Data travels across the Internet courtesy of several sets of rules called protocols. Collectively, these protocols make up the Internet Protocol, or IP. The standardized set of rules is what allows computers to communicate across networks. It's what makes the Internet possible.
You may have encountered a term called IP convergence. What does this mean? If IP is a set of rules that defines how data travels across the Internet, what is convergence?
It turns out that IP convergence refers to the capability of the Internet to act as a single foundation for various functions that traditionally had their own platforms. The telephone system is a good example. The public switched telephone network (PSTN) supports the traditional telephone system. This is the network of copper wires, circuit boards and switches that transmit analog voice data from one phone to another. Later on, engineers converted much of the PSTN to a digital system.
But upon the invention of the voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), it became possible to make phone calls using the Internet itself as the phone network. All it required was an adapter for a traditional phone, a special VoIP handset or a computer with a VoIP interface program installed on it. Suddenly, it became feasible to consolidate two networks (voice and data) into a single platform. That's what convergence is all about.
And IP convergence isn't limited to voice and data. Video services can be looped into IP convergence, too. One example of this is Internet protocol television (IPTV). Another is transmitting video feeds from security cameras through the Internet. Other protocols are also part of IP convergence.
On the next page, let's look at some reasons a company might want to look into IP convergence solutions.
Benefits of IP Convergence
While companies take many considerations into account when looking at IP convergence strategies, there are two major factors to focus upon. The first is cost. By consolidating all of your services (phones, data, video, etc.) into one platform, you've only one account to maintain. Several companies offer IP convergence packages specifically designed to reduce a company's operational costs.
The second consideration is that all your traditionally discrete services will be lumped together into one delivery system. This comes with its own set of pros and cons. On the positive side, you only have to maintain one network. You don't require the services of multiple technicians to keep your various systems online and functional -- everything uses the same basic network.
That's also a downside. A single network also means a single point of failure. If for some reason that network should go down, a company would lose all functionality. The phones would no longer work, security camera feeds would be inaccessible and any other functions built into the system would no longer respond.
Another benefit is that IP convergence allows companies to create a more mobile workforce. Employees can access corporate functions through the company's network, often by using a virtual private network (VPN). A VPN helps maintain corporate security by separating business traffic from other Internet traffic. Remote employees can use the Internet to access everything from corporate files to voicemail messages.
Since IP systems are interoperable and modifiable, they're flexible and adaptive. As new functions and features become available through technological advancements, companies and organizations can incorporate them into their existing systems without the need for new infrastructure.
How Information Travels on the Internet
Data travels across the internet in packets. Each packet can carry a maximum of 1,500 bytes. Around these packets is a wrapper with a header and a footer. The information contained in the wrapper tells computers what kind of data is in the packet, how it fits together with other data, where the data came from and the data's final destination.
When you send an e-mail to someone, the message breaks up into packets that travel across the network. Different packets from the same message don't have to follow the same path. That's part of what makes the Internet so robust and fast. Packets will travel from one machine to another until they reach their destination. As the packets arrive, the computer receiving the data assembles the packets like a puzzle, recreating the message.
All data transfers across the Internet work on this principle. It helps networks manage traffic -- if one pathway becomes clogged with traffic, packets can go through a different route. This is different from the traditional phone system, which creates a dedicated circuit through a series of switches. All information through the old analog phone system would pass back and forth between a dedicated connection. If something happened to that connection, the call would end.
That's not the case with traffic across IP networks. If one connection should fail, data can travel across an alternate route. This works for individual networks and the Internet as a whole. For instance, even if a packet doesn't make it to the destination, the machine receiving the data can determine which packet is missing by referencing the other packets. It can send a message to the machine sending the data to send it again, creating redundancy. This all happens in the span of just a few milliseconds.
If you're interested in switching to an IP convergence system, do some research first. Many companies provide installation services. While an IP system is relatively easy to maintain, it does require an up-front investment to put the system in place. You'll need to outfit your organization with the proper servers, handsets, video conferencing equipment and wiring to take full advantage of the system's capabilities.
Learn more about IP convergence and related topics from the links on the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- Best Prices Computers. "Articles and Glossary: IP Convergence." (March 1, 2010) http://www.bestpricecomputers.co.uk/glossary/ip-convergence.htm
- Encyclopedia Britannica. "Computers and Information Systems." Britannica Book of the Year. 1996. (March 1, 2010) http://www.library.eb.com/eb/article-9112456
- IP Convergence. "Welcome to IP Convergence." (March 1, 2010) http://www.virtual-ipconvergence.com/
- IP Convergence. (March 1, 2010) http://www.ipcnv.com/home.html
- Sprint. "IP Convergence." (March 2, 2010) http://www.nextel.com/en/solutions/ip_convergence/index.shtml