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Firms seek to spark interest in convergence

The idea of using a single Internet-based network to deliver voice and data traffic has the industry talking, but corporations aren't yet biting.

ATLANTA--Most networking pundits believe the latest buzzword in the industry is "convergence," but that may soon be displaced by "coming soon."

As the networking industry gathers here once again, the concept of convergence--using a single Internet-based network to deliver voice and data traffic--continues to be responsible for much of the noise at the Networld+Interop trade show this week. Companies such as Cisco Systems, Nortel Networks, and Lucent Technologies are all hawking strategies to migrate their corporate customers to updated networks.

To be clear, these companies have stakes in two portions of the market. First is the public communications network, which has embraced the idea of converged networks based on Internet standards. Second is the corporate market, which to date has been not only a reluctant customer, but a skeptical one as well.

It is this corporate niche that has been the focus of firms such as Cisco and Nortel in recent months. In June, Nortel coined a term for it's strategic jump into converged corporate technologies, calling its program "Inca." Cisco followed suit this week with the introduction of its own hardware and software plan, called "Avvid." Lucent, as well as other networking players like 3Com and Cabletron, also have their own plans for corporate telephony.

The concept of convergence is nothing new. For years technologists have tried to shove as much traffic, data or voice, as they could down a single pipe. But in recent years, the technology has finally caught up with the concept, and long-term promises can finally be fulfilled.

Yet most industry pundits point out that any technology goes through a period in which it falls victim to overzealous marketing hype before it is actually embraced or discarded. Convergence may be reaching its pinnacle, some say, before companies actually take the steps to adopt the new technology.

Does it make sense?
The reasons to switch to a network that allows voice and data to travel on a single network are compelling: for one, companies could save money by using a single network for all their needs. Second, managing voice and data transmissions is easier on a converged network.

Yet some studies show that corporations are skeptical of technologies from firms that already have a difficult time keeping their systems operational with just data flowing through their switches and routing devices. Furthermore, some corporate network managers may prefer to keep their networks separate, relying on different technologies for each networking need.

"The proof is going to be when people start to implement and see what it can do," said Esmerelda Silva, analyst with market researcher International Data Corporation. "The market is literally at the beginning stage where people are just starting to look at it. I think there's no question people are interested in a converged network.

"Cisco obviously has the advantage from the IP [Internet protocol] world and Nortel and Lucent have the advantage from the voice world."

Some pundits even wonder what a convergence product might look like in a few years--likely far different from what is being pitched today.

But billions of dollars are pouring into today's convergence concept. Lucent spent $24 billion to grab switching technology for corporations and service providers when it bought Ascend Communications. Standing at the crossroads of the voice and data worlds, Lucent strikes a familiar refrain for any company with a huge installed base of voice equipment in corporations and phone companies.

"For many, the answer will be evolution while dealing with revolutionary technical change," said Rich McGinn, chief executive of Lucent, during a speech here.

"I think it'll happen at some point in the future. The problem is the voice network works, the data network doesn't," said Mike McConnell, analyst with industry consultants Infonetics Research. "Users are not really sold on the benefits."

Believe the hype?
Taking advantage of the "Real Thing" motif found at the World of Coca-Cola museum here, Cisco unveiled existing and re-packaged hardware and software for corporate voice and data use. With the catchy Avvid moniker, Cisco hopes to evolve its huge existing networking base--as well as its own internal network--to a single infrastructure based on IP, the lingua franca of the Net.

Company executives said they plan to have 3,000 IP-based phones installed on Cisco's current network by the end of this year. Cisco also divulged two early users of its Avvid technology: Texas Instruments and Merrill Lynch.

But even the Merrill Lynch representative said the company has not turned its test efforts over to its own systems administrators. The investment bank hopes to have "several hundred" phones installed on its Princeton, New Jersey, campus network by the end of this year, according to Donald McFarlane, a network systems architect at Merrill Lynch.

"Voice isn't a point product, it's really a system solution," said Jayshree Ullal, vice president and general manager of Cisco's enterprise line of business, noting the market is "very much in the early-adopter phase."

And no one company seems to be rising above the fray. At a convergence "showdown" today at the conference that included many of the major networking players, no company seemed to be able to state a cogent business rationale to push convergence-type technologies, choosing instead to trade barbs and describe product features.

Every participant in the debate said the drive toward convergence was "inevitable," but none seemed ready to stake a strong claim in the market. As one executive put it: "Today's convergence story is mostly that."