In recent years connectivity has been on a mission to meet the demands from corporates and multisite businesses for a higher level of integration between voice, data and video communication systems.
A few industry players have already taken up this challenge, known as the trend towards multimedia communications. But surprisingly, none of the major telecoms carriers (BT, Mercury, Energis) have included true integration technology for its small to medium-sized customers. This is good news for network integrators, since the magic words 'value add' and 'consultancy' start cropping up.
Madge Networks has been steadily improving its offerings to the network integration channel these past few years, culminating with last month's unveiling of Madge One. The company claims this is the first switched network architecture designed to integrate data and real-time applications over a single network infrastructure.
According to Bob Madge, the company's founder and chairman, the Madge One architecture is a blueprint to provide an efficient, cost-effective migration path from today's disparate Lans (data networks) and PBXs (corporate phone networks) to ATM-based switched networks.
Madge says: 'The Madge One architecture recognises that businesses have a range of different requirements for services from the network, and that the diversity of needs is increasing as new real-time applications emerge.
'Today's single-service networks are ill-suited for such diversity. The time has come for multiservice networks.'
According to Madge, the Madge One architecture is designed to match the service delivered by the network to the requirements of each application.
It enables resources to be allocated to mission-critical data applications and allows full support for emerging real-time telephony and video.
The architecture is based on the core capabilities of ATM because, Madge claims, ATM is the only technology capable today of guaranteeing quality of service for all data, voice and video networking needs in a single integrated system. ATM, the firm reasons, offers the necessary support for bandwidth reservation, combined with the very low end-to-end delay essential for real-time voice and video communications.
Madge says its Madge One technology is intended to preserve investments in existing Lan technologies by extending the reach of integrated data, voice and video networking into other topologies such as switched Ethernet and Token Ring, as well as existing telephone PBX and video conferencing equipment. It claims the architecture will support all relevant industry standards, and Madge aims to ensure that Madge One is open to all standards-based equipment, regardless of manufacturer.
The company has signed up several industry majors, including France Telecom, Intel, Mitel, Novell and Picturetel, to support the Madge One architecture.
It claims the technology can cut the cost of delivering voice services to each desktop by approximately 55 per cent a year - even taking into account capital and operating costs - when compared to traditional PABX technology.
To support its cause, Madge has commissioned the Yankee Group to conduct a report looking at the Madge One technology. According to this report, video will be the fastest growing application on corporate Lans over the next five years. The Yankee Group also estimates growth of about 42 per cent for voice traffic on the Lan over the same time period.
So what's the big deal about Madge One? At the technology's core is the ATM backbone. Feeding into the ATM backbone are Ethernet and Token Ring access switches, and desktop ATM switches. Servers may be connected locally to Ethernet, Token Ring or ATM workgroups, or can be grouped centrally in server farms.
To support data communications within the ATM network, Madge One provides extra services such as Lan Emulation (Lane). Madge One is also being developed to provide routing services, including routing between emulated Lans and support for MPOA (multiprotocol over ATM). Another key service, call control, will be included to manage voice and video calls in the network.
The idea behind Madge One is that the architecture will fulfil three key technical requirements for multiservice networking: integrating legacy desktops and applications with an ATM-based infrastructure; switching and call control for voice and video transmission; and connectivity to legacy communications systems and networks for data, video and voice.
But the technology is still several months away from actual product availability.
So where do network integrators turn for real-world products they can offer their customers now?
London-based comms company Isocor has just teamed up with Austrian firm Top Call to offer the channel TC/Link-X4, a connectivity system that claims to integrate inbound and outbound fax, telex, electronic data interchange (EDI), X.400 and Internet mail communications with company messaging networks.
The system revolves around a X.400 gateway (TC/Link-X4) that runs on Top Call's fax and message server. The package incorporates Isocor's Isoplex for Windows NT message server software, based on the advanced 1988/92 X.400 messaging standard which offers optional facilities for links to popular EDI applications using the X.435 protocol.
Martin Hannah, Top Call head of international operations, claims that large organisations are 'crying out for a single server that can handle fax, telex, Internet, EDI and X.400 - the whole gamut, completely, transparently, without loss of function, in one industry-strength server'.
According to Hannah, when taken together with the firm's existing fax, telex and SMTP connections, the X.400 and X.435 components from Isocor complete the total external messaging solution from Top Call in a single server.
Specifically, TC/Link-X4 uses Isocor's X/API to communicate with the Isoplex message server and will provide a comprehensive set of advanced features for users and network administrators. These include automatic name and address mapping between X.400, fax and other email and office systems; delivery of X.400 fax messages to users' standard desk-top email system, fax machine, or printer - including text, graphics, fax cover pages or binary file attachments; and quite sophisticated auto-recovery facilities.
TC/Link-X4, currently under development on the Windows NT platform, will provide high-performance messaging connectivity between the multimedia Top Call message servers and X.400-compliant messaging systems, as well as connections to most Lan, Unix and host-based messaging systems and PABXs.
Most network integrators wanting to run integrated comms services across an ATM infrastructure will, of course, turn to BT and Mercury for their switched datacomms environment to carry their customer's data traffic.
But surprisingly, neither BT nor Mercury has a national switched ATM network in place. Many of the services are limited to city areas, and even then only to a very few major centres in the UK.
One company that does have a national ATM network operational is Energis, the National Grid telecoms spinoff. Energis' ATM network went live at the beginning of August and, according to Annie Jupp, a representative for the company, is currently the only national ATM network operating in the UK.
Services available on the Energis ATM network include bandwidths of between 2Mbps and 155Mbps. The company has had a major customer, the Mirror Group, trialing the network since May. The newspaper group has been using the ATM network to shunt data between its headquarters in London and its printing plants around the UK.
Energis' network is unusual in that it supports an inverse multiplexing technology known as inverse multiplexing architecture (IMA). Jupp says this system allows very large data bandwidths from firms to be split into several data channels, usually each 2Mbps wide, and routed across the ATM network. This makes it ideal for integrated applications. 'IMA has yet to be ratified by the ATM forum, so it is an unofficial standard.
It is, however, gaining ground in the ATM user community, which is why we've implemented it on the new network.'
Jupp says the network went officially live for public consumption on 6 August and is accessible from anywhere in the UK, since Energis has a fibre optic network spanning the whole country. This fibre optic network is carried, in fact, along with the high-voltage power lines that radiate across most of the UK.
Simon Waddell, Energis head of advanced services, says there has been a lot of talk about ATM in recent months, although much of it has been quite negative. 'The fact that we've demonstrated that we can get a national service up and running, and ahead of schedule, means that ATM is now a valid technology.'
So where is the network integration channel going? According to Jim Fitzpatrick, MD and founder of Paxdata Networks, one of the UK's longest running comms companies, ISDN still offers an extremely viable means of linking integrated communications between company sites.
Fitzpatrick, who has just secured a DTI grant of u112,000 to partially fund the firm's next generation of integrated ISDN communications offerings, claims that a significant number of companies are looking for relatively simple black box systems that link an ISDN public network to an internal Ethernet network.
It's this kind of technology Paxdata intends to offer the dealer channel early next year as part of the development project. Fitzpatrick says Paxdata's next generation of ISDN products will include support for the provision of high-speed analogue and digital Internet/ intranet access via ISDN links.
'These products will offer high-speed access to the Internet and intranet for companies, routing across ISDN primary rate links. Basically, they will be primary rate ISDN in/Ethernet out, systems,' he says. Fitzpatrick believes the use of the Internet for wide area communications, known as the intranet, is poised for massive expansion.
Of course, listening to the predictions of industry professionals such as Fitzpatrick is all well and good, but dealers would be wise to listen to the requirements of their corporate customers before committing to an integrated approach to datacomms technology.
But what exactly are the customers saying about their needs in the integrated networking arena? According to Banner & Co's latest Banner Computer Readership Survey, networking is still a very confusing area for most company decision markers.
The survey shows that the confusion arises because of the escalating battle for market share between the major networking vendors. The guilty parties include 3Com, IBM, Cisco, Bay networks, Hewlett Packard and Digital.
Banner found that many decision makers are uncommitted as to which route they want to take with their network: 81 per cent of those surveyed said they did not know which vendor they would purchase from in the next 12 months.
This, Banner claims, confirms that it is something of an open battlefield among big industry players. Over the next 12 months, 3Com comes out top among those users that know which vendor they want to buy from in the next 12 months, with 7.4 per cent of the market.
Further down the scale in second and third position are HP and IBM with 3.2 per cent and three per cent. Cisco stands at two per cent and Digital and Bay networks have 1.4 per cent and 0.7 per cent respectively.
Banner's conclusion over these relatively low percentages is that there is a startling lack of vendor loyalty between the key networking decision makers.
When Banner's respondents were asked to list their installed product base, 3Com again heads up the chart with 18.1 per cent of the market.
IBM tracks 3Com in second place with 11.9 per cent and HP in third position with 8.1 per cent. In fourth position comes Digital with 6.3 per cent, while Cisco has 4.4 per cent and Bay Networks in sixth position has 0.8 per cent.
Analysing Banner's data on networking technologies reveals that Ethernet is still a brand leader with 47.9 per cent of the UK market. The rest of the market is very fragmented, with Token Ring holding 10.3 per cent.
Third position is taken by 10Base-T with 3.9 per cent, and fourth by FDDI with 3.4 per cent.
Further down the scale is switched Ethernet in fifth position with 2.6 per cent, and, surprisingly, ATM plus switched Token Ring in joint sixth places with 0.4 per cent.
Effectively, these results seem to suggest that technological newcomers such as ATM have yet to break the mould of the tried and trusted Ethernet and Token Ring installed base in corporate land.
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