SOA finds its VoIP

Outside of the call center, voice/data applications have yet to take off. But adding unified communications services to SOA environments may change all that

The worlds of telecommunications and IT have been colliding for more than a decade, but that loud crashing noise may be reaching a crescendo thanks to SOA (service-oriented architecture). As with mainframe applications, what was once the isolated, proprietary office PBX, then the IP PBX, has started evolving into a set of abstracted software services for unified communications that can be interwoven with business app services and processes in an SOA, without specialized telecom or VoIP expertise.

How long will this evolution take? Probably a few years or more, as both SOAs and unified communications mature in the enterprise. But PBX vendors Siemens and Avaya, as well as data upstarts BlueNote Networks and Ubiquity Software, are laying the groundwork today. Back-office service and application providers such as Salesforce.com and SAP are also jumping on the bandwagon, communications-enabling CRM and ERP applications, along with enterprise integrators such as IBM Global Services and Accenture.

SOA-enabled unified communications are not just another form of CTI (computer-telephony integration), more of the click-to-call and customer screen pops you’ve seen in the call center for years. The interactions between voice and data may well pervade the enterprise and will harness presence, “find me/follow me” (which tries multiple communication channels for a single user simultaneously), Web conferencing and video conferencing, and other advanced unified communications features to enhance collaboration, decision-making, and customer service. Applications will no longer have to access these functions directly through the specialized CTI protocols, such as TAPI, JTAPI, and CSTA, of yore. Business developers will no longer need to learn the intricacies of SIP. Instead, they can build applications that access unified communications in loosely coupled fashion via Web services protocols.

“CTI was never designed for the average developer,” says Anne Thomas Manes, Burton Group vice president and research director. “You needed people who were well experienced in the integration between the business application and all that archaic telephony networking stuff. BlueNote, Avaya, and Siemens are encapsulating the arcane features of telephony and making them available as software services exposed through an open protocol interface that is much simpler for an application to consume.”

Aside from being easier and quicker for business developers, encapsulation means that telephony services such as presence, click-to-call, call routing, and Web conferencing can be combined with other communications and data services to create innovative new composite apps and services that can be recombined and reused to create still other new apps and services. “It’s part of the IT-ification of telecom,” says Ron Gruia, program leader of emerging communications at Frost & Sullivan. “No more rip and replace. Make it all modular, interoperable, and reusable.”

Voice-Enabled Processes

No single, killer app will drive widespread integration of unified communications into business processes. Instead, expect developers to discover hundreds of little ways to increase efficiency.

Typically, the biggest delays in business processes involve human latency, when a process cannot continue until key people are found, contacted, and informed, and they take the appropriate action, such as giving approval. Unified communications functions such as presence and find me/follow me excel at bringing the right people together quickly, wherever they are and using whatever communications medium is available. Moreover, Web conferencing and videoconferencing enhance collaboration to accelerate decision-making. SOA makes it easier to weave these functions directly into data applications and process flows, rather than requiring human beings to switch to separate communications applications or devices.

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The simplest example is the application-generated voice alert. Instead of pinging the customer service department to an important change in a customer account or portfolio, a back office financial application might kick off an event that alerts the customer directly through a telephony Web service and voice recording. Take this a step further and the process could ask for a recipient response via touch tone (IVR), speech, IM, or SMS and move on to the next step in the process based on the response.

If the recipient is internal to an organization or partner organization, the application could invoke presence and find me/follow me services to find the recipient on the current preferred medium or device, or via IM if presence indicates that the recipient is currently on a phone call. If an appropriate response doesn’t come, the process might escalate the alert across time to others who can cover for the recipient, or a supervisor, or eventually broadcast to everyone with the authority to handle the situation. Or, if a stock falls below a certain threshold, an event processor might automatically invoke a combination of presence and conferencing services to find and bring all relevant, available decision-making parties into a video/Web conference.

Find me/follow me information can be invaluable when an immediate response is required. “If there’s a mismatched part that has shut down the production line, an ERP application could [use unified communications services to] reach out to the plant manager, head of quality, inventory guy, and seven other people wherever they are at 2 a.m.,” says John Hart, vice president of product line management at Ubiquity.

Siemens has been working with Salesforce.com, SAP, and others to embed context-sensitive presence lists and click-to-call services in their CRM and ERP applications. For example, if a customer has a question about a particular order, the rep would be able to bring up a list of all available people from the relevant account team, along with their voice and IM presence information, right alongside other transaction information, then reach them via IM or phone call to their preferred device at the click of a mouse.

Presence lists could also incorporate roles-based information contained in other back office systems. A broker with a client on the phone, for example, could use a roles-based list to quickly locate and contact an available specialist with appropriate expertise, such as “Rhode Island taxes.” A rules engine could even qualify roles-based lists with different customer tiers. “If I’m calling, the list might get me the college student with the summer job, but if Donald Trump calls, the account information would obviously pick someone higher up,” says Gartner Research Vice President Bern Elliot.

Add location-based services, and some processes can be further accelerated. “When the assembly line breaks down, the software could use network information to find the specialized tech guy who is online in the same building as the specialized equipment needed to repair it,” Elliot says.

How many times have you found yourself explaining your tech support problem three, four, or five times as you’re transferred among different departments? “Today there’s no notion of maintaining a customer session,” says Ron Schmelzer, ZapThink senior analyst. “The phone system may route the call but often nothing is done with the database.” An SOA could integrate call and customer information and maintain the entire customer session as the call is transferred.

The Hudson Group, an ASP that provides unified communications services for ground transportation companies, is using BlueNote SessionSuite tools to link call detail reporting with customer service data so that a single report could show the entire customer service assist function in one place (see “Case Study: Unifying Call and Customer Data”).

In an SOA, incoming calls could be routed according to information contained in other applications. “Say a compliance officer wants to prevent brokers from speaking with analysts,” says Sally Bament, vice president of marketing at BlueNote. “You could create an application that would check caller IDs to determine if an inappropriate call was taking place and forward that call immediately to the compliance officer, who could either block it, speak with the parties, or send the call through and record it.”

There are numerous other possibilities, including automated calls that alert passengers to plane delays and rebook new reservations on the spot or that alert patients when slots on a doctor’s waiting list become available. The permutations are endless.

Four Ways to Mash Up Voice and SOA

The potential is great, but the market is still young, with four major players. Avaya and Siemens have approached SOA from the classic telephony space, whereas BlueNote and Ubiquity have more original, value-added approaches.

Both Avaya and Siemens have been moving their PBXes into the realm of standardized software and have begun adding Web Services interfaces to many of their PBX and unified communications functions.

As part of its Intelligent Communications initiative, Avaya has spent the past 18 months building Web services interfaces into several of its products, including its Communication Manager IP telephony software and the Avaya Interaction Center multimedia contact center platform. Avaya is building new products, such as Avaya Voice Portal, from the ground up on a distributed Web services foundation.

Although the interfaces are based on Web services protocols, both Avaya and Siemens rely heavily on SIP under the covers for call control and unified communications (although Avaya’s Web services also work with its hybrid and TDM phone systems). SIP is particularly suited to an SOA environment, as its architecture is Internet-centric and easily separates the application and media from call processing.

As part of its Application Development Environment framework, Avaya also offers a number of tools for accessing communications services, and Dialog Designer, a free open source plug-in tool for speech application designers.

Siemens offers capabilities similar to that of Avaya, including its own SDK. But Siemens built its unified communications platform, HiPath OpenScape, using SOA principles from the start, according to Alan Miller, group manager for OpenScape channel technical support. Siemens has worked with Salesforce.com and Siebel to integrate its unified communications Web services with CRM applications, and it is working with IBM and SAP to embed its communications software components into IBM’s WebSphere Everyplace Service Delivery platform as well as SAP’s NetWeaver. OpenScape runs on top of Microsoft Live Communications Server, which federates with other LCS servers and public IM service providers to share presence information.

BlueNote’s SessionSuite line provides a number of distributable software-based telephony services that, rather than using its own separate PBX provisioning and management system, run on typical datacenter servers and integrate with Microsoft’s Active Directory and Radius. “Our business model is not about PBXes and $200 desktop phones,” says BlueNote’s Bament. “We don’t provide reworked CTI APIs. We’re a software solution.” BlueNote also provides tools for integration with companies’ existing PBX systems. The solutions BlueNote touts include sophisticated business application-driven routing of incoming calls such as the broker/analyst example mentioned earlier, as SessionSuite can act as a service consumer as well as a provider.

Finally, Ubiquity Software provides a SIP-based application server called SIP A/S (application/server) targeted to the performance and reliability needs of telecom carriers that are harnessing SOA to deploy numerous consumer services quickly and inexpensively. Appcelerator is an add-on that provides the structured environment, orchestration engine, and components for building, deploying, and managing applications based on Web services and SOA; Developer Studio is a set of plug-ins for the Eclipse Java development platform.

The biggest advantage of SOA in the telecom space is quick deployment and integration of scores of new services with back-end operational support systems. “If a service doesn’t take off, the cost of being wrong goes way down,” Gruia says.

From Tactical to Strategic

Voice over IP continues its rapid growth in the enterprise, today mainly for cost control and converged call center applications. However, as with other Web technologies, the true promise of unified communications lies in weaving them together with other applications and functions to accelerate and improve business processes and ultimately deliver strategic advantage. “Convergence is a journey,” says Lawrence Byrd, director of IP telephony and mobility at Avaya. “The ultimate goal is not just to have VoIP running over a different-color piece of wire. It’s to have an impact on productivity and to affect how that accelerates business processes.”

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