Two prevailing themes wafting through the Interop conference rooms this week were unified communications and the challenge of measuring the return on investment (ROI) of WAN performance fixes like optimization tools, accelerators and data compression technologies.
Experts agree that workers should be as virtual and accessible as network services and applications. It really doesn't matter if you are sitting at your desk or trying to route your way around a delayed flight in Bangkok. The network and its applications should be able to instantly and holistically find you and keep you plugged into the corporate team.
Measuring the ROI of tools and techniques that are designed to handle the weight of current and evolving virtualized applications and services is a little trickier, however. The easy solution is to track how much faster the network works when aided by an optimization appliance, although the executive team may not be so thrilled if a 20% performance improvement can't translate into the black and white (and green) of dollars saved.
"It's hard enough to sell solutions during an economic downturn," says Frank Fender, global technical product manager at Siemens. "The bean counters don't want to hear about solutions costing several hundred thousand dollars" without a tangible and realistic ROI model.
One tactic to remove approval roadblocks is to avoid touting the performance benefits of a solution, and focus on the 'hard dollar' cost benefits, like using optimization techniques to consolidate resources and dump costly servers and communications lines, advised Fender.
Also, out-of-the-box solutions often make more sense than custom approaches, especially if they make better use of existing technologies and legacy systems, he added.
Like most major corporations, IBM is sold on the concept of unified communications (UC) and collaborative work environments, and makes heavy use of these solutions -- its own and those developed by partners -- throughout its global organization. The challenges ahead, however, include intelligently managing the flow of voice and data traffic through networks and a range of PBX systems, maintaining compatibility with all types of communications equipment, and "normalizing and abstracting away" all the little eccentricities of these legacy phone networks, explained Pat Galvin, senior UC architect at IBM.
Within the next few months, IBM plans to release a piece of middleware that sits on top of its Sametime collaborative work platform that will address many of the issues related to intelligent call management and making the best use of your network as it supports emerging collaborative applications, Galvin said. The software, called Sametime Unified Telephony, is now being field tested with a number of customers, including a California-based first responder.
Since most UC solutions are software, it is important to consider the impact these new tools have on the overall performance and prioritization capabilities of corporate WAN and LANs, points out Tom Wessleman, senior manager of software development at Cisco. This can start with assessing bandwidth capabilities, and streamlining and simplifying things on the WAN side to meet the demands of any planned solutions.
"A lot of UC solutions are software solutions that have to run across the networks," said Wesselman.
"If you roll out any type of tool, you have to do some network planning," added IBM's Galvin. Fortunately, "the tools are getting a lot better."