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Quality Of Experience
November 2001

The View From Upstream...


Several months ago, TMC President Rich Tehrani and I met to discuss why, with all the wonderful things that are happening in the next-generation networking industry, do we feel so unsettled. Sure, business is not what it was last year, but this is a phenomenally exciting time. The technologies that we are working on are maturing nicely. Systems and applications are working at scale. The pieces are falling into place. But we were bothered by yet unanswered questions about how all this will all play out.

As a test equipment provider to many of the companies who are building and deploying these applications, we are in a unique position to observe what is happening. And, we are seeing more activity now than ever, despite the economic downturn. Things are happening, and they are accelerating.

The most significant harbinger of things to come is the increasing activity among service providers who are bringing the promises of next-generation networks to market. They are in full scrambling to put together labs to test and debug the next-gen equipment before it goes live. But more significantly the providers are finding that these labs must play an ever-increasing role in designing services as well as in assembling and integrating the equipment and software to provide those services.

Let me explain the importance of this. In the old days, when companies such as Nortel, Western Electric, and Siemens ruled, most of the major carriers had labs into which they would bring all new releases of Class 4 and 5 switch hardware or software for testing before deployment in the network. These were called verification offices or VOs. Failure to pass the tests at these labs, or failure in a test deployment in the first real central office (called the FOA, or first office application) would force a vendor back to the drawing boards and delay sales of their new system upgrades for quarters. But as the technology stabilized, trips to the drawing board became less frequent, and the role of the VOs was less important. Service providers came to trust their vendors to put it all together and make it work.

How has this model transitioned to the next generation networks? Carriers implementing toll bypass applications have had to rely on their vendors to supply essentially a turnkey Class 4 switch replacement. However, the real promise of next-generation architectures lies in the new services (beyond Class 4 and Class 5) enabled by the new networks' flexibility. And with that, the old model of standard packages of functionality from a small number of large manufacturers goes by the wayside. So where are these new services?

The decomposed, distributed nature of these new architectures leaves the door wide open for different types of players to add value to the telecommunications infrastructure. Service providers seem to have caught on to the fact that there is some new action here of which they will grab a piece. Many are hustling to build labs, not just to play quality gatekeeper like the old VOs, but to also actually develop new service offerings for their customers. This is indicative of a disruption in the process by which the industry develops and deploys new services, which is a much more significant change than the increase efficiency that comes with VoIP toll bypass. Are the service providers up to the challenge of becoming a "system integrator" with the broad new technology?

I've concluded that Rich and I were just feeling the first inklings of the indications that our industry was about to get turned on its ear. No wonder we felt as we did.

Over the next few columns, within the bounds of customer confidentiality, I will explore some of the key trends that will influence who the winners and losers in this game will be. I am not promising answers, but we'll explore some interesting questions raised by the significant disruption that's going on.

We'll also take a close look at questions such as "what will the service providers really roll out and when?" Sure, we all know that the one of the few things really selling today is toll bypass (Class 4 replacement) and modem offload. What is in the works and when will it really be deployed at meaningful levels of revenue?

Will the enterprise-resident applications platform usurp the high-value applications from service providers, leaving them in the low-margin pipe business? The Internet model of truly distributed applications is largely incompatible with the still centralized approach of many service providers. Within a year, enterprises will have the ability to totally bypass traditionally network resident applications using the network only for high-speed IP pipes, leaving many traditional service providers in the dust.

Three key technology shifts that can enable this upheaval are:

  • Traditional telecom vendors displacement.
    Let's consider data networking vendors, such as Cisco and others, that offer all of the traditional telecom product sets. How compelling is their incorporation of true voice switching feature sets, IVR, and speech recognition capabilities into already deployed next generation routers -- both enterprise and carrier class? The historic models of discrete PBX, IVR, messaging, and data systems could be over, and soon. What will this mean?
  • Dynamic Internet-based information delivered via the telephone.
    Given the dominance of the Internet for information delivery, it's an obvious next step for that information to be made available over the most ubiquitous terminal of all -- the telephone. This is driving the rise in importance of independent and portable application developers enabled by VoiceXML. Who are these developers, what are the key applications, and how will they change the way our industry works?
  • Data-driven telephony in the enterprise.
    Microsoft's incorporation of SIP into Windows XP and its native support by Exchange truly fuels the fire and can be much more than an attack on AOL's instant messenger.
    What is their real impact, when will they become a factor in our planning?

Of course, the most critical factor in the success of a new generation of services is providing the user the highest possible application quality, reliability, and availability, that is, the Quality of Experience. Being a test guy, I will talk about the challenges of that as well.

Steve Gladstone is the general manager of the Infrastructure Test Group of Empirix and an acknowledged expert in testing computer telephony systems and networks. Steve founded Hammer Technologies, now a business unit of Empirix, Inc., whose products are in use today by developers of computer telephony, advanced switching, and enhanced services systems, most of the RBOCs and long-distance carriers, and at call centers of numerous Fortune 100 companies.

[ Return To The November 2001 Table Of Contents ]

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