Opinion: Enterprise technology tips for 2003

Ah, a new year, so filled with optimism that we can deploy voice over IP, wireless and Gigabit Ethernet with nary a hitch. At least, that's what vendor marketing machines are telling us. Let's not forget the mighty words of French philosopher Voltaire: "Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities."

Here are a few tips to avoid network atrocities in 2003:

Voice over IP

While you certainly want to make sure that you get the best quality of service (QoS)-enabled Layer 2/Layer 3 switching infrastructure to support your VoIP installation, the truth is deploying switching gear from any major vendor will get you what you need.

But, while VoIP systems are heavily standards-oriented, many vendors can offer advanced telephony functions only via proprietary extensions to protocols such as H.323.

Be cognizant of the underlying architecture. While all VoIP systems contain the same essential elements, key architectural issues - like centralized vs. distributed control - can have a major effect on the flexibility and resilience of the VoIP system.

And be aware that even the humble IP phone can have an effect on your network. Geeky issues such as how they handle (or if they handle) 802.1p and/or Differentiated Server priority as well as how they deal with dead air (aka silence) on voice calls can become very important when such little things are scaled to thousands of users.

Wireless LANs

While it's easy to let wireless segments just grow out of the edges of your wired segment - that's not a good idea. You need a full understanding of the role that campus wireless will play in your organization and start building that environment from access point No. 1.

Realize that wireless is a shared environment. While you can run VoIP over IP over wireless - you cannot guarantee the treatment that traffic will receive. Unfortunately, wireless is a shared environment so our standard methods for QoS that we use on dedicated switch ports just don't apply.

There are some ways to provide QoS but they require deployment of wireless gear that is not standards-based or the addition of a traffic shaper in front of the access point.

Worried about security and how terrible wired equivalent privacy (WEP) is? Well, it isn't that terrible. Better yet, "WEP+" is coming out in the spring, but it's not called that. WEP got such a bad name that the industry decided to give the new, improved WEP a new name - wireless protected access.

Gigabit on Campus

There are two parts to this - Gigabit to the desktop and 10-Gigabit in the core.

In 2003, Gigabit network interface cards (NIC) will be basically free. Buy PCs from Dell Computer Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co./Compaq Computer Corp., IBM Corp. and others and you'll find that, like-it-or-not, they'll come with a 10/100/1000M bit/sec Ethernet NIC on the motherboard.

If only the switch ports were free. Unfortunately, they're not. While prices vary, they are still several times more expensive than Fast Ethernet ports. So don't expect to use a lot of those new PCs at Gigabit speeds right away. It seems like switching vendors are hoping that pressure from the edge pushes the desktop to Gigabit. Vendors: Lowering switch port prices wouldn't hurt.

And all that Gigabit at the edge will have you begging for 10G Ethernet at the core, right? At US$50,000 per port (meaning $100,000 per connection), you might find yourself, instead, suddenly very fond of link aggregation. In 2003, it will still be a lot cheaper to aggregate six or eight Gigabit links than to buy 10G Ethernet ports.

Tolly is president of The Tolly Group, a strategic consulting and independent testing company in Manasquan, N.J. He can be reached at ktolly@tolly.com.

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