The New Convergence Formula

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What is convergence? Since its inception, the term has referred to the unification of voice and data traffic over a common infrastructure.

But today, it’s not just cell phones, PCs and PDAs that are being connected. More and more business and consumer applications are connecting to networks to increase communications capabilities, resulting in entirely new and different types of devices — such as Amazon’s Kindle e-book system, as well as cars, home appliances, medical equipment, cameras, industrial machinery and anything with an embedded radio-frequency ID (RFID) sensor.

Further, more and more companies are accepting and adopting fourth-generation (4G) wireless technologies, while the ever-growing demand for bandwidth is ushering in 40-Gig and, soon, 100-Gig optical networks. Meanwhile, unified communications is replacing Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) as the new paradigm for enterprise-wide communications.

This hyperconnectivity — defined as the state reached when the number of nodes and applications connected to the network exceeds the number of people connected — is quickly revolutionizing the global information workforce. A recent IDC study sponsored by Nortel found that 16 percent of companies worldwide are hyperconnected, and another 36 percent are poised to join them.

Most important, however, this unprecedented level of multidisciplinary convergence carries with it tremendous opportunity. There’s the possibility for increased revenues for carriers, heightened productivity for enterprises and a better communications experience for all. Ultimately, it promises to bring new solutions and technologies that will revolutionize the end-user experience and forever change the way we live, work and play.

However, hyperconnectivity also presents significant challenges that will require us to fundamentally rethink the way networks and applications are built. Luckily, most of these challenges can be addressed by focusing on the two pillars of hyperconnectivity: true broadband and communications-enabled applications.

Creating True Broadband

“True broadband” can be defined as a communications experience so seamless that users are completely unaware of the technology making that communication possible. They simply communicate anywhere, anytime, from whichever device is most convenient, wired or wireless. Although the IT industry has talked about this concept for years, it’s a promise that has yet to become a reality.

To deliver true broadband, IT professionals first must solve a number of technology challenges, including:

  • Scaling the access network to meet the huge bandwidth demands of high-capacity, media-rich services such as video.
  • Scaling metro and long-haul networks.
  • Simplifying all network architectures to accommodate the diverse set of endpoints and their different needs (e.g., authorization; authentication; security; operations, administration and maintenance (OAM); and intelligence).
  • Ensuring seamless, uninterrupted communications across all networks — wired and wireless and public and private.

Communications-Enabling Applications

It will not be enough, however, to provide a seamless broadband experience at the infrastructure level. The communications experience also must be unified at the applications level so that it, too, is seamless across devices, networks and enterprise boundaries.

To do this, one must marry the network capabilities and intelligence from the telecom world with the rich world of IT applications to create a new, communications-enabled application. That would mean audio, video and instant messaging — plus sophisticated network capabilities such as conferencing, location, presence, proximity and identity — will become intrinsic to the application experience.

By communications-enabling applications in this way, IT professionals can streamline processes; reduce human delays; improve customer and supplier relationships; lower operating and capital costs; and create a much richer, simplified and more satisfying communications experience. 

Let’s look at an example of the power of telecom and IT convergence through the eyes of a project manager reviewing a financial spreadsheet. If the spreadsheet is communications-enabled, the manager can roll the cursor over each data entry to see who provided the information, how that individual can be reached at that particular time — for example, via desk phone, mobile phone, e-mail or instant message — and whether that person is available and willing to talk. If so, one simple click within the spreadsheet could connect the manager and the individual. No need to look up phone numbers or e-mail addresses or try a number of different devices or locations. This same capability could be used to interface with customers, partners, suppliers and even co-workers.

Take it a step further and consider an application designed to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of health care organizations. This solution tracks the whereabouts of medical staff, sorted by skill and specialty, so the network can respond to emergencies by automatically finding, linking and connecting — via conference bridge or video, for example — the most qualified medical staff who are closest to the patient’s location. In this sort of medical setting, minutes matter, and productivity and efficiency are measured not in dollars but in lives saved.

Other potential applications include:

  • A “LiveContact” prototype that enables users to link their existing phones with any Web browser to create an integrated experience employing voice, video, IM, application sharing and co-browsing.
  • A “LoneWorker” solution that enables social workers in potentially hostile environments to keep in constant contact with their supervisors, increasing their safety and, if needed, the response time of emergency vehicles.
  • A “Collaboration” solution that uses spatial audio to allow users on a conference call to track each person’s audio stream, understand who is talking and engage in private sidebar conversations.

The possibilities are seemingly endless when you can combine the capabilities of the network — location, presence, identity — and telecom systems  — skills-based routing, personal agents, skills profiles, conferencing, dialing plans, multimodal messaging — with the new interfaces of social networking, soft clients, unified communications and any other application.

The Power of Convergence

Connecting the worlds of telecom and IT at first might sound like an easy task. It isn’t. At the heart of this challenge is the nature of enterprise IT’s evolution. A company’s application capabilities — including its business and workflow processes — have been introduced and developed independently from the company’s telecom network, largely due to circumstance. The technological capabilities to seamlessly bring these two domains together did not exist until now.

Increasingly, communications companies such as Nortel are joining forces with IT companies such as IBM and Microsoft to bridge their historical divide. Together, telecom and IT companies are leveraging new technologies — including service-oriented architectures (SOAs), software frameworks and Web services — to bring the two worlds together. The benefits truly will be transformative, and IT professionals will need to be ready to deliver and support the new converged environment.

However, convergence of real-time applications with data networking is new ground for many people, and there likely will be a skills gap. For this reason, Nortel Press recently released a new title, Real-Time Networking, which was created by a group of Nortel subject matter experts. Real-Time Networking is a self-study guide for engineers, designers and other professionals. The topics covered — quality of service; network planning; and building resilient topologies, applications and networks — will be foundational to delivering revolutionary user experiences, virtually all of which are going to require real-time networking capabilities.

The guide outlines the technological underpinnings of real-time networking to help IT professionals transfer the philosophy and capabilities that telecom brings around resiliency, reliability, quality and availability to communications-enabled applications. Ultimately, the book helps individuals prepare for the Nortel Certified Technology Specialist (NCTS) – Real-Time Networking exam (920-108).

If you think about the challenges facing us, you will find almost every new project involves a multidisciplinary convergence of technologies from different domains: wireline and wireless, enterprise and carrier, applications and infrastructure, and everything in between. In almost every case, there is an interactivity component to the converged system that brings with it requirements for real-time responsiveness from the network.

Holding technology credentials demonstrates your grasp of the future of networking and convergence. Now is the time to add convergence knowledge and experience to your skill set. 

Henrik Oberg is the leader of the Nortel Technology Solutions Academy Program and works actively with Nortel Press. He is located in Stockholm, Sweden, and can be reached at editor (at) certmag (dot) com.

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