TORONTO – Corporate enterprises dreaming of a converged data infrastructure are being held back by fear and uncertainty, according to a Comdex Canada panel of industry experts.

In a discussion on convergence moderated by Communications and Networking editor Kathleen Sibley, panelists agreed there is increased interest among customers to amalgamate their data over packetized Internet Protocol (IP). Many of them, however, are receiving mixed messages from vendors that have inhibited the widespread adoption that has been predicted for years.

“It’s hard to know what’s true,” admitted Dan Mclean, director of enterprise network services with Toronto-based IDC Canada. “We’re still generally not sure what will work and what won’t.”

Dave Cosgrave, a consultant with Digital 4Sight, noted that in 1998, convergence was expected to hit the mainstream within two or three years. Today, most research firms are forecasting another two or three years before convergence becomes a reality. “Progress seems to have stalled,” he said.

Part of the problem comes from enterprise customers who have already hit some potholes on the road to convergence. “I bought into all this two years ago,” said a woman in the audience. “But I’ve still got my Internet phone and my desktop. Why am I still using two devices? And where are the killer apps? That’s what was promised. And I don’t see them.”

Ron Gruia, enterprise communications program leader with the Toronto office of Frost & Sullivan, suggested unified message was not far away, though he said there would be more than one killer application. Cosgrave said that while we may see some changes in hardware based on service capabilities, it was unlikely that many organizations would eliminate a phone or a PC entirely. “There’s going to be a plethora of devices,” he said. “It’s the data that’s converging, not the devices.”

Brantz Myers, marketing programs director with Cisco Systems Canada, said the most significant adoption was coming in the e-learning space, where colleges were using video-on-demand, IP television or placeware sessions to reduce expenses. “The costs, both hard and soft, show very quick playback,” he said. “You can make a very good case for (return on investment) because you can have training over the Internet where before you would be flying people in, putting them up in a hotel.”

Gruia said in some cases, convergence could bring cost benefits that customers don’t anticipate. For instance, IP telephony was once pegged as a way for companies to bring down long-distance costs, but with rates over traditional networks falling anyway, most IP telephony is being used internally. However, those organizations can still benefit from using fewer lines and reducing their carrying costs. “The idea of ROI has to be pitched a little more creatively to the end customer,” he said.

Panelists said the drive for converged data over IP packets was coming primarily out of IS groups in specific enterprise business units. “In Canada, in particular, the business units are the ones that have the purchasing power,” said McLean. “There also seems to be a very high level of trust in the recommendations made by the IS people.”

Myers said those organizations that have begun making investments now stand to enjoy the early benefits of emerging applications. McLean added that by 2005, the investment in IP telephony would surpass that of traditional PBX networks.

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