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What is Network Convergence?
Why and how companies are merging their voice, video and data networks to a single common standard.

By: John Shepler

Most companies have at least two networks to manage. One is the telephone or voice network that runs between telephones, operator stations, a PBX or Key telephone system, and the local phone company. The other is the computer or data network that connects individual PCs and workstations to central servers, the Internet and other company locations. Some larger companies also have separate video conferencing networks to tie together multiple locations. Each network has its own wiring standards, protocols, specialized equipment and expense. But what if all of these networks could be combined into a single standard connection and a single cable to each desk? That's network convergence.

Why Combine Networks?
The two big networks, telephone and computer, were developed to such different standards that it often takes two separate teams to run them. The telephone people don't speak computerese. The IT department doesn't relate to phone company operations. If you can merge these networks to a single standard, then one group of highly skilled technical people can handle everything. Converting the phone system to an IP telephony or VoIP standard also makes the phones act more like small computers in that they can be moved from location to location or more phones added to the system with minor programming changes. Once a telephone is on a data network, it doesn't need a specific set of wires back to the central system.

Why Not Converge Voice and Data to the Telephone Standard?
Actually, DSL does something like that for the very small office or remote worker. A single telephone line can be used for phone calls and Internet access, although the line is actually carrying separate voice and data protocols at the same time. Dial-up Internet uses the same standard as telephones but doesn't let you use the Internet and make calls at the same time. For all but single users, converging telephones to the data standard makes more sense.

How is Network Convergence Accomplished?
Your computers are probably already interconnected on a LAN that runs the Ethernet standard and TCP/IP protocol. This is the standard built into every new PC for networking. Corporate networks are based on this standard which interconnects all the servers, workstations and individual PCs. What you need then are telephones that will work on the same network. These are often called IP or Internet Protocol phones. Thus, the term Voice Over IP or VoIP. The telephone converts your voice into a data stream that can easily mix with the data stream from your PC. The phone has its own address on the network just like any other device.

Another option is to use regular telephones and plug them into a converter called an IP Gateway. The gateway converts the voices to and from the data stream and provides the signals needed for dial tone and ringing. Small offices often use a gateway box called an interface adaptor to connect one or two standard telephones to the Internet.

Gateways are also used to connect your enterprise level IP phone network to the PSTN or public switched telephone network. Remember that the standard phone system and computer networks are incompatible and need gateways to convert to and from each other's standards.

Special communications servers called gatekeepers, call servers, soft switches and IP PBXs control all of the IPphones on the network to keep track of phone addresses and set up calls between the phones. Once the phones are connected, they talk back and forth to each other directly.

What Problems Are Presented When Converging Networks
It would be nice if all you had to do is start plugging telephones into the computer network and everything worked seemlessly. Adding only a few VoIP phones to an already robust enterprise network might be this easy. However, each of those phone conversations chews up bandwidth faster than you might expect. When the network runs out of bandwidth, phone calls get garbled and even dropped mid-call.

Having a fast enough network to carry the combined computer and telephone traffic is essential. For calls that go between company locations over the enterprise wide area network, that bandwidth is equally important in the WAN circuits. It is also more important to voice quality than computer data that the network have a minimal latency or delay from node to node, and that delays are consistent to minimize jitter in the voice data stream.

If you aren't able to provide enough bandwidth to accommodate all data downloads and phone calls at the same time, you'll need to implement some QoS or quality of service priorities in your network. Real time data packets such as phone conversations and video conferences must take priority over database downloads and system backups, which are less demanding of instantaneous transfer across the network.

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