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The emergence of convergence in the data center

You can barely turn the television on without seeing an advertisement for Vonage VOIP service these days. And this could be the year VOIP branches out of the house and really makes a connection with the data center, as more firms realize the benefits of converging their voice and data into a single, unified technology.

While some analysts expect voice and data convergence to take big steps forward in the data center this year -- thanks largely to seductive cost savings -- some CIOs are already seeing the benefits. But those verging on converging had better be ready for what's to come.

Pro-voice

John Pfeiffer, CIO at Corrections Corp. of America is implementing VOIP in all of the Nashville, Tenn.-based prison company's facilities as their legacy phone systems reach the end of the line.

He said that VOIP is giving him cost savings and redundancies (e.g., if a facility in Texas loses phone service, it can link up to the company's headquarters in Tennessee to get a dialtone), although he hasn't done what many other CIOs have done -- converge voice and e-mail. "That's a last step," he said. "Our users have no interest in that."

But one pleasant surprise in the VOIP package that Pfeiffer didn't expect was the "soft phone," a computer telephony interface that turns the phone into a computer application.

"You're actually interfacing with a headset plugged into the computer," Pfeiffer said. Not only does the soft phone give employees more mobility by

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allowing them to access the office phone system from home, they cost about a third as much as a standard desk phone, Pfeiffer said, They also make employees happier campers – and more efficient ones too.

"Your phone follows you around," Pfeiffer said. "Employees really enjoy them."

Jevin Jensen, senior director of IS Technical Services at Calhoun, Ga.-based flooring manufacturer Mohawk Industries Inc., said that his company has been using VOIP with success for about two years. "We have about 15 plant sites on VOIP now as their primary connection, but another 35 larger facilities are IP enabled too," he said.

Hot in '06

According to Osterman Research Inc., convergence will be hot this year with VOIP gaining reliability and more IT departments -- like Pfeiffer's and Jensen's -- implementing the technology. Only 13% of respondents to a recent survey have no plans for VOIP, according to Michael Osterman, founder of the Black Diamond, Wash.-based research firm.

"We're seeing a lot of progress in convergence," he said. "I think by the end of 2007, close to half of all enterprise users will have VOIP networks."

Hold the phone!

But getting to that point could be painful for the unprepared. Juan Pablo Pazos, founder and CEO of consulting firm XmarteK in Pembroke Pines, Fla., cautions data center managers to understand the changes that convergence brings.

"The characteristics of the traffic they will handle in the network will change dramatically," he said, with voice as a mission-critical application and the mobility of workers just two of the changes that will make network traffic unpredictable.

Pazos also believes IT video conferencing and unified messaging and IP telephony will become more affordable, appealing and pervasive thanks to a boom of small companies offering the technology. And they'll add to the load.

"Data center managers probably will want to bring some new service level reporting tools into their shops to give them peace of mind to deal with all this," he advised.

Osterman added that data center managers need to know the goals of the organization and decide if they want to marry their voice and data or if they have less ambitious communications needs. But he believes many will find the benefits irresistible.

"There's a lot of synergy you can get tying in voice with presence," he said. "Eighty percent of all IM conversations end in a phone call. Voice tied with presence tells me when I can contact you and when I can't. This improves my ability to communicate with you and helps us make decisions faster."

Still, not all CIOs have caught the convergence bug. Some have too many other things to worry about.

Lynn Philips, CIO of American Community Mutual Insurance Co. in Livonia, Mich., has flagged convergence as something to watch this year, but he plans to let other companies test the tech waters while he looks on from a distance.

"I have lots of other fish to fry," he said.

This was first published in January 2006

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