The days of separate enterprise voice and data systems are numbered: unifying voice and data onto a single IP-based network not only offers compelling cost savings, but it can power radical improvements to business processes.
Integrated communications platforms enable enterprises to use a mix of services, from fixed line or wireless, to email or instant messaging and audio or video, to reach out to employees, customers and partners in a timely, cost-effective manner. Increasingly, the network will operate independently from devices, enabling organisations to treat voice in exactly the same way as any other piece of data – and that includes integrating it into business applications.
The benefits of these technology advances are already being put to good use by a range of forward-thinking companies.
High street bank Lloyds TSB is using its IP network to improve bandwidth allocations, allowing it to use applications previously regarded as too demanding for its network.
For low cost airline Ryanair, the roll out of VoIP contact centre, coupled with an upgrade of its wide area network (WAN) is the first step in a move to a completely converged network. Although the initial VoIP implementation will only cover the company's core sites, it will eventually be rolled out to more than 100 sites across Europe. "This will deliver significant cost savings while allowing Ryanair to grow to 34 million passengers across 19 countries," says Brona Kernan, head of IT at the airline.
But the rapid rise in the introduction of VoIP networks is also being accompanied by a similarly paced increase in the number of technologies that are being used at the edge of the network. Beyond the enterprise, users will connect laptops via WiFi, perhaps even WiMax; others will use general packet radio service (GPRS)-enabled BlackBerrys or 3G videophones. That means a lot of technology and a lot of standards to support.
That growing complexity is one of the reasons why Prudential, Lloyds TSB and Ryanair have all decided to outsource some or all of the responsibility for their network improvements to a third-party specialist. Indeed by 2010, more than half of all enterprises will source and provision the majority of their networks from an external provider, predicts IT advisory company Gartner.
The sheer complexity of upgrading networks to support converged communications is convincing most businesses to look at outsourcing, says Tim Bishop, head of strategy at telecoms equipment maker Siemens. "As more complexity gets put into the network, companies will find they don't have the expertise or the resources to manage it," he adds.
In some industries, such as financial services, investment levels in network technologies may be so high that the appropriate skills can be found in-house; there may also be a cultural resistance to handing over control of the network – seen by many as a core competitive differentiator – to a third party. But organisations that retain responsibility for the network are likely to be in a minority, says Rich Matlus, research vice president specialising in IT services and sourcing at Gartner. "Businesses are already used to outsourcing network operations – just look at the history of voice calls."
But while the prospect of removing the complexity – and the overheads – associated with upgrading networks will be appealing, migration will still be a painstaking process needing careful management.
People and processes
There are a number of simple steps that businesses need to take to help them ready themselves for converged networks, says Steve Masters, general manager of IP Infrastructure at BT Global Services. "The initial phase of convergence is about making the best use of your current infrastructure. That might entail email server consolidation, or mobile cost management."
Matlus of Gartner agrees that going through a process of infrastructure consolidation is essential groundwork to enabling businesses to migrate to a converged network in a planned, piecemeal manner. But alongside the infrastructure overhaul, businesses also need to take a careful look at their skill resources.
As businesses transform themselves into smoothly efficient messaging machines, the role of many within the IT department will change, and some roles may disappear altogether, says Matlus. "But if you don't retain some of the network expertise in-house, you're really in no position to know what service level you're paying for," he warns.
In some cases, building an enterprise-wide unified communications system will involve purchasing services from a large number of different providers. These include local area network services, fixed line connectivity, 3G and other mobile services such as WiMax and WiFi. The upshot is that enterprises will have to monitor and manage a wide array of service level agreements with different providers.
Alternatively, some organisations will choose to appoint a single lead partner to manage that complex web of relationships for them. Telecoms providers including BT, Cable & Wireless and Equant are, understandably, eager to position themselves as the prime contractor, either by offering an end-to-end service, or by acting as the integrator, bringing together the various components of the infrastructure. Lloyds TSB's VoIP implementation includes the introduction of 70,000 VoIP-enabled handsets from Cisco Systems, but it is BT that is tasked with installing them.
Neil Sutton, general manager, IT Services at BT says that to avoid conflict, the job of managing service level agreements (SLAs) has to rest with a single company. In some cases, he says, customers are currently grappling with 250 separate SLAs. But the telecoms providers are going to face stiff opposition for this business from the systems integrators, such as Accenture, and data centre hosting giants, such as IBM. These companies will offer not just to run the network or a business process, but all the applications too. "Businesses are going to need some sort of coalition to meet all of their needs," concludes Matlus, "but it is not yet clear which companies are best positioned."
What is certain is that there is much to play for. The value of these contracts is likely to be vast and their impact will be felt well beyond the enterprise sector. Some analysts suggest, for example, that as integrated communications platforms become more commonplace, many employees will end up having their personal communications services bought by their company too. Many people, they point out, already use their company email for personal communications, so why not use the company instant messaging, VoIP and other services too?
If this happens then the service providers that control the corporate market will, by default, control large swathes of the consumer market as well.