Convergence is no slam-dunk

Jumping on the convergence bandwagon may not be as easy, or as automatically beneficial, as it sounds, users and analysts said last week.

"It sounds wonderful, but I wonder," said JC George, a computer operations manager at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, after hearing a presentation about AT&T's new Integrated Network Connection (INC) managed service.

AT&T is the latest vendor to offer merged voice and data services through one pipe, promising large customers savings and simplicity -- which information technology people have long clamoured for.

Theoretically, integrated programs would be simpler to administer. Most of the leading vendors are said to be testing converged technologies, but none have announced paying customers.

Analyst Jim Metzler at The Metzler Group in Massachusetts, said users could spend years and waste money moving to an integrated service if they must have their own staff oversee the operation and maintenance of new equipment that is provided by carriers.

AT&T and Sprint, for example, have said they plan to install Asynchronous Transfer Mode switches on customers' premises.

On the other hand, Metzler said, companies might realise tremendous network operations savings by converging voice and data.

He said companies could combine two network staffs for data and voice into one.

Metzler and other analysts urged users to consider convergence services only after drafting a detailed technology plan based on their company's long-term business needs. Such needs might include how soon and how frequently a company will need bandwidth for videoconferencing or to transfer rich graphic information.

One key to the value of integrated plans is dynamic bandwidth allocation, which means a customer could increase bandwidth when it was needed and reduce it when it wasn't needed to save money.

Today, most businesses pay a set cost for the pipes into their operations each month.

For example, a growing company might purchase an additional T1 connection but use only 10 per cent of that line's capacity for years, all the while paying for full capacity.

Under integration, carriers would charge by bits used.

"We're real anxious to get the dynamic bandwidth allocation, because that's where the real savings occur," said James Miller, vice president of technology at Hallmark Cards in Missouri.

Miller is testing Sprint's Integrated On-Demand Network and has combined some long-distance voice, Internet access and point-to-point data transmission over a single connection at Hallmark headquarters.

Miller has said he hopes to see savings of 40 per cent or more on conventional networking costs.

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