The message at this week's IP.4.IT Exhibition and Conference in Las Vegas was clear: Open and flexible IP networks are becoming the norm in the enterprise, and the services layered on top are quickly evolving beyond foot-in-the-door voice over IP to include new service-oriented applications, collaborative tools and rich media publishing.
The IP.4.IT show, co-sponsored by Network Computing parent CMP Media and Pulver.Com, was focused on the proliferation of IP in the enterprise as well as the emergence of business-driving IP applications and services riding on that converged infrastructure.
From the kick-off, the spotlight was on the next wave of big-picture changes that are collecting to transform enterprise IT, much in the same way the Internet and Web brought new capabilities--and possibilities--to IT a decade before.
Opening keynote speaker, consultant and author Paul Strassman (when he wasn't reality-checking the enterprise-centric audience with tales of attacks on a DNS root server he was once tasked with overseeing) urged attendees to dive headlong into today's new world in which "computer-centric solutions are being replaced by network-centric services."
Although Google gets a lot of attention for its search algorithms and bushels-of-cash advertising-based business model, Strassman pointed to the company as the world's first mega-scale example of a true distributed, service-oriented network architecture based on easy-to-understand, published interface standards.
secure than riding a Hyundai through Fallujah."
- Computer Consultant Paul Strassman, at IP.4.IT
"Google serves as an early prototype of what is possible," said Strassman, pointing particularly at the ability for developers to take multiple Google APIs--such as for search and maps--and "mash" them up to create altogether new applications. Such an approach not only yields innovative new apps but represents a major shift in the cost-structure of IT. "This is something way beyond the current capability of most applications," he said.
Added Strassman: "It took us $2 trillion and 50 years of computing to get where we are today. It's going to take another 10 to 25 years and $20 trillion to create a global real-time [network computing] environment" that will be the major economic force of the next century.
VoIP provider LignUp Corp. built its business and is helping customers re-build theirs by taking advantage of the notion of converged networks and service-oriented apps, said Kevin Nethercott, LignUp's president and COO.
"There's a new 'supply chain' for telecom apps and services that we all now have access to, using well-known and standard interfaces," said Nethercott, calling that a significant change from the past, when enterprises were tied to single-vendor PBXs, inflexible carrier services and pre-integrated application stacks.
Added Nethercott, with a twist: "We all thought voice over IP was the killer app, but then we realized that communicating isn't really an application at all. It's inherent in the network. Killer applications don't exist within the VoIP space--you folks [in the enterprise] already operate and own the killer IP applications," he said, pointing to the line-of-business applications enterprises rely on to run their businesses.
"The critical point," Nethercott said, "is how to take those applications and converge them with voice."
Enterprises need to lay the groundwork today to build toward that vision. Allstate Insurance examined the possibility of building a converged IP network back in 2002, said Bruce Senneke, procurement officer responsible for buying voice and data transport for the insurance giant. Although the time wasn't right then, the company did rework and stagger all its network-oriented contracts to come due in 2007 to executive on a more coherent convergence strategy around IP, Senneke said.
A new generation of network-centric, service-oriented applications is emerging to ride on those networks. One of those apps may be Wikis, which create user-editable Web pages and have emerged as an important next-generation collaboration tool.
According to Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia (which now includes 800,000 articles in its English version, with popular pages being changed more than 100 times per minute), Wikis are heading into the enterprise. He pointed to Best Buy, which recently added Wiki capabilities to its corporate intranet to enable retail associates to communicate with one another.
"[Wikis] are really great for grass-roots communications. They cut out the hierarchy of the company," Wales said. At Best Buy, he said as an example, "about one out of 10 stores have a car stereo geek, the kind of person who can really provide spectacular customer service. A Wiki empowers that person to communicate with other associates directly. That kind of thing is very hard to do traditionally."
Although IT departments may initially be reluctant to bring apps like Wikis into the enterprise, eventually user demand for such easy-to-use yet powerful apps will drive them behind the firewall anyway. A flexible service-based architecture will make it easier for companies to bring in a best-of-breed Wiki application that will deliver real value quickly, rather than wait for enterprise app vendors--ranging from Microsoft to SAP to Siebel--to add (typically crippled) Wiki functionality to their application suites.
Rich media publishing is another application built to ride on top of emerging converged networks. Enterprises have already made an investment in backbone and infrastructure to support voice over IP; with the right approach, they can basically get audio and video distribution for free, said Darrin Coulson, senior VP, worldwide field operations for vendor Sonic Foundry. "What the world is demanding now is a 'Tivo' style way of watching presentation material," he said, which is something more enterprises are able to deliver today via a converged IP network infrastructure.
Supporting innovative new applications may be the direction IT is headed, but managing the bottom-line costs of this new architecture may still rule the day--at least for the near term. Memorial Hospital in York, Pa., re-architected its entire network beginning about two-and-a-half years ago to converge data and voice onto a single IP-based network, leveraging technology from Trapeze Networks, Spectralink, Siemens and others, said hospital CIO Cliff Weaver.
Apart from the flexibility that a wireless network provides in a hospital environment, Weaver saw cost savings as a major driver as well. "One of the main reasons we went with an IP-based solution was to reduce [network admin] headcount to maintain and troubleshoot the [converged] network," he said, noting that it takes only 1.5 full-time headcount--part of the hospital's data network staff--to manage the wireless voice network. In addition, Weaver was able to cut telco costs by 90 percent, keeping a bit of spare landline bandwidth for redundant backup.
"Our biggest lesson learned was that most wireless data networks today are not designed to carry voice," Weaver said. "We spent a significant amount of time re-architecting and re-mapping out wireless network."
Rich Karpinski is Online Editor in Chief of Network Computing's Enterprise Architecture Group of Web sites and newsletters, including NetworkComputing.com, NetworkMagazine.com and IntelligentEnterprise.com.