There was a time when business networking was a relatively peaceful backwater: there were data networks and voice networks and ne’er did the twain meet. These days have long gone, says Ed Manning (pictured), head of Eircom Consult, and he is clear about what has brought about the change: internet protocol (IP).
“IP is a unifying protocol — in other words it allows businesses to put lots of things on one network,” he explains. “Why a business would do it is because it wants to share resources such as data centres, internet access or information. Apart from the sharing aspect, there is also a lower cost of ownership associated with running one platform.”
Manning spends a large part of his time advising organisations on their networking needs and he observes that more and more of them, even traditionally risk-averse ones such as banks and other financial institutions, are embracing IP. He feels there is an unstoppable momentum towards this networking standard that is sounding the death knell for other data networks protocols such as ATM (asynchronous transfer mode) and Frame Relay. It’s not that these types of network can’t do what IP can; it’s just that IP can do it more easily and efficiently, he points out.
“Most of what you want to do with IP is doable with traditional leased lines, Frame Relay or ATM networks. It’s just a lot harder — both to set up and maintain. For example, you can put voice over Frame Relay networks but it doesn’t work well; and you certainly wouldn’t put video over it. Another key point is that all the money is going into IP, therefore all the devices and things you’re buying are cheaper with IP. The cost of ownership of Frame Relay networks is actually going up because vendors aren’t investing in them the way they used to — their money is going into IP.”
One network technology in particular is helping organisations optimise the use of IP: multi-protocol label switching (MPLS). This allows different levels of priority to be attached to different types of network traffic. This is good not only for customers because they can ensure voice traffic, for example, is always given top priority on the network but also for service providers such as Eircom because it allows them to see what’s happening inside their customers’ networks at the application level. In other words, an MPLS network lends itself to managed services.
“There’s a big difference to me as a service provider saying ‘your leased line is down’ and saying ‘it looks like that SAP app you’re running is a bit slow’. With MPLS, you can really start talking to customers at an application level. When you talk managed services, customers want control and visibility and MPLS gives them both of these. They want control in terms of freedom to be able to change the parameters of the network even if it is provided as a managed service. MPLS also gives them visibility, provides them with the statistics they need about how applications are running.”
Even though IP is fast becoming the default networking protocol, Manning stops short of recommending that an organisation should put all its network traffic, including voice, on to a single IP-based platform. Hardly surprising, perhaps given that Eircom still makes a lot of money from installing corporate phone systems and voice networks. His argument, however, is that “the jury is still out” on whether most organisations are in favour of full convergence, ie putting all types of traffic on a single network.
The issue, he insists, is not technical — voice quality can now be guaranteed on IP networks — but commercial: in most cases it makes no financial sense for them to ditch their telephone network and move to voice over IP (VOIP). There are two exceptions, however: a greenfield situation where an organisation is due to change its equipment anyway; or where it is looking to deploy a cutting-edge business application, such as a self-service customer service system, which would be hard to do using traditional technologies. In general though, his advice to businesses is: “Think very carefully before you take out all your switched voice.”
Manning also says organisations should know the difference between IP telephony and straight VOIP. The latter, which involves putting an IP card in two private branch exchanges so that voice traffic runs over a packet-based (IP) circuit rather than a switched circuit, is practically invisible to the end user. IP telephony means replacing equipment and traditional phone features with an IP equivalent and this may well affect the user experience — and not always for the better. “You may have a message waiting light on your old phone — don’t assume that will be a feature on your new IP phone; you’ll need to specify what you need,” he advises.
He also believes that users get what they pay for. He is open in his admiration for the cheap and highly popular VOIP service, Skype (“a fantastic technology”), but argues that no right-thinking business would run a mission-critical application such as a call centre on the public internet, for security reasons. The private internet is a different matter: here security can be guaranteed, he points out. So does this mean businesses have no concerns about the security of business IP? Yes and no, says Manning. While they are happy that service providers can guarantee a physical separation between business IP and the internet, they are still unsure whether or not particular services such as DSL are going over the internet and, therefore, a possible security threat.
Rest assured that Manning and his team will be doing their utmost to convince more and more of the doubters that IP is as safe as houses.
By Brian Skelly
Ed Manning is speaking at a Knowledge Ireland management briefing on business communications on Thursday 21 April at The Berkeley Court Hotel, Dublin.