Voice plus data equals innovation

Voice and data applications running on VoIP systems may provide the most compelling reason to put voice on an enterprise network

The once vastly separate worlds of corporate data and telephony have collided. IP-based enterprise phone systems are invading corporate branch offices, telecommuter home offices, and call centers everywhere. Sooner or later, voice will be just another digital packet on the IP network, and telephony will be just another managed application about which IT must worry.

But enterprisewide VoIP won’t happen right away, mainly because the chief benefit of VoIP -- the cost savings of two infrastructures becoming one -- makes little sense when it requires a network upgrade, and the legacy phone system works perfectly well.

Instead, the real excitement is swirling around converged voice and data applications. “Now that the products have matured and the early phases of simply delivering IP telephony are behind us, we’re going to really see the promise of applications surrounding VoIP,” says Kevin Johnson, director of product marketing at Mitel.

The most obvious angle is enterprise collaboration, where voice and data applications combine IM, presence, Web, and videoconferencing. But voice is wending its way into corporate applications as well. ERP, for example, is gaining IP telephony capabilities to speed approvals and to relieve bottlenecks in business processes and workflows. Today’s closest thing to a killer app, however, is the IP-based multimedia call center, which merges all customer communications -- including Web, e-mail, chat, and voice -- to enhance the customer-support experience and to allow the distribution of call-center staff across the country or even the world.

Just as voice is redefining enterprise applications, IP capabilities are changing the phone on the desktop. An IP phone can now serve as a combined communications and data-access appliance, particularly in departments that don’t need a computer on every desk.

The magic of presence

Such innovations are practical only when phone and data systems are one. “You could [in the past] link traditional telephony systems with corporate data and applications, but it was expensive and required a lot of complicated connections and translation,” says Alex Hadden-Boyd, director of IP communications and marketing at Cisco Systems. With voice running across the IP LAN, it becomes relatively easy to pull these functions apart -- so they can be provided by different systems or services --and to mix and merge VoIP apps with other apps running over IP. Many of today’s converged solutions are provided wholly by the IP phone system vendors, but standards that foster open convergence approaches are taking hold. One of the big convergence enablers is the IETF’s SIP.

Most IP phone systems started life based on the H.323 set of standards released by the International Telecommunications Union. Because SIP came out of the IETF, it’s much more oriented toward PCs, PC-like devices, and the Internet. VoIP vendors have used SIP to merge presence, IM, voice, Web, and videoconferencing into real-time communications applications tied to an IP PBX. Some vendors force you to stick with their VoIP and IM solutions in order to get all these merged capabilities, but that’s starting to change. For example, Siemens layers its OpenScape server on top of Microsoft’s LCS (Live Communications Server) and Windows 2003 so you don’t have to abandon an existing LCS implementation; OpenScape can also work with an IP PBX from another vendor such as Cisco. And with other vendors’ solutions working with popular IM clients, the writing seems to be on the wall for eventual interoperability.

Nortel’s MCS (Multimedia Communication Server) 5100 desktop client is a perfect example of what VoIP combined with IM and presence can do. A quick glance at your MCS 5100 desktop screen at any given moment shows you exactly who on your IP network is on the phone and who is available by voice, IM, and e-mail. Users can create sets of rules that tell the system by whom and via which device -- desk phone, cell phone, PDA phone, and so on -- they prefer to be reached depending on current location, time of day, and the person or group trying to reach them.

“Essentially, these applications replace human middleware,” Cisco’s Hadden-Boyd says. If you must reach someone, you need not try to contact that person five different ways, leaving five messages he or she must wade through one by one. Instead, you can check that person’s availability and how best to reach him or her then click on the name to launch a call from your IP desk phone or softphone to his or her currently preferred device. If you see someone is on a conference call, you can IM that person to request a callback when the conference is over.

Many of these packages integrate with Microsoft Outlook so that you can check presence then single-click calls from your Outlook display. Cisco, Nortel, Siemens, and others also provide Web- and videoconferencing with just a few more clicks. If you have a team you meet with regularly, you can create a work group of team members and fire up an instant Web and voice conference with all of them simultaneously. The conferencing software then pings all participants and brings them into the meeting when presence shows they’re available. If someone is on the phone, the software sends an IM or e-mail invitation. Participants can also push Web pages and files to other meeting participants, work on shared files, or co-browse the Web together. If participants have Web cams, videoconferencing can be added easily.

The time savings that come from reducing or eliminating telephone tag can be dramatic -- and the ability to find and to conference with people instantly can speed the time it takes to make important decisions. “Last Wednesday, I got a call from a client asking for a proposal on Friday,” says Gene Rodgers, president and CEO of Star Information Technology. “Even though our staff was dispersed across the entire country, it was fairly easy with OpenScape to pull a team together almost immediately and get to work.” In-house, software-based voice conferencing is also much less expensive over time than an external, hardware-based conferencing service. “We reduced our audioconferencing costs by 50 percent using OpenScape,” Rodgers says.

The level of SIP functionality varies among vendors. Some provide a limited number of presence features to mobile users with softphones only. Others vendors such as Siemens provide the same features to both legacy TDM (Time Division Multiplexing) and IP phone users via a SIP gateway. This is important given that hybrid IP/TDM architectures are the most common in enterprises today. Many vendors, however, only provide legacy users with partial functionality.

Voice: just another data type?

Vendors such as Siemens and Mitel also provide toolkits for embedding real-time communications in back-office ERP, help desk, corporate portal, and other business applications to speed business processes and workflows.

“The missing link in ERP applications is real-time communications,” says Stefan Merz, director of OpenScape marketing at Siemens. “If I’m a business administrator working on an order and I get information from my SAP system that the customer is over his credit limit, I could look in my phone book manually for the person with the right title to approve the transaction and start calling and e-mailing. Or with OpenScape integration, I’d be able to see immediately on-screen that Barry [has] the … authority and is currently available, then reach him instantly on his preferred device simply by clicking on his icon.”

Star’s Rodgers has integrated OpenScape with his company’s Microsoft SharePoint-based portal, so users needn’t keep several apps open simultaneously. “We were able to build a Microsoft .Net wrapper around OpenScape so that it could become a service accessible by any application,” Rodgers says.

VoIP vendors have also integrated multiple real-time communications into IP-based call-center applications so that a query can come in via phone, e-mail, or the Web and be routed automatically to the agent with the expertise and availability to deal with it. If an agent is in the midst of responding to a customer via e-mail, the application knows to route a call or Web request to another agent. Multimedia call centers also provide click-to-call functionality, so if an online chat must be escalated to a phone call, the customer can simply click a button on-screen, type in a phone number, and initiate an automatic callback from the agent. Agents can also push Web pages to customers during a phone call or chat session and fill in HTML forms with them.

IP telephony also enables distributed virtual call centers in which the staff is dispersed around the country and is connecting to a central IP PBX and call-center application via VPNs. JetBlue, for example, uses a distributed call center that consists wholly of users that sign in and work from home.

When a phone is more than a phone

Because an IP phone is just another computing device or piece of software connected to the data network, phone functionality can be embedded in numerous types of devices, including PDAs. Conversely, desktop IP phones can take on data access and alert functions useful in retail and other environments where a full-fledged PC would be impractical or extravagant.

Cisco has been especially active in this area, providing IP phones (such as its IP Phone 7970), that can use XML over HTTP to retrieve information from Web servers -- and offering SDKs for building XML apps. Third parties have provided various vertical, IP-phone-based apps, including attendance-taking for school districts, inventory access for retail stores, guest-service apps for hotels, and various alerting apps. For example, if a certain product is not available in one store, an IP phone can access central inventory and then alert the store that has the product. “The phone can call Petaluma and generate a screen pop on the Petaluma store’s phone, alerting it to hold the pants size 10, black, model number XXX,” Cisco’s Hadden-Boyd says.

The town of Herndon, Va., uses Cisco IP phones and a third-party XML application to broadcast Amber Alerts to police and other field personnel, such as building inspectors, zoning inspectors, park and recreation staff, and road crews.

“These folks get back into [the] office a few times every day, where they can receive these alerts,” says Bill Ashton, Herndon’s director of IT. “But they spend most of the day in the field where they would be in a position to recognize a missing child and provide assistance.” The XML application, which interoperates with Cisco’s CallManager, periodically polls the central server at codeamber.org for updates. If an alert meets certain criteria, such as a nearby ZIP code, the application sends the alert to all of Herndon’s Cisco IP phones. “The ringer on the IP phone gives off a very distinctive, loud alert sound to say, ‘Look at me,’ ” Ashton says. “A message-indicator light blinks, and the screen on the phone flashes up the victim’s picture. The softkeys are then automatically reprogrammed to provide victim, suspect, and law-enforcement information.”

It will probably take years for users to recognize all the different processes and applications that can be improved with voice integration -- not to mention how to capitalize on the enterprisewide deployment of IP telephony across most big organizations. It will also require reprogramming lots of brains to think of telephony as more than simply a descendant of the telephone on your desk. You can bet, however, that once integrated with the rest of IT, voice and IP telephony will find their way into countless applications and processes that until now remained silent.


Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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