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But is it a good idea?

©06 The Media Desk

Article. Glossary. And Links
[NOTE: A shortened version of this Tech Article appeared in the Desk's Day Job Newsletter. However, the Desk retained the rights to the article. Now with additional information and more generalized conclusions it is being presented to the world at large. thank you ]

      Depending on where you eat lunch, it would seem that a good percentage of those in the Tech World are talking more about VoIP and UM than they are about football, the election results and gas prices combined.
      Voice over Internet Protocol and Unified Messaging are just the latest moves to combine voice and data communications so that Everything that runs through a copper wire, a fiber cable, or now wireless even up to and including satellite communications, all share the same network and the hardware that makes it all happen.
      They call it CONVERGENCE. And to some that is an eleven letter dirty word.

[In one sentence: Converged or Unified Messaging is where one device, say a cell phone, acts as your connection to the world at large for two way communications for voice, text, images or even all of the above at once, all in real time.]

      Yes, it brings the convenience of having absolutely everything piped to one device that through various wired and wireless connections can act as an email and fax terminal, a voice phone, a web browser, motion and still camera and a fairly hefty storage medium all in something that will fit in a pocket. Of course that device could just as easily be a laptop, a full PC, an automobile or even home or office network of all of the above with various pieces of dedicated equipment (such as a stand alone fax machine) as well as multi-purpose units. In most cases the only thing missing from the equation is a printer. But if you are hanging out in some internet cafes they may print your boss's wisdom for a few cents a page, or even free- with the purchase of a four dollar cup of coffee.

      Yes, with new advances like TV being broadcast to your telephone, cable TV offering more services like soft phones (VoIP), banks having wireless hotspots in their lobbies, remote computer access services where you can access your home or work PC from anywhere.... and so on, you could watch the program your home PC recorded on your web phone while making calls to your bank. Or something like that.
      And Yes, with full motion live action video running to cellular phones, web based storage measured in gigabytes, talking email, refrigerators that know your milk is spoiled and call you about it, and USB ports on wrist watches that can hold hours of music it may be inevitable that we are no longer tied to large, noisy, hot and temperamental PC's for everything from email SPAM to online shopping.

      Also, with broadband being offered by almost everybody over all sorts of carriers ranging from standard telephone lines to cable, wireless and even power lines (BPL which is NOT a good idea at this time, see article in link section below), high capacity circuits are more affordable and easier to get all the time, so you might think that using all that bandwidth for all your communications needs is the solution you've been waiting for.

      But the question must be asked: Is it a good idea?

      From the Customer Service Standpoint. Will every call be as clear and crisp as a standard wire line POTS call is now (remember the 'pin drop'? that's the gold standard), and if not, just how bad is acceptable? What's the service area footprint for wireless? Is one of those gaps in service where the CEO vacations? What's the rates and connection percentage for 'out of area' use? There's five equipment service centers in Chicago, but what about Boise?

      From the security standpoint. Do you really want a single point of access to a network with that much power? If your 'phone' falls into the wrong hands, or someone with criminal intent were to happen upon it, what then? What if a virus or worm gets into the system on one device, is the system self-securing to minimize damage or do we need somebody to actually pull a plug someplace? How about hacker defense, is it pro-active or re-active or both? Can a fourteen year old with an Apple get in and reroute all of our traffic to an adult bookstore? If so, how hard will it be to restore our own provisioning?

      From the reliability standpoint. The prospect of network bottlenecks and single points of failure crippling either individual users or even the entire service is daunting. Redundancy is nice, but expensive. And is some cases things such as diverged power sources or fiber paths may not even be possible. Just how much risk are we willing to take? What is an acceptable failure ratio? Remember, a standard call over copper wire has FIVE NINES of reliability- it works 99.999 percent of the time! (less than one call out of one hunderd thousand fails)

      From the network manager standpoint. Not all communications are created equal. Email is not time dependant. Voice is. Video can be if it is live. On a packet switched network, even over high capacity circuits, bandwidth at any particular moment is not infinite and when multiple users are demanding high priority all at once, something has got to give. That something can easily become a QoS (Quality of Service) problem. What's our latency picture look like and where's the balance? And something related to several points of view, if we upgrade a router or the software on the gateway, what does that do to the rest of the system, what if something downstream is allergic to the upgrade, can we roll it back?

      From the fiscal standpoint. Somebody has got to pay for all this. How the bill is divvied up can be almost as contentious as trying to explain to some big boss why a caller sounded like Daffy Duck yesterday during peak usage hours. Are charges based on connections or traffic or some combination? How about if somebody only uses the link once a month, but when they do the transfer is in the 'Holy Mackerel' range? What about cases where the system is all but deserted in July, but in April every possible byte of bandwidth is full of outbound traffic, do you charge more then? Do you build to account for the data equivalent of the phone company's "Mother's Day" and just spread the costs out over the rest of the year?

      Finally. If a unified messaging system is installed at your office or home. Then everything that can be is cut over to it and the connections light up with usage and everything is sweet. Then: Time Passes. And then something goes terribly wrong. (And eventually everything breaks down. Remember Murphy?)
      Now what? "Oh Shoot." Is Not plan B, C or D.
      This does not mean disaster recovery. That phase may be two weeks down the road. We are talking about getting back in service NOW. At home, you pull up the covers and wait it out, but maybe you are working in an emergency call center.... now things are different.
      What do you do WHILE the wind is blowing and the snow is still piling up? The lights are out and the computer is dark, but calls still need to be made to those that must deal with the emergency. Do you rely on traditional Cel Phones? Are there land lines somewhere with straight set phones to make and receive calls? Who calls who for what when? What do you fix first... even if you can tell what is broken, for instance is the WAN or the LAN down? Is there an off site backup? And so on.

      Maybe all of the above questions won't have to be asked for every system. Most certainly not for a personal unified platform with a land line backup for home use. But in a business environment most of them will be asked repeatedly. Such as with Network Support Access: "Who will have the 'God Key' (full access to everything) and who will only be in charge of email attachment screening and what is in between?"
      But the home user should give serious thought to the wisdom of storing their banking or other personal information (SSN, various passwords, your home address, etc) on a portable device that could easily be lost or stolen. For that matter, so should businesses.
      The disadvantage of reliance on a single device might be best painted with a brush of a slightly gloomy color. The one time the battery in the handheld decides to give up the ghost will be the one time you MUST have the information stored on it for something extremely important and there is no immediate backup or alternative near to hand.
      Of course this isn't new. But with so many apples in one basket, the thought that the basket may come apart rendering everything bruised or squashed isn't comforting at all.

      These systems are simple. It can be explained quickly and easily with all the truth any system engineer can stand.
      And here it is:

Converged systems are so complicated that in most cases no One Person knows and understands all operational points along the network and no One Person can take out a screwdriver and fix it.

      Again, you are introducing multiple points of failure with some very sensitive, and in some cases fickle, equipment. All of it subject to the whims of nature, the people who operate it, random chance and actual malevolence or criminal activity.
      Somebody that gets paid to make the heavy decisions must consider whether or not it is worth it. Are the special effects and extra features mission critical enough to accept the risk of a catastrophic failure taking everything down.

      The last word on the matter is that IF Convergence is a good idea, it will withstand critical evaluation of it and the services it offers. If it cannot, maybe it isn't such a good idea after all.

Brief Glossary:

BANDWIDTH / BROADBAND: Bandwidth is how much information can flow over a given connection in any given measurement of time, usually expressed as bits per second. Broadband for home use is usually as speeds of 250 Kbs (250 kilobits per second or 250,000 per second) or greater (so DSL qualifies) whereas dialup is regarded as 56 K although the rate obtained is usually 10K or so lower than that. In a commercial setting broadband is usually defined as T1 speeds, 1.5 Mps (megabits, 1.5 million bits per second), or higher.

ISP, Internet Service Provider: Provides connection to the Internet. May also store websites on servers, provide content of its own (AOL, Earthlink). Many non-traditional utilities are now acting as ISPs such as power companies and even municipalities.

LAN, Local Area Network: Usually the on site equipment and wiring. Probably in a single building or a campus-like environment of a few buildings and facilities all connected back to a single hub or in a ring-type structure. May or may not be connected to a larger network- a WAN.

LATENCY or 'Lag': The delay inherent in some systems between the sending of a message (voice, data, whatever) and when it is received due to packet encoding or routing. The time lapse can be noticeable in voice conversations or video teleconferencing, sometimes making such communications untenable whereas a few seconds in a text message or email may not even be noticeable. Latency can cause some packets of data that are time dependent to be dropped, causing problems in live conversations.
      A good example of live conversation lag is the time lapses during the radio calls between the APOLLO spacecraft in lunar orbit and Mission Control in Houston. The elapsed time between the original call and the astronauts receiving the confirmation was several seconds.

REAL TIME: Instant, or nearly so, reception from moment of transmission. 'Live' and as it happens, such as a normal voice conversation over a land line telephone. Conversations are time dependant.

VoIP, Voice over Internet Protocol: Using the internet to place voice telephone calls. Also now used for faxing (FoIP) and other forms of communication such as real time video teleconference. See this article for more.

WAN, Wide Area Network: Ordinarily thought of in terms of an ISP such as the telephone company (wired or wireless) or cable service. The network service runs over and allows connection to the Internet over a Public Utility. Can also be a satellite connection to the Net.

Links to related tech articles on the Desk.

VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol

Junk Faxes and FoIP

Broadband over Power Lines (BPL)

The 2006 Delaware Technology Conference with a short picture page. And the coverage from the 2005 Conference.

The Desk's Tech Index Page, the graphic may be the best part!

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