The reality of network convergence in the enterprise is still open to a great deal of speculation and debate, as evidenced by a recent discussion panel convened at Fall Networld+Interop in Atlanta in September.

During that colourful exchange between industry pundits and other assorted experts, Marthin De Beer, director of marketing for Cisco Systems Inc. insisted enterprise convergence is happening now. Customers are deploying voice over IP systems, he said. Romulus Periera, COO of Cabletron Systems Inc., however, argued “today’s convergence story is mostly just that: it’s a story.”

What is reality? And, more importantly, what do Canadians IT professionals think? Are businesses here deploying multiservice IP solutions within their enterprises? Do they clearly understand what network convergence is and can do for them?

A year ago, few industry watchers and especially those of us here at IDC Canada would not have disputed Periera’s assertion that network convergence in the enterprise is virtually non-existent. A multi-sponsored study of enterprise network convergence adoption in Canada, conducted in late 1998, left little doubt that the justification for adoption and even the understanding of multiservice IP and other network convergence technologies simply wasn’t there.

A Canadian survey of 350 IS professionals, responsible for deploying network convergence technologies and solutions revealed a scant two per cent had actually implemented some type of converged network. Most of these projects were small scale – typically VoIP extensions inside of corporations or to selected branch offices, with minimal investment – in the 10s of thousands of dollars range.

The vast majority of respondents to the survey said proven cost savings might convince them to invest in network convergence, while most of those same people queried figured convergence would be too expensive to implement. Such results were clear indicators that, since price was the primary consideration, the real buying market for convergence solutions in the enterprise didn’t exist.

Much has happened, however, in the 10 months since the survey was completed. The industry has been totally reshaped. Network convergence powerhouses have emerged in the form of Cisco, Lucent and Nortel and others are coming on fast. The industry has seen a flurry of acquisitions of smart VoIP startups and call centre experts. Vendors have articulated bold strategies around the transformation of enterprise and carrier infrastructures to multiservice IP architectures. Many have revealed product roadmaps and timeframes for release of products.

So, given what’s been happening, what does the picture of network convergence adoption in the enterprise look like in Canada today?

The suspicion is that there has been a major change in understanding. Enterprise adoption may have significantly accelerated. Among the major convergence developments that have occurred since last year is the undisputed revelation that IP is the declared path towards single networks supporting multiple traffic types and in the simple understanding of what network convergence means as a concept.

Nowadays, few doubt that network convergence won’t happen. It is a question of when, not if. Today it looks like convergence enabled through IP, but as history has repeatedly demonstrated, especially in the network business, tomorrow things can and do change. Inevitably something better always comes along.

Getting back to the debate at N+I, a panel of mostly vendor representatives were reportedly stumped when asked to identify the applications made possible by converged networks that might tempt businesses to take the plunge.

“When people talk about the benefits of converged networks they talk about lower costs, ease of administration and applications,” Karyn Mashima, chief technology officer with Lucent Technologies Inc. was quoted as saying. “The part that everyone’s still waiting for is, What’s the killer app that will motivate customers to go through the pain of transition” to a converged network?”

Ah, the quest for the Holy Grail, as it were. Right now, the killer network convergence application appears to be voice over IP, but IP voice quality is often akin to two tin cans tied together with string, and that VoIP solution interoperability among vendors is non-existent. But, it is a solution not to be dismissed. While the general consensus is that the technology clearly is not in shape for enterprise-wide deployment today, may believe it is eminently suitable for interoffice, long-distance, toll-bypass service, and even for isolated LANs that have the right infrastructure.

So where are we today? There’s clearly much greater understanding of network convergence, vendors have clearly declared their intentions and means of migrating customer to it, and enterprise solutions have emerged.

The key question, then, is has much changed in a year? Is understanding and adoption still minimal?

IDC Canada will likely field another survey next year to provide some clarity to what appears to be a high degree of uncertainty regarding network convergence in the Canadian enterprise. The guessing is that there’s a different story to tell.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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