Voice and data come together--but why?

Cost is the main driver, say IT chiefs, though there may be better reasons…

Most heads of IT around the world expect the convergence of data and voice networks to have a big impact on their businesses over the next five years--but most are going down this route mainly just to cut costs.

While cost-cutting isn't unimportant, research out today suggests long term benefits are to be had by user organizations that look to the wider business advantages this type of convergence can bring.

"The most important applications (of convergence) are to do with productivity enhancement but cost reduction seems to be the key driver," said Denis McCauley, director of the Global Technology Research at the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) and author of the report "Deploy or delay? Network convergence in the enterprise", commissioned by Nortel Networks.

The EIU surveyed 103 CIOs, CTOs, heads of IT and other senior IT executives around the world and found a steady move towards converged networks. While 'reduced network tariffs or service costs' was one of the reasons to go that way, factors such as 'new applications' (for example training employees through the use of videos), 'better customer service' and especially 'increased employee productivity' were other important drivers.

Steve Blood, research vice-president at Gartner Group, said: "Cost benefits matter but the real benefit is the (overall) business case--until now, the former has carried more weight with the CFOs."

However, he likened the situation to that of enterprise resource planning (ERP) rollouts, based on software from vendors such as SAP. He said companies are now moving from having to implement the technology to really understanding what can be done with it.

Unfortunately for vendors of equipment used in such convergence--Avaya, Cisco and Nortel are among the big boys--rollouts are easiest at greenfield sites. Nortel itself admits that large rollouts at existing sites happen in seven out of 10 cases only when underlying LAN infrastructure is being upgraded.

Other obstacles include the requisite cooperation between IT and telecoms departments being hard; users waiting for existing kits to reach renewal before considering a switch (and that can be a long time in the case of the PBXes used for most corporate phone systems); uncertainty over just how a converged voice and data set up will be managed as well as how it will affect employees' working patterns.

Similar research earlier this year by the EIU for Nortel found a powerful convergence strategy involves running voice over wireless IP networks, combining two of the current buzzwords in the industry: VoIP and Wi-Fi.

Voice quality and uptime of calls carried over data networks isn't thought to be a major problem anymore.

"If you have the power, and architect it properly, there's no reason why it shouldn't be as good as legacy PBXes," said Blood.

Tony Hallet of Silicon.com reported from London.

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