Sunday Mar 11, 2007

Diary of a startup - Week 10: the future is calling

It's good for those of us on the vendor side of the IT industry to hang out with guys on the user side. If you want to sell stuff to people, it helps to know how they operate. Checking in regularly with "Monty", the startup CIO, has given me a boatload of  insights into the world of our customers, and often those insights are quite unexpected.

The latest thing to hit me is that the role of the modern CIO encompasses not just computers, but also the telephone system. I guess this really shouldn't have been a surprise, since computers communicate over phone lines. "The network is the computer," right? Right. But it's more than that. The Internet and the world telephone system are rapidly becoming indistinguishable from each other. Voice is now just another form of data to be turned into ones and zeros and sent down the pipe.

It's all very well to pontificate at a grand level (see above) about the convergence of voice and data over the Internet, but it's fascinating when you can see it played out street level, right in front of you. Monty had mentioned that the co-location facility that will house the startup's machines was owned by a major telco. Why would a telco want to be in the co-located data center business, I wondered? Simple: because connection to the world network by phone line is now the most essential attribute of  the computer.  True, the co-location facility provides a secure place for the boxes to sit. But more importantly, it provides an ultra-secure connection to the network. It has multiple, redundant cable entries, at different parts of the building, so that physical damage to one cable will result in instantaneous fail-over to another one.

The startup is a wholesale mortage bank, and it's vital for its computers to stay up, and stay connected to the Internet, since mortgage submissions will flow in electronically from its stable of mortgage brokers. No Internet connection, no business. Hence the highly-redundant network connections at the co-location facility. But the submissions must be reviewed by human beings at the company's office, away from the data center, so Monty is also overseeing the provision of a dedicated phone circuit between the data center and the office, allowing the office desktops to reliably connect to the servers.

Once you've gone to these lengths to protect the flow of your data, it's logical to use the same infrastructure to protect your voice communication, by simply turning it into ones and zeroes. When a mortgage broker calls the company, the call will be answered by an automated PBX at the co-location facility. The voice will be converted by a "bridge" into Internet Protocol data, and sent over the same dedicated data line to the company office. At the office, all the phones will be Voice Over Internet Protocol phones, plugged directly into the corporate LAN. No longer does an enterprise need one set of wires for voice and another for data -- it's all a single symphony of dancing bits.

The future is arriving much faster than I once thought it would. It wasn't that long ago that I made a payphone call from the last telephone system in the United States that didn't have dials -- you just picked up the phone and told the operator what number you wanted. Any guesses where that was? I'll give you a hint: it's roughly 26 miles from Los Angeles.

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davidleetodd

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