Enhancements to the operating systems of Cisco Systems switches and routers should make it easier to use data networks for voice calls and multimedia, a move that could cut costs and open the door to new capabilities.
The dominant maker of data network gear on Monday introduced the first in a series of software tools that can automatically set up LAN and WAN (wide-area network) gear to give IP (Internet Protocol) traffic guaranteed QoS (quality of service). IP networks originally were designed to deliver plain data, such as e-mail messages, so it didn't matter exactly how fast or in what order packets made it across the network. QoS mechanisms are needed to make spoken words come out in the right order and ensure that time-sensitive application data gets delivered on time.
Cisco's new AutoQoS software configures a device with the correct QoS settings automatically, eliminating work for a network administrator and reducing the chance of an error in configuration, said Vijay Krishnamoorthy, a Cisco product manager. The initial version supports only QoS for VoIP (voice over IP), but is the first of a series of tools that will automatically set up QoS for video streams, critical data applications and other types of traffic.
Interest in VoIP is growing among companies both small and large, but configuration headaches are a major hurdle for those that want to take advantage of it, especially smaller companies that don't have a large network staff, according to Dave Kosiur, an analyst at The Burton Group Corp., in Midvale, Utah.
"You still have to go through the command-line interface of the device and enter a lot of commands," Kosiur said. "There's a lot of complexity with selecting the appropriate QoS mechanisms and then configuring them," he added.
CiscoWorks QoS Policy Manager, which is sold separately from Cisco's operating systems, is designed for large enterprises and isn't right for many small and medium-sized companies, Kosiur said. However, even in a large organization with QoS Policy Manager, AutoQoS could ease the process of updating individual devices, he said.
AutoQoS is available now in the latest versions of Cisco IOS (Internetwork Operating System) and Catalyst OS for Cisco Catalyst 6500, 2950 and 3550 switches. It will come out in March for Cisco 2600, 3600, 3700 and 7200 routers, and later in the year for the Catalyst 4500 switch, Cisco said. The software is free to customers with Cisco IOS software licenses and maintenance agreements. AutoQoS can be implemented on several different kinds of ports, including ATM (Asynchronous Transfer Mode) and Frame Relay interfaces.
AutoQoS can use a variety of QoS mechanisms, including standard parameters such as IP DiffServ (Differentiated Services) and IEEE 802.1p markers. Because of the way a switch with AutoQoS marks a packet, other devices across a LAN or WAN can tell how they have to treat the marked packet, Krishnamoorthy said.
Cisco doesn't leave the IT department in the dark if they need to adjust settings for a company's own needs. For example, an administrator can set up the software to deal with a newly introduced application such as Microsoft Corp. NetMeeting.
"We show you everything we did, and you can go tweak all those parameters, if you like," Krishnamoorthy said.
AutoQoS is complementary to CiscoWorks QoS Policy Manager, a management tool that helps network administrators configure QoS policies across a network and monitor traffic, according to Cisco. Companies can enable AutoQoS at the device level and use QoS Policy Manager to monitor it.
A complex QoS configuration process costs money, which is one reason why for some large enterprises it costs more to have a converged voice and data network than to maintain separate systems, according to Zeus Kerravala, an analyst at The Yankee Group, in Boston.
"If you're in a company with 4,000 routers, you have to go and touch 4,000 routers" to set up or change a QoS configuration, Kerravala said, an expensive use of engineers' time.
That expense eliminates one popular reason to use a converged network, though such companies might still make the move to take advantage of new applications such as those used for managing voice-mail, e-mail and faxes in one place, he said.
One global network service provider, Infonet Services Corp., has already manually set up its Cisco network to support QoS for VoIP but expects to use AutoQoS for some things. For example, AutoQoS can identify the signalling data that comes along with voice packets and take it out of the path set aside for voice, leaving more capacity for the voice packets, said Joe Fusco, director of IP services.
In addition, AutoQoS could let Infonet place more network policy enforcement in CPE (consumer premise equipment) routers, he said. That means the thin pipe between a company's offices and the edge of the service provider's network is used more efficiently, he said.
"The more you can do at the CPE ... the better performance you get over the local loop," Fusco said.
Converged networks are beginning to look appealing to large enterprises, which make up most of Infonet's customer base.
"The majority of our customers today are data, but there's a lot of interest in voice and there's a tremendous amount of interest in video, particularly for videoconferencing," Fusco said.