Voice-over-IP (VoIP), which effectively means running both voice and data over one network, has been seen as the preserve of large corporations with huge in-house IT teams to manage the upgrade to a converged infrastructure.
However, this is beginning to change as major convergence equipment manufacturers such as Avaya (which spun out of Lucent/Bell Labs), 3Com, Cisco and Alcatel begin to aggressively target the small to medium-sized enterprise (SME) market with relatively cheap, so-called plug-and-play products.
According to Paul Ballinger, channel sales manager, UK and Ireland, at Alcatel, the SME market is beginning to embrace convergence.
"The early adopters for Alcatel are clearly the SME markets; the sub 250-employee companies," he explained.
"This is for a number of reasons. The main one is the cost of migration which is much smaller and the value add is easier to understand. We are finding the wins for remote workers. We can migrate handset by handset."
The benefits of only having one network are clear. There is a single point on the wall that provides both voice and data services, so cabling is reduced.
Economies of scale can be leveraged by deploying a single management system which controls the entire voice and data infrastructure, rather than having to resolve service issues using two discrete applications.
There are also hardware cost savings to be had. Instead of running a full-blown traditional time division multiplexing system with dedicated PBX switches for voice, and typically an Ethernet network for voice with local area network switches, the voice and data both run across the single, albeit more complex, converged infrastructure.
Aside from the direct hardware savings, this means that only one maintenance contract has to be negotiated for the network kit rather than separate contracts with data and telephony suppliers.
There are also benefits in terms of increased productivity which can be gained from a converged network architecture.
These are derived from applications such as unified messaging, video conferencing and the provision of flexible communications to support remote workers.
The implementation of a converged network will enable these and other applications to be deployed over time as requirements dictate.
Clive Longbottom, strategy analyst at IT analyst firm Quocirca, said that both small firms and enterprise corporates could benefit from convergence.
"In the large corporate market some firms get the message that they should put VoIP in alongside what they already have," he said. "So they can give mobile workers cheap soft IP phones in laptops, which has direct savings."
However, Longbottom warned that convergence manufacturers need to educate small companies about the benefits of the technology.
"For the SMEs, it's a case of not really understanding the technology. It's still a market that's waiting to happen," he explained.
"The big problem is not the technology; it's not the price. What it comes down to is a lack of understanding. People don't know the products or have a clear understanding of the benefits."
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