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November 1998


Rich Tehrani

Interoperability: Where We're Headed, Where We've Been

BY RICH TEHRANI

Go Right To: 
Why You Must Attend CTI EXPO
TMC Labs -- The Industry Leader

Before Internet telephony broke out on its own, there was Computer Telephony Integration (CTI). Without CTI, the Internet telephony industry would still be just a dream. The long road from the earliest CTI links to mainframes to today's current state of Internet telephony vendor interoperability was not an easy one. Nor have we arrived at our destination yet. For those of you who are new to the Internet telephony market, it is an interesting exercise to go over the evolution of an industry that promises to change all facets of communications.

LET US BEGIN AT THE BEGINNING
Telephony is defined as "communications at a distance." In a typical office, telephony is transmitted over your business telephone system or PBX (Private Branch eXchange). A related product is the ACD (Automatic Call Distributor). When you call a large call center, the call hits the ACD and the ACD presents you with a list of questions regarding your call. For example, you call a travel agency and have an option to press one number for domestic travel and another for vacations and car rentals, etc. An ACD matches your call with the representative most likely to have the experience to handle your call by pre-assigning different skill sets to the various agents in the call center.

The First Links
Back in the early 1980s, Rockwell started to experiment with connecting the ACD to a computer. At that time, large call centers typically had IBM mainframes and large ACDs. The goal of connecting these two disparate systems was to enable the computer to examine the telephone number of the caller when the call arrived. The number was looked up in a database and a "screen pop" of customer information appeared on an agent's screen as they took the call. The theory was that this would increase the productivity of the agent and reduce 800 number call time, thus cutting costs. Staffing and telephone costs are the biggest expenses in a call center. Thus was CTI born.

Several years later, IBM launched a product known as CallPath, to extend the functionality of the CTI link. CallPath was designed to work with IBM's computers and several large ACDs. At that time, the telephony industry did not really associate with the computer industry. The fact that these two vastly different worlds could be bridged was amazing. Technically, the challenge was minimal; psychologically, this was a new paradigm.

The down side was that once you had CTI links such as CallPath (or a competitive product) configured in your call center, you were locked in to that vendor. If you switched computer systems, you needed new CTI links. Your choice of PBX vendors was limited to whichever vendors your CTI link supported. Furthermore, smaller call centers were out of luck, as they could scarcely afford minicomputers, large PBX/ACDs, or the CTI links.

TSAPI
In the early 1990s, AT&T (now Lucent) and Novell got together and developed TSAPI (Telephony Services Application Programming Interface) allowing developers to write programs for Novell NetWare servers to control PBX and ACD functions. This marked the first time that CTI links could be implemented on a PC. The CTI barrier to entry dropped from hundreds of thousand of dollars to tens of thousands of dollars. For the first time, multiple computer makers could be chosen in a given CTI implementation.

Without Novell and AT&T's collaboration and the ensuing competition it set forth, there might well be no CTI or Internet telephony market today. TSAPI allowed developers to write programs on PC servers that used to require minis or mainframes. Furthermore, links that were once limited to large and expensive PBXs could now be implemented on smaller PBXs and even less expensive key systems from companies like Inter-Tel, Comdial, Tadiran, and Panasonic. In theory, you could develop your product using TSAPI and your product would supposedly work seamlessly with any other PBX that supported TSAPI.

Other APIs followed. Microsoft released TAPI (Telephony Services Application Programming Interface) and Sun released its JTAPI (Java Telephony Services Application Programming Interface).

As these telephony API links were becoming popular, small call centers began to harness large call center features at a substantially reduced cost. For the first time, developers had the tools to control multiple PBXs with a single computer program. Telephony APIs allowed these developers to produce products that could run on a broader range of PBXs. Costs dropped dramatically. Inexpensive CTI links also allowed developers to be more creative.

As new products (e.g., unified messaging servers) were constantly being developed, the CTI market grew from its call center roots to encompass any product that benefited from the merging of the datacom and telecom realms.

In fact, over time, developers realized that they could do away with the external PBX or ACD altogether. Loading a PC with computer telephony boards gave rise to a new animal - the PC PBX. A PC PBX is inherently more flexible and easier to set up than a traditional PBX. One reason is that vendors followed the traditional PC model, designing PBX configuration screens and procedures to be more open, intuitive, and user friendly.

Internet Telephony Gateways
Most recently, the advent of the Internet telephony gateway has made it possible to transmit voice and fax over IP (Internet Protocol) networks. These gateways allow service providers and corporations to take advantage of the cost savings associated with Internet telephony whether on a LAN, intranet, or extranet.

THE NEXT STAGE
We believe the future of all telephony is in Internet telephony - a term we use to refer to telephony transmitted and received on a network adhering to the Internet Protocol (IP). So, the next step is to combine the technology of the Internet telephony gateway with the PC PBX and produce an Internet telephony-based PBX. Why stick with separate telephone and data lines when voice can easily travel as data packets on your LAN/WAN? It's high time for the single line to the desktop. It's also time for standards.

H.323
Many Internet telephony vendors have gotten behind H.323 as the standard to build gateways and clients upon. It doesn't hurt that Intel and Microsoft are also behind this standard. It is rare that an entire industry can agree on a common standard so quickly. So it seems that from the start, vendors in the Internet telephony market decided that standards are important to the success of the market as a whole. Many of these standards are still in their embryonic stage, and so if you buy Internet telephony enabled telephones from one vendor, they won't necessarily work with other vendors' Internet telephony based products. Yet.

Furthermore, even if two Internet telephony clients support H.323, they won't automatically work with each other. Let's face it, there are paper standards and there are practical standards. Real standards usually gel when paper standards have been tested and proven in the real world. Still, vendors should be commended for the work they are doing to ensure the future of a standards-based industry. These vendors realize the important role of standards in avoiding market fragmentation. Standards will allow all products to share common low-level development tools, allowing rapid development of new applications.

Interoperability
The potential of gateway interoperability to open up a whole new area of the market is great. In order for two disparate gateways to work together, they must communicate with each other using some agreed upon standard (i.e., H.323). Often, the need for interoperability is not dictated by corporate requirements, but by the needs of service providers.

Service providers will often want to terminate calls outside their own network. If a service provider wants to be successful in the long run, he can't limit his customers to calling global areas where he happens to have a gateway. And, if a service provider decides to terminate their calls on another service provider's network, they can't ask that service provider to replace all of their gateways with ones from a common manufacturer. In order for Internet telephony to be viable for service providers, they must have full interoperability between these disparate gateways.

Garden State Get-Together
Recently, ITXC, an Internet telephony exchange carrier, requested that two of their Internet telephony gateway suppliers -- VocalTec and Lucent  -- collaborate to make sure that their two gateways work together.

While CTI has helped open up the traditional telephony market, the thought of asking two major PBX manufacturers to make phones or other lucrative components that interoperate is at best a long shot. I don't want to seem too harsh on PBX manufacturers since they are unanimously pledging open systems, but they still treasure their proprietary components, and frankly, few have been very quick to open up these highly profitable parts of their businesses.

Speaking With…
I recently had a chance to speak with Lior Haramaty, Co-Founder and VP of Technical Marketing at VocalTec, about the issue of interoperability and, more specifically, the request from ITXC. Lior tells me that although many standards do exist (such as H.323), getting them to work in the real world is often more complicated than conforming to a written standard.

Unlike interoperability of client Internet telephony products where both the sender and receiver must be able to encode and decode voice and video packets, gateway interoperability is much more complicated. This is especially true in service provider environments where a clearinghouse scheme needs to be implemented for accurate billing.

Gatekeepers
Gatekeepers are a key component in service provider environments, responsible for making sure Internet telephony calls are handled correctly. VocalTec uses a combination of a gatekeeper and Network Manager to achieve successful Internet telephony service provider implementations.

Since the definition of a gatekeeper varies widely, I will use VocalTec's gatekeeper as my example. Their gatekeeper directs traffic over hybrid traditional telephone networks and IP telephony networks (both public and private) performing essential intelligent routing, billing, and security functions. In a global Internet telephony network with thousands of gateways and millions of users worldwide, VocalTec's gatekeeper could approve a customer's account for calls from Paris to Los Angeles, ensure proper billing, and find the least expensive route for the call, as well as an alternative path if that route was unavailable.

The gatekeeper performs service authorization and subscriber authentication functions and eliminates the possibility of a single point of failure within the network through redundancy and scalability. VocalTec's gatekeeper is also the primary interface between gateways and other IP telephony applications, including third-party credit and prepaid calling card billing systems, accounting, and security solutions.

The gatekeeper handles many of the Intelligent Network (IN) functions of the traditional telephony market. It can also handle complex decision schemes based on numerous factors such as time of day and calling party information. Furthermore, gatekeepers allow multipoint conferencing and collaborative computing. Finally, a gatekeeper can allow multiple devices on the network to have the same address or identification number and can coordinate between them all.

You can imagine what is involved in a project requiring two competitors to open up the inner workings of their gateways and gatekeepers to each other. The gatekeepers, while required to work together, have to be configured to provide limited information to gatekeepers on other service provider networks. For example, if you tried to place a video call to someone on another service provider's network, your gatekeeper would contact the remote gatekeeper to make sure that the remote user was able to take a video call. Furthermore, the remote gatekeeper has to pass back information relating to the called party's ability to take a call at that moment.

Gatekeepers also have to limit how much information they pass back to the originating gatekeeper. The reasoning here is that service providers consider information about users on their network confidential, and would not be happy about sharing these intimate customer details with other service providers.

CONCLUSION
I commend both Lucent and VocalTec for getting together and working on standards. The maturity level demonstrated by these two companies working together is highly promising. Two companies putting their own self interests aside to further the Internet telephony industry is a very positive statement about this market. Beyond two industry leaders demonstrating the importance of interoperability, ITXC's involvement signals a new type of Internet telephony service provider - one that understands that the success of this industry depends on standards-based vendor interoperability.

Just as CTI standards opened up the corporate communications market, Internet telephony and its associated standards will open up telecommunications at all levels from the service provider network to the enterprise to the SOHO environment.


Why You Must Attend CTI EXPO

The Internet telephony market is booming! Industry analysts are showing market size increases that peg this market in the hundreds of billions of dollars in the next 5 years. What other industry has the full support of Microsoft, Cisco, Ascend, Cabletron, Intel, Lucent, Nortel? What other industry has the support of phone companies, ISPs, cable companies, and everyone in between? From calling card vendors to entrepreneurs, Internet telephony allows you to become a telephone company. What other industry allows you to go out and start your own long-distance company without laying millions of miles of cable? What other industry allows an enterprise with multiple locations to drastically cut their fax and phone bills by carrying traffic on their WAN? What other industry allows resellers to install all of this equipment while realizing margins unheard of in the computer or telecom markets?

There is simply no better business opportunity available today.

The best place to learn about Internet telephony as well as CTI and call center technology is at CTI EXPO in San Jose, CA, December 1-4 1998. And what better place for CTI EXPO than in Silicon Valley? Those of you looking to escape from the cold for a few days, will be happy TMC chose sunny California to hold this show. I know I am.

Beyond an Exhibit Hall filled with Internet telephony vendors showcasing the latest in Internet telephony products and services, we have come up with an unbeatable combination of events that are sure to teach you everything you ever needed to know about this exciting and lucrative industry.

First of all, we have coupled free keynotes from John Dvorak of PC Magazine, John Alfieri of Dialogic, and Bob Schechter of Natural MicroSystems - all of which will cover emerging Internet telephony products, technologies, and opportunities. Next, we have provided a FREE roundtable geared to those people who are looking for the best way to implement Internet Telephony. The goal of this aptly named session ("How to Implement Internet Telephony") is to help determine which Internet telephony solution is right for you. Two panelists will represent companies supplying Internet telephony interfaces to traditional PBXs, two panelists will represent traditional PC-based gateways, and two panelists will represent router-based gateways. Come prepared with any questions you may have.

Our FREE live Demo Theatre will be running for the entire show and will be sure to help you realize the benefits of some of the hottest Internet telephony opportunities by viewing live demos of products in a relaxed theatre-like atmosphere. BYOP (bring your own popcorn).

Finally, my personal favorite is the Internet telephony Learning Center. This was a huge hit at our last CTI EXPO in Baltimore, MD. Six vendors will be on hand to objectively educate you on the Internet telephony market, technologies, and opportunities. No sales pitches allowed. You can comfortably go from vendor to vendor and ask candid questions about this booming market and expect no-nonsense answers and no salespeople pressuring you at all. Of course the Exhibit Hall is packed with vendors who are also available to help answer your questions and explain the tremendous opportunities available to you.

If that was not enough, just to make sure you have no choice but to attend, we are giving away a free yellow Volkswagen Beetle to one of the lucky attendees at this show. No purchase is necessary, but you must be present on the second day of the Exhibit Hall (December 3rd) to win.

See you at CTI EXPO!


TMC Labs -- The Industry Leader

I have avidly read magazines that focus on both the computer and telephony industries for as long as I can remember. There was a time when I was reading or reviewing 50 publications each month! I always noticed a major contrast between the telephony and computer magazines I would read. As a former MIS director, I had a great deal of purchasing authority heaped upon my shoulders.

I noticed that the publications that gave me rock solid advice were the products of respected publishing companies that had invested in a product-testing laboratory. I came to rely on magazines in the computer field to help me make purchasing decisions on computer related products. When I needed to make a telephony purchase however, I could never find a telephony magazine that I could trust - a magazine that I could rely on for unbiased, non-commercial product reviews. Many of industry magazines in the telecommunications field lacked the integrity that I felt the computer magazines had accrued.

Subsequently, when I needed to purchase products in the telephony field I was forced to test a wide variety of products myself, wasting precious time and resources. Some years back it took 6 months for us to test 3 different fax server products internally. We gave up. We didn't like any of them. We wrote our own package. Think how amazing that is. Telephony and certainly computer telephony products are orders of magnitudes more difficult to install and operate than the most complicated PC product. Yet, I would read a 100-page review on various PCs in a computer magazine and a unified messaging product in telephony magazines would receive 3 paragraphs of glowing praise with nothing to back it up.

TMC was the first to recognize the tremendous void in the telephony industry.

When we launched CTI magazine, I decided that this magazine would be the first ever to perform unbiased product reviews with the utmost attention to detail. Furthermore, each and every review would have the full integrity of a laboratory staffed by engineers that have nothing but the reader's best interests at heart. Only the highest level of integrity - matched only by the technical content and accuracy - would be accepted.

It is this loyalty to our readers that has allowed CTI (and now all TMC publications) to be accepted as industry benchmarks. Our engineers stubbornly refuse to accept anything but perfection from the products they review. They agonize over product literature, installation screens, and documentation for countless hours looking for errors, omissions, and other problems that could make your life miserable as a reseller or purchaser of CTI products.

You will notice that TMC Labs has attracted so much attention from our readers that other publishing companies have decided to give the whole lab thing a whirl as well. We are flattered to see that others in the industry have decided that TMC Labs is something worth copying. As a reader, you must demand the utmost from the publications you read. Rest assured that all TMC publications will continue to evolve and provide you with the information you need to become more successful in your business. TMC publications will help you buy the right product the first time. We will continue to lead the pack.

TMC is committed to providing publications of the highest caliber and utmost quality. We are not a publishing company with hundreds of publications on varying topics. TMC produces only three magazines, and I am personally involved in the creation of every issue before you see it. This attention to detail is the difference between handmade quality versus others' "cookie-cutter" approach. TMC is one of the few remaining independent publishers in the telephony field. We take pride in our editorial and we will continue to create publications with information that you can trust. Readers tell me that they stake their careers on what they read in TMC publications.

We thank you for your continuing loyalty. Furthermore, we appreciate every testimonial that you send us. As you would expect, we are always trying to improve our publications. Some of our best improvements have been as a result of suggestions from our readers. We would love to hear what we can do to make your job even easier. I encourage you to e-mail me at rtehrani@tmcnet.com and let me know how we can improve our publications even further.

 







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