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Merging voice and data.

Why can't a single transport architecture and network backbone support both data and voice? Companies are asking this as they strive to empower staff with technology tools that boost productivity, streamline overhead, and tear down geographic barriers by linking remote resources.

In a highly competitive business environment, what companies -- and end users -- are searching for is a way for telephones to function more like PC workstations, and for these workstations to function more like telephones.

While existing computer telephony integration (CTI) applications certainly represent the beginning of the journey toward this world of voice and data interoperability, they are only the first step.

In fact, you could argue that the real benefit of CTI is the way it has raised end-user expectations. It has driven them to seek communications solutions that seamlessly support voice and data integration on-the-fly, with any media-to-any media connectivity that features full conferencing capabilities and real-time sharing of applications.

"What CTI provides is a basic link between data and voice communications that allows a telephone system to provide a server with call and routing information, and a server to pull caller-specific information from a host computer and forward it, with the call, to a human agent," explains Susan Barbier, director of strategy and business planning for Enterprise Multimedia Systems, Lucent Technologies, Basking Ridge, N.J. "However. while extremely useful, these capabilities now fall short of market needs."

What companies want today, Barbier says, is a more complete joining of asynchronous data traffic with isochronous communications: They want to be able to share data files, in real-time. while discussing those files during a phone call.

"While videoconferencing has set the stage for this multimedia interoperability, like CTI, it, too, has elevated end-user expectations," she says. "In fact, the importance of videoconferencing systems is not the actual video transmission so much as the model it creates for the real-time sharing of any -- and all -- media types."

The technological challenge presented by, this new any-to-any communications vision cannot be met by CTI or videoconferencing as they are known today because these applications currently rely upon two entirely separate transport architectures -- one for voice, the other for data -- each designed for optimum performance in its own respective environment.

"Data packets today can be any length and are defined by front and back ends which must each be checked as packets are passed along, to their destinations." Barbier says. "But in the isochronous world, a dedicated call connection is established between the two points and information flows in a stream with no packet checking. In addition, current data transport models rely on addressing and routing schemes that require far more information than the connectionless calling common with voice communications."

Early attempts to integrate voice and data communications over a single transport architecture focused on traditional time division multiplexing (TDM). But TDM is optimized for voice, not data, so it handles data in a cumbersome, slow fashion. Even for isochronous communications such as video, TDM is slow. requiring multiple channels to achieve good quality video transmissions.

An alternative integrated approach is transport over a packet-based environment such as the Internet. But where TDM is optimized for voice, packet networks are optimized for data, so voice and other isochronous communications must be squeezed in the pauses between data packets. Result: the choppy transmissions characteristic of half-duplex conversations common in the early days of telephones.

Rather than trying to force data into an isochronous medium, or voice into an asynchronous communication, vendors are now turning towards an entirely new transport mechanism based upon asynchronous transfer mode (ATM), a connectionless network protocol that can dynamically allocate bandwidth based on the information being, sent over that network.

A protocol whose adoption and dissemination has. until now, been driven by data communications requirements alone. ATM provides the ideal transport mechanism for both data and voice. The reason: It relies on the transmission of clearly defined cells, each with a specific payload. As a result, ATM supports the on-demand, flexible bandwidth allocation required for seamless, effective, efficient transport of any type of media.

"ATM holds the promise of resolving, once and for all, the issues associated with mixed media networking," Barbier says, "and we believe that it will become the transport medium of choice for both private and public networks once the Voice Over ATM Specification, currently being worked on by the ATM Forum, is finalized in mid-1997.

In anticipation of the day when integrated ATM is a reality, some vendors are already offering ATM muxes that can act as gateways to private ATM data networks by inserting a step into the transmission process which translates TDM communications to the ATM protocol.

Existing technologies, if carefully selected, allow a high degree of data and voice integration, even if they do not offer the full range of features that will be available in the future. And these features are likely to provide a broad range of business benefits that both streamline operations as well as improve customer service.

For instance, high-speed local area network (LAN) connectivity between the telephony system and the data environment already allows efficient synchronized delivery of voice and data to the desktop. In a call center environment, this efficiency can translate into thousands of dollars in sales and increased customer satisfaction due to quicker agent response.

Also, addition of data collaboration capabilities to videoconferencing systems will allow sharing of data as well as voice and video. At a video kiosk in a mall, for example, a banking customer -- with one call -- could see and speak to an agent, see his or her account balance, and review stock market options.

ISDN multimedia workstations can make using a personal video station an effective part of the work experience.

This integrated operational environment, where LAN-based multimedia servers are linked to telephony-based services, is available today through use of a TDM server. In this environment, call routing and business features are delivered to the LAN endpoints by the TDM server, while high-bandwidth for data applications such as CAD-CAM design tools are supported by the LAN.

Companies today can position themselves to fully utilize mixed media calling in the future by implementing a voice switch that supports CTI and provides LAN connectivity and advanced video services.

The switch should offer a seamless upgrade path to standards-based ATM when the voice over ATM spec is implemented, so today's equipment investment in equipment can be protected in tomorrow's environment.
COPYRIGHT 1997 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Technology Information; related article lists new ATM products; asynchronous transfer mode protocol could end concerns about mixed media networking
Author:Diamond, Sam
Publication:Communications News
Date:Jan 1, 1997
Previous Article:A scalable solution.
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