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Feature Article
February 2004


Applications & Interoperability

BY JEFFREY T. FORD

Often in the telecommunications industry, technology innovation does not immediately match the needs of the enterprise. The increasing interest in converged applications is a perfect example. Businesses see the proliferation of presence, collaboration, messaging, and mobility applications as a primary attraction for adopting a converged infrastructure.

But these applications won�t amount to much unless manufacturers understand that companies also want to access their communications wherever and whenever they want, regardless of infrastructure. Interoperability is rapidly becoming a critical issue for the enterprise. To truly serve customer needs, the industry must demonstrate that it is committed to standards and practical interoperability.

LEARNING FROM PAST MISTAKES
During the late 90s, many of us remember the excitement, anticipation -- and confusion -- when the term �convergence� entered into the telecom lexicon. Sure, we all understood the basic definition of the word; transporting voice and data traffic over a single network. But what did the word mean to the customer?

Our industry soon understood the concept of packetizing voice and transporting it over the data network ultimately represented very little commercial appeal to the customer. Initially, the world of IP telephony promised reduced toll charges and increased mobility for a user, particularly when a worker in a multi-location enterprise could take his or her IP phone, bring it to a company site in another state, or even another country, register into the network, and retain the same phone numbers and features available at the desktop.

Apparently this scenario was not a compelling argument for a company to migrate to a converged infrastructure. If a purchasing enterprise cannot identify the true business benefit of new technology, there is little chance of a purchase order being generated. This paradigm is even more pronounced with today�s tight economic conditions.

CONVERGENCE REDEFINED
Today, IP telephony is gaining an increased toehold in the market as more and more businesses look to integrate this technology into their infrastructure. And as VoIP technology becomes more mature, it is increasingly apparent that real value is not in the transport of the packets, but in the delivery of specific applications that leverage the converged environment to help businesses drive revenue, maintain efficient operations, and reduce expenditures.

Applications are the operative word for today�s enterprise. Give a customer a tool that quantifiably supports the business, and there is a real good chance that you will end up with a sale.

Businesses require tools that allow them to maximize sales efforts, communicate more effectively by overcoming the hindrance of geography, time or infrastructure, and, as a result, become much more efficient. Presence tools, particularly new collaboration, messaging, and mobility applications, can be delivered via converged technology into any number of infrastructures, including traditional circuit switched, IP, or wireless 802.11. But tread carefully in these waters; there are still a lot of issues regarding interoperability and standards that need to be ironed out for the realistic experience of convergence to match the expectations of the marketplace.

The 802.11 Challenge
One of the more interesting aspects for an enterprise that chooses to integrate a converged solution is the potential of delivering enterprise communications and applications through an 802.11 infrastructure. A mobile, productive workforce is high on the wish list for many companies, and the availability of real-time voice, data, and Internet communications that is accessed via a PDA makes a move to a converged infrastructure more appealing. But, with all the promise, there are still a number of technology issues that must be taken into account before a company should comfortably leverage a WiFi solution.

First, one must understand that the 2.4GHz spectrum that 802.11 occupies is very crowded As one of the few frequencies licensed by the Federal Communications Commission for commercial use, 2.4 GHz is also the band that houses Bluetooth devices and a host of cordless household items, ranging from baby monitors to remote car alarms and garage door openers. As a result of this crowded space, interference with other wireless devices can result in packet loss, thus inhibiting the quality of voice communications.

With seamless coverage of this network not yet fully deployed, there exists the possibility that certain applications can drop off the network. As the proliferation of 802.11 networks continues in the United States, this particular challenge should eventually melt away as more robust wireless networks become deployed. Security within an 802.11 network is also another subject that should be carefully evaluated. IT departments could be taking significant risks if they do not encrypt their communications.

WHY INTEROPERABILITY MATTERS
As companies look to leverage new applications and tools, an interesting phenomenon will likely occur: The enterprise will not accept the notion of utilizing certain applications in one environment, say, converged, without being able to use the same application in a traditional circuit-switched setting.

The fact is, companies want to choose their applications based upon business needs, not on which type of infrastructure they use. The successful vendor will understand this and tailor solutions that can work in any environment. Delivering applications in an open environment may be a challenge, but it is hardly insurmountable.

SIP & SIMPLE
Until SIP, protocols (such as H.323) did not always or easily respond to the needs of seamless transparency and full functionality. Enter SIP, which promises to reap real benefits for the end user. While there are still feature-delivery issues to be addressed, it is clear that SIP has become the de facto standard for the industry.
In an open, standards-based environment, SIP is the protocol for establishing communication between two devices, such as desktop phones, PDAs,
wireless handsets, and similar instruments. When an enterprise puts SIP at the core of its communications system, a funny thing happens -- the entire infrastructure becomes SIP-enabled. Circuit-switched, and even analog phones, can leverage SIP in this scenario.

A close cousin of SIP is SIMPLE, an acronym for SIP Instant Messaging and Presence Leveraging Extensions. When SIMPLE is brought into the communications mix, things start to get interesting. The primary benefit of SIMPLE is that it provides an industry-standard interface for instant messaging and user presence information, breathing life into the full range of presence, collaboration, and messaging applications that are rapidly gaining interest in the market.

Without SIP, to set up multimedia real-time communication between devices, and SIMPLE, to drive home presence and collaboration applications in real time, regardless of geography or infrastructure, the convergence landscape would look much bleaker than it does today. In terms of what matters to today�s forward-looking customer -- leveraging enterprise-specific applications in every possible infrastructure -- SIP and SIMPLE have performed well in terms of simplicity and reliability.

Interoperability is even more important when one considers how the converged infrastructure is usually constructed. For better or worse, long gone are the days when companies selected one vendor for an end-to-end communications solution. Today, businesses may have a data infrastructure comprised of several vendors� routers and switches, along with firewalls, provisioning and management software, and other devices provided by competing vendors. Then, factor in the voice communications equipment including platforms, endpoints, software, and other peripherals, and finally, throw in the 802.11 network, and all the hardware and software necessary to operate this system into the mix. To further complicate the situation, consider enterprise-specific applications, multiple locations, and an environment that will support new third-party applications, if and when an enterprise chooses to integrate them into their existing system.

As daunting as this scenario is, this is precisely the situation many businesses face as they look to leverage the latest technologies. And it is precisely the reason why more attention will be given to SIP and SIMPLE. These are the two protocols that are the most practical in terms of interoperability.

As more and more companies leverage mobility devices and look to adopt presence, collaboration, and messaging applications, manufacturers and providers must carefully consider the environments in which these products communicate. Customers today want to access their communications wherever and whenever they choose, using their preferred tool, be it desktop, handheld, or any combination, regardless if its voice, data or Internet. The successful manufacturer of tomorrow will embrace this emerging trend by integrating standard protocols into their platforms and ensuring interoperability with competing products. This is what the market is looking for.

Jeffrey T. Ford is Chief Technology Officer for Inter-Tel. Inter-Tel offers value-driven communications products; applications utilizing networks and server-based communications software; and a wide range of managed services that include voice and data network design and traffic provisioning, custom application development, and financial solutions packages.

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