In the 1950s containerisation was introduced to minimise the labour needed to transfer cargo between modes of transport. This allowed goods to be moved easily from ship to train, train to road and road to ship.
The gauge of a rail track or which side of the road a lorry travels on became irrelevant, and the operators needed no knowledge of the containers' contents.
This is pretty much how the internet works. Packets of information can be passed easily from one mode of transport to another, allowing seamless communication across private Lans, legacy public telephone networks, fibre optics and wireless networks.
The carriers do not need to know anything about the information in these packets. They are delivered intact for interpretation at their destination.
Most users take for granted applications that have grown up with the internet, but remain sceptical about more recent ones; for example, users harbour concerns about the performance and reliability of voice over IP (VoIP).
The power of global networks and the quality of the equipment available should make these non-issues, but because the power of internal networks is often a limiting factor, doubts remain.
A chicken and egg situation arises: 'Our IP network is not powerful enough to run voice applications. Why upgrade it? Our current legacy telephony system will suffice.'
However, promoting the broader benefits of a powerful IP network helps to work around this impasse. The IP network can deliver far more than email, the web and VoIP.
Once a powerful IP network is in place, it becomes much easier to deploy other networked applications: virtual private networks to support remote employees, partners and customers; videoconferencing and surveillance; integrated CRM applications shared with partners and outsourcers; call centres with integrated messaging; and, according to Cisco, even a bank running its ATM network. Just like cargo containers, IP networks can carry virtually anything.
The adoption of VoIP gives an indication of the opportunity for selling upgraded IP networks. The only significant uptake at present is among telephone operators and IT companies; that they are consuming their own product is encouraging. Company size is not a differentiator; even the smallest are adopting VoIP.
Cautious organisations may still prove hard to persuade. However, all the major vendors offer hybrid solutions for VoIP. These are switches that can integrate with IP networks and legacy PBX telephone networks (half of Cisco's IP-enabled shipments are currently hybrid switches).
Paradoxically, IP can also offer those more cautious organisations a 'try and see' approach to new IT initiatives; hosted applications are back in fashion.
Hosted, on-demand, utility computing, whatever you call it, relies on delivery via robust IP networks. The global networks are in place for this. It is not uncommon for a US vendor to supply European customers from a stateside hosting centre.
With an upgraded internal IP network, businesses can try new applications on a monthly per-user subscription basis - applications for CRM, ERP, spam filtering, integrated call centres and more can be subscribed to as on-demand services - and many vendors are doing this specifically to target the SME market. Those that are savvy are working with the channel as a delivery mechanism.
As with any technology, the internet has been exploited for far less seemly purposes than those examined above; fraud, pornography and vandalism have all increased the need to understand what is contained in those packages of data before allowing them to proceed to their destinations.
This has the potential to slow IP networks down. Security and performance are major factors to be considered when implementing any IP application.
Again, cargo containers are an interesting parallel: they have been used to transport drugs, immigrants and other illegal contents.
In 2001 Italian police discovered a terrorist camped out in a container, hoping to be transported to his target destination.
Deep packet inspection will be increasingly required to ensure the integrity of information carried by all packet switch networks. With IP networks this is a value-added opportunity for the knowledgeable reseller.
Bob Tarzey is service director at Quocirca.
(01753) 855 794
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