For the best part of a decade, it has been on the roadmap of most IT directors to unify their voice and data traffic onto one network – an IP (internet protocol) network. That way, they reasoned, they could eliminate some management overheads, eliminate a voice PBX (private branch exchange) and hence save money. Although most were aware of the promise, few thought too much about the longer term promise that IP-based unification might deliver.
Only two factors delayed the mass migration onto unified backbones: the “sunk investment” into expensive voice PBX switches and voice networks, which are extremely reliable; and concerns about the reliability, technical complexity and support costs of IP based services, in particular VoIP (voice over IP).
The first issue has tailed away as PBX investments have been amortised, and the manufacturers themselves have switched to IP systems. Concerns about VOIP reliability and support requirements, meanwhile, have largely been resolved – although they were clearly justified before 2004.
That means that IP-based unification is now in full swing – after a slow start. In the 2007 Information Age Effective IT survey, for example, half of the 700 organisations res-ponding have put all their traffic onto one IP network. Four out of five of these said it had both saved them money and improved services – an overwhelming endorsement of the technology.
The adoption of a unified backbone, however, only tells a small part of the story.
The real advances in IP-based communications are occurring not at the lower levels of the network, but with middleware and applications. Suppliers and analysts tend to agree that IP-based services and applications will have a huge impact on business and consumer life over the coming two decades.
The reason for this: the adoption of IP for voice and video brings telecommunications into the world of IT, where development is cheaper, faster, more flexible, better supported by tools and on a very much larger scale.
Building an application such as video conferencing in the non-IP world might take a big operator a year or two and involve a large investment; in the IP world, using the Internet as a backbone, it will become much simpler – meaning more competition.
A second big advantage: IP supports voice and video as packets, not as sessions. That means that they can much more easily be managed as any other piece of data. Voice conversations, for example, can be stored, forwarded, searched, analysed and edited.
All of this is expected to lead to a Cambrian-like explosion of creativity, as IT suppliers, telecoms companies, Internet service providers and even media companies exploit the new possibilities.
Already, Google, eBay, News International (Sky), BT, Vodafone and dozens of others are reaching out beyond their markets and offering new business and consumer services that owe much to the underlying IP unification. End users are also starting to introduce many new applications of their own.
For business users, the earliest and simplest application is to use VoIP, both internally and over private or virtual private networks. But they are quickly adding unified messaging (meaning that all communications can be managed, for example, through Outlook); instant messaging; group collaboration and video conferencing.
But telecoms companies have ambitions to offer much more than this, ultimately providing high bandwidth interactive voice, video or data communications to anyone, wherever they are, in the appropriate format.
Ultimately, they could support collaboration from entire businesses down to buddy lists, and even manage people’s personal and business data. This might include a lifetime of voice calls, or a year’s worth of films they have watched.
Two technical developments are playing a key role in all of this. The SIP (session initiation protocol), developed by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), relieves the application or service provider from having to know where people are or what devices they have, by setting out a method for tracking users and their applications in distributed directories.
This means that when one SIP registered user or application communicates with another, the network can advise the sender of the recipient’s status – whether they are online, what kind of device they are using, if they are in a meeting and so on – and automatically establish the most appropriate “session”, matching the communication medium to the available network resources.
The second key technology is IMS – IP multimedia subsystem. This technology, primarily aimed at telecoms operators, is a large scale application development platform and server for IP applications and services, especially those using SIP.
It is being used to enable fixed and mobile operators to rapidly roll out new services – such as “push to talk”, at a rate that will enable them to compete with the likes of Google and eBay.
Increasingly, these services will be offered to business as web services – which can be plugged seamlessly into corporate networks.For the corporate IT strategist, a lot of this is a long way from his or her plan to save money by eliminating a PBX and some extra wiring.
But by putting voice onto an IP, managers are no so much shutting down a network, but opening a door to a million new services.