Last week's IP'07 exhibition, in London's Earls Court, gave a good view of what's considered hot in the networking business today.
As you might expect, VoIP and its cousin Unified Communications (UC) were much in evidence (along with Microsoft's Office Communications Server, OCS), and so was network monitoring.
There were also a few unexpected faces, including one Dave Slater, who I recognised from his time at SAN pioneer McDATA - subsequently consumed by Brocade, of course. He is now promoting a tool for show exhibitors and shops called InfoAktiv, which is a touchscreen info-terminal that can also print literature on demand, send it to your email address, or download it onto your USB stick.
Slater says that apart from the green angle of not spraying around so much printed material, half of which is probably binned before the day is out, marketing people love it because they know who took a copy.
He adds that test runs so far show that exhibition visitors prefer email to paper anyhow - though let's hope they are not just using the system to spam their enemies...
"Everyone else talks MOS, which relates to network performance," said Anthony Finbow, the CEO of VOIP testing specialist Psytechnics. "But you need to look at the packet contents - the analogue as well as the IP, and you need to understand the phone as well as the network. "
Psytechnics is a spin-off from the BT research labs at Martlesham Heath. Its technology can look inside a VOIP call to detect analogue problems - or digital problems which will manifest in the analogue world - such as hiss.
"For example, a large high street bank rolled out 75,000 IP phones, but had significant quality problems," Finbow said. "Diagnostics suggested the network was OK, but our product identified the root cause as a combination of incorrectly configured gateways and handsets with bad microphones."
He added, "A more common scenario is one call in every seven is bad, say, but the user can't see a pattern. We can see that."
Psytechnics licenses its patented algorithms to the developers of VOIP test and measurement systems. It recently added video support too, and is now selling its own Experience Manager software to IT managers for pre-deployment network testing.
Among the companies it works with is Microsoft, although Finbow wouldn't say if the Redmond giant is a licensee or not.
He warned though that the advent of OCS could bring more VOIP quality problems, especially if it is deployed on an existing IP telephony infrastructure. "Mixed solutions are a common cause of problems," he added.
"We have been doing a lot of work on end-point technologies," said Roger Jones, Avaya Europe's convergence business development director.
"For instance, we have the final version of our Nokia client out now with seamless handover - it's linked to our one-number scheme and routes all calls through the company PBX, swapping seamlessly between Wi-Fi and cellular."
However, he added that with the pressure on mobile operators being what it is, Wi-Fi phone calls may not be the best answer for everyone.
"There's a lot of hype around VOIP, but there's definitely a case for looking at you cellular contract before going to Wi-Fi, because there's a lot of optimisation you can do by going to the right tariff," he said.
Jones also talked about two other end-point technologies, the first being Avaya's new web softphone, which is already in use with a few Avaya customers, including Cambridgeshire County Council.
"In effect it's a thin client phone, it means you don't need corporate software to run on a home PC - it helps for disaster recovery too," he said. "We also have a VPN hard IP phone, for home-based call centre agents, for example."
He added: "There are a lot of preconceptions that UC is only for big customers, etc. For us, it is an amalgamation of real-time and non-real-time communications. It's not a continuum, it is looking at which elements would add value to your company and only implementing those, and then it's helping companies develop business cases to do that."
"What our customers wanted was more real-time," said Terry Slattery, the founder and CTO of Netcordia, whose NetMRI appliance works as a kind of diagnostic scanner, checking that network devices such as switches and routers are configured correctly, and recommending 'best practice' set-ups.
"They said 'When I fix it, I want to see NetMRI reflect that quickly' - they wanted confirmation that they'd done the correct thing."
Slattery was speaking as Netcordia announced NetMRI 2.3, which includes some of those real-time features and also adds support for wireless LANs. The device now scans the network more frequently and can also collect and analyse data that can't be found by scanning, or require different forms of polling, such as network events.
"For a good view of the network, you need configurations, but you also need operational information so you can get at non-network data such as server configurations, and then there are some events only available in real-time, such as SNMP traps," he said. "For example, compliance wants configuration changes tracked and recorded within 10 minutes."
Slattery said that he invented NetMRI because, while you can do the same things with a network monitoring device or framework, he found they didn't do it in a way that worked for him as a network engineer.
"Their view is that every network is different, so you need consultancy to configure their tools," he argued. "But in reality, if you follow the design guides, your network will look remarkably like others in your space - the basic design principles and misconfigurations are the same."
Slattery said that in order to handle events, Netcordia has adopted the Splunk event collector, which can collect multi-line events and store them in a database - it is also available as a free download for small networks.
"We partnered with them to use that and marry it with other things, such as device groups, so you can list things by core or branch, say, to determine the severity of a problem. It works in minutes - people will say they want it to be instant, but in reality, minutes is how fast they can actually respond to an alert."
He added that as well as the basics of archiving your network configurations and checking that they match their policies, NetMRI users have found extra uses for the technology, such as auditing to identify end-of-life devices and move them out of the core.
"We do have reconfiguration tools for the network team to use," he said. "There's no automated remediation yet, though some customers are using scripting to automate switch firmware upgrades, for example."
The plans of Google and Microsoft for remote applications have attracted much attention, but they are far from the only players - another that can't be ignored is Adobe. Its pitch here is Adobe AIR, a cross-platform framework that provides a run-time environment for what it calls rich Internet applications, or RIAs.
One of the first of these RIAs is a groupware application from rich-media specialist CommuniGate, called Pronto! This combines an email client with calendaring and UC features such as chat and SIP-based VOIP.
Simon Paton, CommuniGate's MD, said that one way to look at AIR is as a more interactive form of Flash, and he said that like Flash files, AIR applications can run off-line as well as on-line. That potentially gives it a big advantage over the web-based (or even Web 2.0 based!) technologies used in most other on-line applications.
"It downloads the app when you log in, but then it persists when you're not connected, storing your off-line work until the next time you connect," he explained.
Because it's an application, not just an HTML page, there's no need to regularly refresh the whole page from the server, he said, adding: "It could cut the cost of supporting thick clients."
Pronto! is currently in beta testing, with a free public trial available. General availability is planned for 2008, Paton said .