The Future of Convergence Clarified

At the recent N+I convention, a big question was addressed: When will convergence be available?

When the manuals for converging networks are written, the only chapter that will be concurrent through each will be the one on IP being the backbone. After that, the field has differing opinions about how convergence technology will be implemented. But before we get to that point, the all important question of when will convergence be available has to be settled.

At Networld+Interop in Las Vegas last month, the convention talk was filled with plans to converge voice, video and data. It seemed that convergence was just around the corner. That was until Jeanette Symons, CTO for Ascend Communications Inc. (www.ascend.com), took the stage. Her keynote on the final day told the networking professional audience that if their appetites are wet for convergence, they better be prepared to do some long fasting. Convergence is a technology, Symons said, that won't be fully cooked for at least another five or six years.

This observation was in stark contrast to the keynote presented by William Esrey, chairman and CEO of Sprint Communications Co. (www.sprint.com). Esrey touted Sprint's Integrated On-Demand Network (ION) as a solution that is ready to go out the door and provides enough bandwidth for enterprises with room to spare for future needs. Using Sprint's proprietary Integrated Services Hub, users connect their phone, desktop and fax machine. In the demo Esrey performed, his partner had a telephone conversation, a videoconference and surfed the Web, all over the same connection.

Cisco Systems Inc.’s CTO Judith Estrin was also confident about voice, video and data convergence, but she was less convinced that the time was now. She explained how today's network infrastructure was not built for data traffic and that much of the reliability needed in the industry just isn't there yet for convergence.

According to Jon Rogers, research analyst at International Data Corp. (IDC, www.idc.com), the only application that could provide significant cost savings through convergence is over a Wide-Area Network (WAN). WANs are expensive, especially for a large corporate network, so being able to put voice and data on an IP-based link makes a lot of sense. Beyond that, however, the benefits are murky.

For early forms of convergence, Rogers says look out for Web-based data centers. He predicts how it would nice for a consumer to go to a Web site, click on a product and then be able to talk to a sales agent right in their browser. "For a company like L.L. Bean or Lands End, if you're a qualified lead and you're at their Web site, they've got to look at that as an opportunity that can't be missed," Rogers says. "Take a guy like [Cisco CEO] John Chambers or [3Com CEO] Eric Benhamou and they'll say ‘PBX is dead, let's move on.’ Users say, ‘Well, that's pretty interesting, but how's it going to happen?’"

If there is one trend that is a sure thing, Rogers says it's high bandwidth access to the Internet using connections such as cable or DSL. Sprint's ION plan may be able to tap into that. "High-bandwidth access is something that is guaranteed success. That's one trend you can take to the bank," Rogers says.

Rogers points out that PBX vendors such as Lucent Technologies Inc. (www.lucent.com) are in a good position now and in the future. Lucent can continue to sell its PBX solutions while developing and selling the IP native switches that will utilize the PBX for data and voice traffic. Either corporate desire, legacy or new, can be satisfied.

But once again, these are solutions that won't be largely implemented for a long time, probably as long as Ascend's Symons says: five or six years. Rogers says most chatter about present day convergence is part of the hype machine that controls the industry. As long as venture capital firms are listening, the chatter will continue.