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Communications ASP Tools of The Trade
March/April 2001

 

Serving Up New Applications The Easy Way

BY DANIEL C. DEARING

[Go right to Selecting An Enhanced Services Platform]

The next-generation network leverages technologies such as DSL, cable modem, and fixed wireless to deliver broadband services to the end user. For service providers, voice is an essential part of the service bundle -- particularly for the small-to-medium business (SMB) customer. Those service providers who offer a full suite of voice and data services are best positioned to justify the enormous capital investments required to build a local access network -- whether it is a DSL network or a portfolio of multi-tenant buildings. Until now, service providers have had to look to softswitch or VoDSL gateway technologies to add voice to their service portfolios. For the data service provider, either approach for offering voice as a service requires a significant investment in people, technology, and time.

Fortunately, there is another way to offer bundled services. By decoupling applications from voice services, service providers can initially offer voice-based applications and then migrate to an infrastructure that also provides dial tone. The application switch is a fundamental new network building block that enables DLECs, BLECs, and ASPs to incrementally migrate to a softswitch solution. This provides application connectivity between IP endpoints and includes the policy-based call routing and signaling interworking (SIP, H.323) needed to deploy applications in an on-net IP environment while also interoperating with softswitch and media gateway platforms for off-net calls to and from the PSTN. By combining the application switch with customized application servers, the service provider can create the application infrastructure needed to deliver enhanced services such as voice VPNs, presence and availability management (PAM), and unified messaging.

AN ARCHITECTURE FOR SERVICE CREATION
Within this architecture, the application switch and application server form a networking overlay that data service providers can use to offer voice applications and thus provide their customers with bundled solutions. The application switch allows service providers to quickly bring new applications to market by eliminating technology barriers, such as diverse signaling standards, which prevent or slow deployment. Application servers provide support for traditional voice VPN applications such as telecommuting and PBX extensions, which are well suited to the needs of SMBs and telecommuters -- the largest customer base for ISPs and multi-tenant service providers (MTSPs). More importantly, the service provider can offer value-added applications such as presence and availability management (PAM). If the business case makes sense, the data service provider can fully migrate to the softswitch architecture and offer voice as a service.

Within the softswitch architecture, the softswitch bridges the IP network and the PSTN while the application switch enables application connectivity between endpoints, irrespective of whether they are on the PSTN or IP network. The application switch provides the policy-based call routing, signaling interworking (SIP, H.323), and presence management needed to deploy applications in an on-net IP environment while also interoperating with softswitch and media gateway platforms for application delivery to off-net endpoints in the PSTN.

In addition to the service database, the application switch consists of three engines: Policy, routing, and interworking. These three components operate as a transaction pipeline for the processing of user session requests and call setups. The policy engine provides a policy enforcement point for communication policies established by users, while the route engine applies network policies. Both engines interface with a service and policy database in the data plane of the architecture. The service database holds subscriber preferences and call management policies, capabilities of remote endpoints, network policies, and other application specific data. The transaction pipeline forms a service execution environment that creates flexible call models and the robust processing of information flow.

Using the application switch, service providers add new services and applications just by adding a new application server to the network. In effect, the value of the application switch and application server in the softswitch architecture may not only be in the number of new services that can be offered but rather in the speed at which they can be introduced. Some in the industry refer to this as service velocity -- the ability to try out new applications on end users and to quickly deploy on a mass scale those applications identified as a "killer app."

The application switch couples with the basic softswitch to deliver intelligent, enhanced applications to the enterprise. While basic voice services are delivered through call agents, more enhanced services and unique, customer-specific applications are delivered through the application switch and customized application servers. Applications enabled by the application switch and the presence application server match the mobile behavior of today's users. Increasingly, people are employing an array of PDAs, cell phones, pagers, and other messaging devices to keep in constant touch. For the service provider, especially the non-facilities based communications ASP, the opportunity exists to tie together these disjointed communications devices into a single service that simplifies how people communicate while also providing greater personalization and mobility.

Industry trends show that next-generation service providers cannot be successful just by offering traditional phone service at a lower cost. Service providers need a strategy to combine the features of today's telephony services with new breakthrough applications that create revenue and attract customers. The softswitch architecture allows service providers to combine telephony, Internet, and messaging into a single portfolio of basic services, but it does not facilitate the creation and delivery of new applications that will attract and retain customers. A new network building block is needed. The application switch enables service providers to fully leverage the power of IP to create and deliver new applications and services that combine voice and data into a single user experience. In effect, the application switch changes the way people communicate by making convergence a viable, user-friendly, and time-saving reality.

Daniel C. Dearing is vice president of marketing for NexTone Communications. Powering the virtual central office, NexTone Communications is a leading provider of advanced application creation and service delivery systems for next-generation communication networks. For more information, visit www.nextone.com.

[ Return To The March/April 2001 Table Of Contents ]


Selecting An Enhanced Services Platform

BY FRANK CHILDERS

One of the most critical decisions facing CASPs is choosing the platform that can reliably deliver the enhanced services that will distinguish one CASP from another. Platform choices and related confusion will only increase, with growth in the CASP market projected to surge from $250 million in 1998 to more than $7 billion in 2003 (US Bancorp Piper Jaffray). How can you strategically select the mission-critical platform and inherent system architecture that best matches your business model? What can help you stand apart from marketplace frenzy, confidently evaluating your platform options? Carefully answering the following three questions can guide you. At least, it will help you narrow your list of potential platform providers to those companies best equipped to help your CASP succeed.

Who can best offer the core services and functionality that are most important to your business model and targeted customers?

A clear understanding of your exact needs and points of differentiation will be your greatest aid in selecting the right platform. Start by articulating exactly what you mean by "converged communications." Ask potential platform providers to share their definition. You'll learn this simple phrase means different things to different people. Negotiate common terminology up front and you'll avoid a basic misunderstanding that can throw off your entire selection process.

Next, construct a detailed technology road map of where your company needs to go. You're unlikely to have all decisions made at the beginning. Usually the review process itself helps clarify your needs. Identify where "voice" will impact your business offering. Define where your customer relationship management (CRM) requires IP telephony or applications such as unified messaging. Will you be revolutionary or evolutionary in adding voice to your ASP model? By pinpointing whether voice needs should be available first or activated later, you'll help platform providers more specifically define their solutions.

With such a wide range of voice applications, you must understand how advanced and complex the requested applications are. For instance, interactive voice response (IVR) alone can enhance a CASP's offering, although it is the low end of the voice application spectrum. Voice over IP (VoIP) is mid-range in complexity. Initially deployed as toll bypass, VoIP now often means "click to talk." In other words, while visiting a Web site, a user may get "stuck" and need human assistance, and offering "click to talk" to a human at a point of need can be an invaluable tool in keeping Web visitors engaged. Very advanced applications such as voice portals, or voice enablement of the Internet, are still in development and will enable voice commands to activate and direct Web sites.

As you weigh the importance of voice in your CASP model, also review a platform provider's heritage. Many companies have a bias for either data or voice that will impact their recommended solutions. Prioritizing required services will also help you make cost/value judgments. While you may be willing to pay a premium for core services, you may decide to eliminate some other unimportant, costly functions. Set a goal of investing in important services without overspending, and your pricing decisions are very likely to be on target.

What platforms support your core functions while offering the greatest flexibility?

For CASPs, fast-paced change and demand for new capabilities are certainties. Whether your interest is NGN or application development and customization, your platform must incorporate advanced technologies in order for you to remain a competitive and viable CASP. To meet the demands for change, you must strongly consider standards-based platforms in your selection. Only platforms built on an open architecture will allow the flexibility and scalability to incorporate fast-changing technologies that are driving development of the CASP marketplace.

Open platforms should mean scalable, beyond mere software-driven scalability. The easiest-to-scale platforms will be modular and rack-mountable. Their board capacity must be sufficient today and able to accommodate future, additional boards. Also, ask for specific examples of how customers have customized applications on their platforms.

Which providers have the best experience in providing robust, standards-based platforms including voice and multi-network applications?

A platform company with relevant, successful experience can be a powerful ally as you're navigating the uncharted waters of the CASP industry. Ask for platform recommendations from value-added resellers (VARs) and integrators who work daily with standards-based voice and data systems. You'll repeatedly hear leading names - potential partners worth checking out. Also look for experience across all platform sizes -- in range of power, type of chassis, and capacities. Get customer references to learn how platforms have scaled as business needs have changed. Evaluate each company's equity in the open systems industry -- a leadership company will have meaningful relationships with other key industry players, and access to the collective learning of experienced companies can prove priceless in the emerging CASP industry.

Be sure to verify which companies have a good track record of taking responsibility for their integrated solutions. As 2001 brings the expectation of toll-quality VoIP, CASP platforms must be engineered to match PSTN quality of service (QoS) standards. Determining how much responsibility platform providers are willing to shoulder for VoIP QoS can be a huge differentiator. To ensure a partner with staying power, confirm that companies have withstood the test of time, and can drive revenue, make a profit, and stand behind their solutions. Selecting a recent arrival may put your company at risk when you need future platform support. Make sure potential partners also offer reliability without compromising innovation. With today's communications industry all about solutions and services, the strongest companies have moved beyond mere products to also providing a complete package that includes solutions and services.

Using this outlined criteria and your good instincts to objectively review enhanced services platform options, you are much more likely to select a platform that is well suited to your CASP -- today and in the future.

Frank Childers is vice president of sales at Alliance Systems, Inc. Established in 1992, Alliance designs, develops, and manufactures communication platform products that enable voice communication applications such as network signaling, switching, IVR, unified messaging, and VoIP. For more information, visit their Web site at www.alliancesystems.com.

[ Return To The March/April 2001 Table Of Contents ]







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