Few movements have been as powerful in business as the technological imperatives of information technology, but understanding how to position IT for the "next big thing" has often led us astray. There are clearly forces within technology by which consolidating particular technologies creates unparalleled opportunities for IT to make tremendous improvements, but communicating the significance to our management often takes a bit longer, and IT has a mixed track record when it comes to actually delivering upon its promises.
IT and Telephony: A Troubled Past
One of those undelivered promises was the opportunity of integrated voice and data telephony, starting in the 1980s with the breakup of the AT&T monopoly and the sudden surge in availability of cost-effective digital Private Branch Exchanges (PBXs). Companies invested heavily in replacing obsolete equipment with newer micro-processor-based telephone switches with integrated voicemail, and then they hit a brick wall with the high costs of implementing trunk lines and channeling voice and data over the prevalent technologies of T-1, ISDN, and other mechanisms. Then the TCP/IP protocol suddenly made dedicated T-1 carriers redundant for data as the larger carriers joined the Internet revolution. The good news was a reduction of data costs. The bad news was that the promise of cost-effective voice and data integration for telephony was once again put on the shelf.
New Business Requirements Strain Old Technology
It is now 2006, and those advanced PBXs that we installed in the 1990s are getting pretty long in the tooth, while our business requirements and technical requirements have exploded. Wireless networks abound while pervasive broadband Internet connections have scattered our corporations' remote offices around the globe. If IT is still involved in voice communications, no doubt the allure of integrating voice with data is once again calling to us as the technology Voice over IP (VoIP) matures.
VoIP as a Maturing Technology
A raft of offerings are suddenly hitting the market, including low-cost services such as Skype, Vonage, Comcast, ATT-Yahoo!, and others. There are also turnkey solutions that consist of dedicated Windows-based PC and Linux servers—some using proprietary software, and others using open-source offerings. But VoIP still has a do-it-yourself flavor that makes management nervous, and if the company CFO's only exposure to the technology has been the easy-to-use expanded chat windows of one of the public services—complete with latency and jitter and sudden disconnects—IT's enthusiasm for the technology will have been met with skepticism.
Consolidating Toward the Future of IP Telephony
At the Spring COMMON Conference in Minneapolis, IBM announced with 3Com that it was porting 3Com's IP Telephony product to the System i5. Last week, at the Fall COMMON Conference in Miami, 3Com reported that it is weeks away from making the product available, and that the impressive benchmarks and beta case studies will suck the socks off competitors' offerings.
In addition, they say that in Q1 of 2007 they will release data integration APIs and call center services for the System i5 that will, at last, make real voice and data integration straightforward and robust, including APIs to connect the 3Com services with RPG applications.
Is This the Killer App for the System i?
This is the opportunity that System i customers are cautiously whispering about, and some are already actively lining up their companies to consider the offering. Not since IBM announced native Lotus Notes/Domino messaging for the AS/400 has so much excitement been fomenting among customers, systems engineers, and Business Partners. Some Business Partners are so enthusiastic that they have begun publicly calling this "The Killer App for the System i."
But what does VoIP telephony on the System i5 really mean for the corporation? Is it another box under the stairway? Or is it really an opportunity to extend the IT infrastructure to provide real value to the organization? Here are some things to consider.
Most of us were astounded in the 1980s by the complexity of the telephony technologies, once we bought our PBXs. Initially, we naively thought that digital voice communications would make real voice and data telephony a snap. What we discovered was that what we were buying was a level of complexity that made a real ROI highly improbable because the immaturity of the technology placed the goals beyond the means of all but the largest corporations. By the time all the equipment was assembled and the protocols and APIs were documented, IT had more-important projects with greater ROIs to work on. Justifiably, management reached the conclusion that what they had invested in with those newer digital PBXs was essentially an updated plumbing infrastructure. What they hadn't counted on was the cost of hiring the plumber to make it all work as promised.
By comparison, the System i5 implementation of the 3Com VoIP product promises to reduce the complexity of data/voice integration by several levels of magnitude. Instead of multiple PC server boxes and appliances cluttering the computer center, the System i5 implementation can be implemented on an existing System i5, operating in a Linux partition. 3Com says that if a customer can configure a Linux partition on the server, installation is as simple as loading a CD. 3Com headsets will need to be purchased, but that typically represents a one-time expense. What the customer receives is a completely integrated VoIP solution that can run on an existing System i5 server.
The System i5 can also be used as a standalone VoIP telephony server, turning the box into a true appliance-like server connected to other servers. And if 3Com delivers the APIs and call center interfaces as promised in the Q1 of 2007, collaborative service platforms such as Lotus Notes/Domino, Sametime, and IBM Workplace will be ready to take advantage of the infrastructure—all running through the System i5. Even legacy RPG applications will have VoIP APIs available for implementation.
Suddenly, real voice and data interfacing—using the existing data network that is already plumbed to the user—will be easily available.
Increasing Performance and Availability
Dropped calls or system degradation is, using current VoIP telephony services, a real concern. Yet in order to make the sale of VoIP to management, IT must be confident that both the quality of the connection and its reliability will be unquestioned. In addition, VoIP cannot be detrimental to the throughput of other applications that are running in the data center.
Here the System i5's architecture offers distinct advantages over other platforms where VoIP might play.
3Com requires sites that are considering the System i5 solution to complete a comprehensive technical network evaluation before the solution is delivered so that IT can identify weak areas in its infrastructure and resolve problems before implementation. This evaluation service should be completed in the pre-sales cycle so that IT and management can have a clear picture of overall costs before implementation begins. This service is critical to make certain that the System i5 will perform flawlessly in providing quality connectivity without VoIP latency or jitter, the common complaint of many VoIP connections.
Once the network has been verified, the System i5 offers some unparalleled high availability (HA) advantages, using both its renowned dependability and the various HA products offered by various IBM Business Partners.
For instance, consider the advantages of mirroring. A System i5 VoIP solution mirrored to an offsite sister System i5 somewhere in the network offers a fantastic reliability profile that few, if any, vendors could match. And such a configuration would remove large levels of complexity from the organization's infrastructure while simultaneously advancing the requirements of business continuity.
The System i5/3Com solution is also a perfect candidate for Capacity-on-Demand configurations, making it an important tool for companies that have seasonal high-volume call requirements. Under such a hypothetical scenario, a company that experienced a sudden spike in incoming or outgoing calls would have capacity backup in reserve and be charged for that capacity only when it was needed. Or, for instance, if a conference call were required for hundreds of callers, IT could seamless shift capacity from a batch partition to increase the System i5's resources in the VoIP partition. Such resource flexibility is unknown in other VoIP environments without a massive pre-investment of physical inventory to provide mirrored servers, gateways, and bridges.
Reducing Service Complexity
Current VoIP services offered by competitors place IT at the center of technical disputes between users and multiple service providers. Who do you call if something isn't working correctly? Who will act as the liaison between these services? Who do you call when a server crashes, the CFO can't connect his spreadsheet to a conference call, or a customer complains of being cut off during a critical ordering process?
The answer proposed by the IBM System i5 implementation of VoIP is pretty simple: You call IBM Level 1 Support. Single-level support is a clear advantage of using the System i5, especially as the company moves forward with collaborative services that integrate voice and data across the network.
When the time comes to begin integrating those applications, IBM documentation will also serve to fill the gap, providing comprehensive technical documentation as well as in-depth Redbook support to implement APIs and call center interfacing.
Of course, IBM Certified Business Partners see this new offering as an opportunity to sell new footprints, but the fear that IT management might be besieged with competing offers by 3Com has been anticipated: Only IBM Certified Business Partners will be empowered to sell the System i5/3Com solution, and 3Com will network with IBM to channel leads to those partners if an existing System i5 customer calls to inquire about the offering.
Positioning for the Future of VoIP
The availability of the IBM System i5 offering is but weeks away, and IBM's and 3Com's enthusiasm seems unparalleled. At COMMON last week, I spoke with both 3Com executives and IBM executives as well as IBM Business Partners who are already in the pipeline. The advantages of this System i5 offering—compared to competing products—places it in a unique position to consolidate VoIP with true data integration and recognize an amazing ROI. The problems no longer seem too technical, but communicating the advantages to your management may seem overwhelming.
Consider the following scenario as a talking point with your CFO:
IT has placed data at the fingertips of every manager of the company across the Internet—whether in Podunk, Cambodia, or New York City. But once the manager sees the data, what is the first thing he does? He reaches for the phone to make a long-distance telephone call to discuss what he is seeing with the home office. Now multiply that telephone expense by the number of employees who currently have remote access, and you immediately see the cost advantages of a VoIP implementation. If IT can provide crystal-clear VoIP telephony, integrating conference calls with the data itself, how much money will the company save? If IT can accomplish this without adding a single staff member to its roles, what is the value to the organization?
Smart Enough, Wise Enough?
The System i5 implementation of the 3Com VoIP telephony product offers a real potential solution. If management is smart enough to see the bottom line, they may be wise enough to ask you to review IBM's offering without delay.
Thomas M. Stockwell is Editor in Chief of MC Press Online, LP.