Converging comms raises tricky issues

Most IT professionals are used to the idea of wearing many hats, as tight budgets and lean staffing have forced them to take on more than one role within their departments. Now, technology changes are blurring the roles between IT and external groups as well.

A broad, cross-industry convergence on a single set of communications technologies is becoming the new common denominator across what were formerly disparate corporate job functions. Mass adoption of TCP/IP and Ethernet across disciplines could soon begin to erode departmental barriers and redefine what is and is not an IT function. Turf wars are likely to erupt. And before it’s over, IT managers may feel as though they’ve tried on more hats than the Village People.

The question is, as everything converges onto a common network architecture, how should that architecture be designed, how should it be managed, and who should have responsibility for the disparate systems that use it?

Consider building-automation systems. From heating and ventilation to surveillance and elevator monitoring, building automation will undergo a major transition to TCP/IP and Ethernet over the next 10 years. Traditional use of expensive, proprietary cabling systems, communications protocols and specialised converter boxes will give way to a common, structured cable plant and network infrastructure.

The convergence of automated building-monitoring and control systems onto a single communications medium has implications that even those in the industry have yet to fully grasp. New applications are likely to emerge that will offer unprecedented integration — as soon as someone thinks of them.

And with the ratification in the next few months of the emerging Power-over-Ethernet standard, the local wiring closet will gradually evolve into a universal distribution system for low-power devices, ranging from security-card readers to IP surveillance cameras and even emergency backup lighting, time-card readers and wall clocks. Each will be remotely configurable and will feed back status information over Ethernet.

But with Ethernet fully democratised, who will control the infrastructure? You could create parallel, separately managed networks. But IT has more experience managing IP-based data networks, and sooner or later, someone is going to want to cross the IT and building-automation systems’ data streams. For example, analysts say IT security is likely to merge with building-security systems over the next few years in order to provide a more comprehensive security picture.

Meanwhile, wireless LANs are following PDAs through the corporate back door, and departmental managers have begun acting like network managers, installing WLAN access points in a grass-roots effort to give mobile office workers access to the corporate LAN. Do you issue cease-and-desist orders and hope for the best, or do you take charge, set WLAN policy and begin your own deployment? Doing the latter means managing data over radio waves in an unlicensed spectrum that spills over business boundaries, is prone to security problems and doesn’t like the office microwave.

WLANs also present a new learning curve in how to manage and troubleshoot a network that uses airwaves as its communications medium. Greg Murphy, president of WLAN management software vendor AirWave Wireless, says a hospital’s IT team called recently when WLAN performance began dropping off at regular intervals. AirWave traced the problem to a balloon vendor. With each delivery, the metallic-covered Mylar balloons floated upward, blocking an access point in the lobby.

WLANs clearly need to be managed by IT. Once IT assumes control, however, users will expect the same level of service they get on the wired network. Early management products can help by providing centralised configuration management and performance monitoring, but they also must be integrated with existing enterprise network management systems for end-to-end troubleshooting.

The voice/data divide is another departmental boundary that’s falling fast. IP telephony is turning the Ethernet LAN into a giant telephone switch, with IP phones plugged into Ethernet jacks and traditional PBX functions like call management and voice mail running on network servers. As if that wasn’t enough, WLAN IP phones are on the way.

In taking on traditional telecommunications department functions, IT must serve a constituency that has high expectations for signal quality, uptime and sophisticated feature sets. Suddenly, data networking staff need to understand the impact of issues like jitter, latency and packet prioritisation, while the telecommunications folks bone up on TCP/IP. Do you merge these groups — or somehow move the boundary between them?

How such issues get resolved is likely to redefine IT’s role in the organisation. As an IT manager, you should take the initiative to drive that process before some other group does it for you.

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