VoIP rings in the new year

I really blew it last year when I wrote about networking in the 2004 Technology of the Year Awards. It appears that I read the landscape the same way the Democratic National Committee read the hearts of the American people.

At the end of 2004, VoIP is finally the hot-button issue everyone had predicted it would be, and I didn’t see it coming. Sure, I’d heard all of the blue-sky talk about Internet telephony, going back to 1996 or 1997; I just didn’t believe it. My reaction to these optimists has always been, “Yeah, yeah, when the old PBX is paid for.”

Well, it is now. More importantly, PBX kingpins Avaya Inc. and Siemens AG have tried to wrap their arms around the VoIP boom by introducing line cards for their systems that — surprise! — will only support proprietary handsets.

Meanwhile, the networking community is still waiting for vendors to deliver usable IPv6 networking gear — in this case, “usable” is short for “something vendors will release for review.” Readers will recall that I’d banked on that happening in 2004, and now they know why I go to Vegas with a stack of good books instead of a stack of dead presidents.

I also didn’t accurately assess the need for speed — 40 Gigabit Ethernet network hardware still seems to be coming “next year,” although in November, Japanese researchers announced a technological breakthrough that pushes the boundaries of optical switching: the so-called “Femto” switch appears to be the first device that uses a phenomenon called “virtual excitation” to shove photons at that speed. Too many shops are forced by the lowest-common denominator approach to use WEP, which is only slightly more secure than pig latin.Text

Wireless networking stagnated this year as vendors jockeyed with proprietary approaches to enhancing 802.11g technology. There was one hopeful sign in the ongoing clash between marketing and common sense: In October, the Wi-Fi Alliance announced that it would rap the knuckles of any vendor caught pitching pre-802.11n products as “Wi-Fi” certified — even to the point of withdrawing certification from gear that causes problems with existing products. Because the IEEE is not expected to ratify the 802.11n amendments until late 2006, this will cramp the styles of the LinkNetSysGears somewhat.

Wireless security improved somewhat with the release of products supporting WPA2 (Wi-Fi Protected Access 2), an upgrade to WPA that supports AES (Advanced Encryption Standard). Vendors have backfitted WPA support into as many devices as possible, although too many shops are forced by the lowest-common denominator approach to use WEP, which itself is only slightly more secure than pig latin.

Gigabit Ethernet to the desktop remained an elusive goal for many shops that could have used it to improve backup and restore processes. Cable plants that aren’t up to snuff remain the greatest obstacles to deployment, as per-port prices will continue to drop in 2005.

Storage networking remains a sore spot for many shops that are choosing to cope with new regulations for e-mail retention by simply buying more and bigger chunks of rotating brown matter. The choice between traditional Fibre Channel and upstart IP-based transports remains a poser for many buyers. The only clear choice is for those maintaining wide-area SANs, where the limitations of FC are obvious.

Some progress has finally been made toward securing the Domain Name System. DNSSEC (DNS Security Extensions) uses digital signatures to provide authentication of zone data being transferred between DNS servers. The bad news is that it’s still a proposed standard, and I don’t expect to see useable implementations of DNSSEC for two or three years.

— P.J. Connolly is a senior analyst at the InfoWorld Test Center.

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