

Quek said Bell is focused on picking up individuals that are knowledgeable of IP technology – individuals who have worked in a service provider environment. However, they will also be seeking new blood through recruitment of recent graduates, participating in cooperative education programs, but it will retrain current employees through an internal mentoring program.

He said Bell’s voice network administrators have much experience on time division multiplexing (TDM) networks, and that some of them are well-poised to be upgraded in skill sets to help with the transition, because “they certainly bring in a lot of experience someone with IP networking experience typically won’t have.”

And as for scrapping both the voice and data people in favour of individuals who possess skills managing both IP and TDM networks, Quek said they’re hard to find.

“We have to do our own coaching, cultivation, and mentoring to beef up those skill sets,” he said.

“In five years, 10 years, hopefully some of our people will be developed into [experts in IP and TDM simultaneously],” he said. “Not just so they’ll stay in Bell in Canada, but for their own career development. Whether they start from IP or TDM, hopefully in five or 10 years, when they go through our coaching program they will be in the category…of best of both worlds.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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