Moving to VoIP and converged networking can be challenging. Organisations must take care to choose the right systems, processes and partners if they want to realise the full cost and flexibility benefits of these new communications technologies explains Guy Clark
A decade ago, life was very different. The typical enterprise had separate voice, data and video conferencing networks, which were inflexible, expensive and complex to manage. The growth of frame relay and ATM networks - both evolving point-to-point services – lead to inefficient management of the networks and their components.
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Multiple hardware and software vendors with multiple support and maintenance contracts added to the cost and complexity. Few, if any, of the networks “talked” to each other and separate access was required for each network, causing costs to escalate.
Although, generally, demands on data were much less onerous than they are today – it being the days before e-mail and more aggressive time-critical applications - if an individual application was slow to perform it was difficult to pinpoint the cause because there was limited visibility or control over activity in the network or bandwidth utilisation.
Fast forward to today. Businesses that have fully embraced IP convergence and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) have resolved most, if not all, of these issues. Indeed, as companies look to focus more on their core competencies in the face of ever-tougher competitive and regulatory pressures, many now outsource the management of their newly unified networks and on-premise routers to an experienced solutions provider.
Enterprises typically pursue two outsourcing arrangements. Some customers prefer to manage the routers themselves and select a wires-only service. This gives them a broader choice of vendors and a wider range of costs to choose from for customer premises equipment. It also gives them more control over how and when they configure parts of their network.
Of course, this arrangement assumes that the customer is bearing the burden of all router maintenance and vendor interaction. As a result, many end-users opt for a fully-managed service. In this instance, the provider installs routers on the customer's premises in addition to providing ongoing maintenance, support and management – in effect, a true one-stop IP VPN shop.
A fully-managed solution clearly provides businesses with more control and flexibility over their network quality of service. This is especially important at times of potential congestion when it is essential to preserve a premium class of service for voice and video applications.
One example of this may be when the CEO needs maximum bandwidth for a worldwide video conference. Bandwidth can then be reallocated to the videoconference, while less important applications, such as e-mail and Internet access, receive a lower priority.
In a converged and unpredictable world, usage-based charging for bandwidth may be a viable alternative. This arrangement can help businesses optimise the cost versus benefit equation. Customers only pay for what they absolutely need on a fixed-monthly-fee basis and are charged for bursts of capacity over and above this as needs dictate.
The greater inherent simplicity of an IP converged network also should lead to significant cost savings. This is true despite the growing emergence of e-commerce and overseas call centres, for example, which have increased network complexity with the introduction of new components into the network. Although these additional components tend to increase network costs, it's widely acknowledged that businesses need to do more to be competitive today.
Having said that, there remains a clear cost advantage to migrating to converged technologies.
Application performance monitoring
Similarly, a single, converged IP service simplifies maintenance and, using a managed service, provides customers with a single point of contact. Customers gain direct visibility into their network, so they can take control when they need to, and can provision, troubleshoot, control, monitor, and manage their provider's services and network. For example, it provides access to bandwidth utilisation, creates and tracks trouble tickets for fault management and provides billing and other reports to enable detailed business analysis.
This critical capability saves time, improves transaction speed, reduces cost and improves productivity, allowing end-users to focus on their core business.
At the same time, service providers can use Application Performance Monitoring (APM) to help ensure that optimum performance is maintained across its own and customers' networks.
Essentially, this means placing probes (on a temporary basis for professional services activities or on a permanent basis for constant management and optimisation) on both the customer premises and in the provider's network. These probes collect valuable information from the packet headers and the packets themselves, and use it to provide intelligence on how each application is performing. Packets are assessed in terms of bandwidth utilisation, jitter, latency and packet loss between various points in the network.
Each application has its own unique “signature” at the packet and header level, so it is easy to identify. Reports can then be generated based on individual applications or application types, such as e-mail, web-browsing, SAP, or CRM. Using a special algorithm, the APM software can even provide mean opinion scores to indicate the quality of VoIP traffic.
So, for example, if a customer experiences a delay remotely accessing a particular application screen that provides account details or experiences a decline in voice quality, it's possible to request a report - in near real-time - that shows how a particular application performed against key metrics during the period of sub-standard operation.
Normally, 'bursting' among the lower classes of service wouldn't affect performance, but examining the relevant statistics may reveal that there was unexpected bandwidth utilisation by another application which may have been caused by an unauthorised transfer of an extremely large amount of data. This could prompt the customer to respond by preventing similar future transactions during business hours or increasing bandwidth to enable the transfer to occur.
In the case of premium-class service (used for real time applications, such as voice or video), “bursting” is not possible if more bandwidth is required. In this case, existing bandwidth needs to be reallocated among the various classes of service, or the customer needs to request larger circuits. Another approach could be to request more bandwidth in the network core (if the access circuits already are over-sized) to increase the total bandwidth available to this premium class.
Clearly, APM is an invaluable way to identify activity in a converged network, yet it can also form an important part of a service provider's broader professional services offering. The ability of APM to assess total bandwidth and performance requirements against existing capacity within a LAN and WAN provides a meaningful gauge to businesses considering implementing an IP VPN or IP converged solution.
These are just some of the reasons why APM helps enterprises make informed decisions about how best to manage future business growth. By analysing and projecting industry bandwidth utilisation trends, it's possible to determine when a business may need to increase its overall bandwidth or reallocate among different classes of service.
Alternatively, by highlighting a dramatic growth in one application, such as email usage, use of APM metrics may prompt a decision to tackle the issue in another way, such as by introducing a policy of zipping large file attachments or encouraging staff to use shared folders that reside on a server as opposed to emailing files to each other.
It's no secret that good timing is essential to the success of any plan and implementing a VoIP migration is no exception to the rule. The move to VoIP may be appropriate, for example, if the business has a tired, legacy PBX that needs a major upgrade to continue serving the business at current levels. What if the business is relocating, opening new offices or rolling out a call-centre application?
In some cases, the objective may be to contain or reduce maintenance and management costs. For other businesses, the overriding issue may be the need for additional functionality, such as unified messaging or the availability of presence-based information.
Whatever the objective, it's essential to view the problem holistically to ensure the solution meets the broader objectives of the business. That's why it's important to ask these questions:
• How do staff interact with each other on a daily basis?
• Are they office-based or do they work remotely?
• Does the business operate multiple offices across multiple geographies?
• What forms of communication are used to interact with customers?
• Do staff members typically face specific logistical issues, such as parcels or parts tracking?
Having established these parameters, the next step is to design a network that would support the applications necessary to not only bolster the business today, but also help it move forward into tomorrow.
Essential to this exercise is finding a solutions provider with the expertise and flexibility to understand the business issues, to help design a solution that maintains or reduces costs, and to provide the scope of functionality necessary for the business to achieve its corporate goals.
Finding the right solutions provider for your business can be a time-consuming task. Many businesses issue requests for proposals in order to assess the range of options available in the marketplace, what individual suppliers can offer and at what cost.
Unfortunately, this process can take up to a year or more to complete – precious time that many businesses can ill afford in today's highly volatile and competitive markets.
Engaging an experienced solutions provider can lead to an open dialogue about a business's existing network infrastructure, a discussion of end-user requirements and assessment of potential challenges the business may face during the transition.
Enterprises also should consider other requirements before inviting a solutions provider to become such a fundamental part of its day-to-day business. Is the systems integrator or communications network provider financially stable? Does its network offer sufficient geographic coverage? Has it developed a forward-looking product roadmap that provides flexible IP solutions? Are those IP solutions supported by a comprehensive portfolio of services that address the business's needs?
Put simply, does the solutions provider offer a truly 'one-stop shop' for today's and future networking needs?
The past two years have seen a major shift towards IP VPN adoption. And as the adoption rate of VoIP-based solutions accelerates, the market is gaining greater awareness and confidence in the benefits of this new technology. Industry research confirms this growing trend, predicting a marked increase in the implementation of VoIP solutions over the next five years.
Clearly, in a fast-paced commercial environment in which agility and responsiveness define the fine line between success and failure, the network visibility and control provided by today's best-in-class solutions providers may be key to tipping the balance in favour of the business.
Guy Clark is Acting Marketing Vice President, Europe, Global Crossing