IP convergence? Not so fast

Don't throw that PBX away yet.

Voice/data convergence is going to take a long, long time, say users at a 3Com convergence event here this week. Standards, interoperability and reliability issues still have to be addressed before users make a full transition to packetised data for their voice networking.

"It's not here today, it's not ready today," says David Channin, assistant professor and chief of imaging informatics at Northwestern University Medical School's department of radiology in Chicago. "But the industry's going to shift."

Channin was speaking at a 3Com event to support 3Com's vision of converged networks. 3Com hosted Channin and a handful of other users to announce an alliance program to accelerate the deployment of voice/data/video convergence.

3Com's announcement, which includes partnerships with Microsoft, Siemens and Dell, comes the day after Nortel Networks announced a similar arrangement with Microsoft, Intel and Hewlett-Packard. 3Com says its program is not a response to the Nortel initiative, however.

"How could we do this in 24 hours?" asks Robert Roman, 3Com director of business development. "This is a response to a real market need."

But it's a need that doesn't appear to be too urgent. 3Com acknowledged that none of its users had yet to replace their circuit switched PBXs with voice-enabled packet switches - such as 3Com's PBX 1000, which is based on its SuperStack II LAN switch. 3Com's Roman attributed the slow uptake to users' existing investments in PBXs and the unproven reliability of data networks to support voice.

"You don't have a machine quite as reliable as (the PBX)," Roman says.

Channin says hopping on and off of the public switched telephone network from converged campus networks is an issue.

"Standards aren't there yet," and that hampers interoperability of packet-to-circuit gateways, he says. Northwestern is nonetheless looking at a packet-based voice infrastructure as a "red system," or a backup phone system.

H.323 is regarded as the standard for multimedia over packet networks but, as with any standard, vendors can interpret and implement it differently. Therefore, interoperability testing of H.323-based products is key.

Other users say cost issues are involved with running voice over data, which is interesting in that a big driver for converging voice and data networks reduces costs.

"For in-state service, you can't justify the cost yet," says Joe Bujek of UNN Hospital in Denver.

One 3Com user seems to be ahead of the convergence curve. Widener College in Chester, Pa. is running the conversations of 3,000 users on its Delaware campus over an ATM backbone, says Gary Habermann, director of network operations.

If that ATM network fails, they will be silent. "If the data network goes down, the voice goes too," Habermann says.

Other users who are not as far along as Widener say some of their suppliers aren't yet conversant in convergence.

"Our application vendor doesn't have any idea of the networking infrastructure," says Blake McClarty, professor and chair of the radiology department at Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg, Manitoba. "Networking is secondary, they have very little knowledge. There's a tendency to install and blame."

Vendors say that despite all of the perceived benefits of convergence - lower equipment and service costs, new applications - coexistence of circuit- and packet-based nets will be the norm for some time.

"I'm comfortable with a multimedia appliance with a telephone right next to it," says James Welch, vice president of systems, marketing and business development at software developer Protocol Systems in Beaverton, Oregon.

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