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According to my dictionary (a book, not one of those new-fangled online jobs), convergence is “the act of coming together”.

In networking terms that originally meant voice over IP technology carrying circuit-switched telephone traffic over the same wiring as packet-switched data.

More recently, however, it has evolved to mean the coming together of all kinds of traffic – not just voice and data but video and even storage, usually over a single, unified IP infrastructure.

There are fairly obvious benefits to be derived from this approach, not least huge potential cost savings from having only one infrastructure to install, configure and look after. Think about it: one set of switches and routers and one kind of cabling, with copper, fibre and the ever-expanding gamut of wireless technologies fulfilling a wide variety of needs.

Nowhere to hide

Then there are the less obvious benefits, such as being able to combine data and other traffic in innovative ways.

A commonly cited example is the ability to identify callers and immediately show their details on screen. So-called CTI (computer telephony integration) is now routine in call centres up and down the land.

Voice quality can be compromised because the network is busy moving files

Another benefit is the way companies can embrace flexible and mobile working. Gone are the days when workers had to be in the office to answer the phone or attend meetings. Now we are all in when we are out, just so long as we have a smartphone or laptop and a 3G dongle to hand. All thanks to network convergence.

But what about the disadvantages? Are there any?

Bandwidth bandits

Yes, of course there are. There is little to be gained from convergence if the end result is any less than the sum of the parts. Voice quality can be compromised, for example, because the network is busy moving files, or video conferencing can means backups are not completed in time.

As is often the case, the knee-jerk reaction is to throw bandwidth at the problem. Swap out all those Fast Ethernet switches for Gigabit, update the uplinks to 10GbE, get faster Wi-Fi and so on.

Bandwidth by itself, however, is far from the whole solution, and if not deployed in the right way can wipe out many of the cost benefits convergence has to offer in the first place.

To guarantee acceptable levels of service it becomes necessary to prioritise traffic streams, allocate bandwidth differentially based on location, user and application, and dynamically bring connections into play then re-allocate them again as demand varies.

That, in turn, means paying close attention to how the converged network is designed and how the devices, real and virtual, are employed to provide the connectivity.

Think of the people

In some case it could mean deploying specialist devices able to route and prioritise traffic intelligently, but equally it means support for industry-standard routing and quality of service protocols across the entire network.

Monitoring, management and security can be major issues too, not to mention continuity of service, with reliance on a single network infrastructure all too easily leading to points of failure.

And finally, it is important not to overlook the people involved, particularly in management and support.

Network engineers, after all, talk bits and bytes and like to use software tools, whereas telephony specialists speak calling features and prefer to press buttons. Getting them to communicate with each other can be a convergence issue in its own right. ®

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