October 2010 | Volume 28 / Number 5
Call Center Technology
Short Message Service (SMS)
Planning for Action
By Brendan B. Read,
When many businesses are struggling to survive, there may be irony in investing in truly effective business continuity also known as disaster response planning, tools and testing. Yet without them if or more likely when a disaster strikes organizations risk being pushed further to the brink, if not over the edge.
Ed Minyard, partner with Accenture Technology Consulting, reports that even in this more austere time BC budgets and investments rose in 2009. Yet testing of these plans did not rise to the same extent.
More disturbingly, about half of businesses including centers have robust plans. And most of them are not testing them on a regular basis, citing resource availability and disruption on employees and customer, and because they do not have the budgets for it. Many companies that do not have plans have instead plans to plan.
“BC planning has generally been acts of compliance with regulations; if the firms are not mitigating all the risks in a public company the officers are liable, so having plans keep them happy,” explains Minyard. ”The problem is that not enough businesses are looking at their plans as living, breathing documents that can save lives, reduce injuries, and protect properties and investment and enable businesses to survive.”
To illustrate the difference between an actionable program and one on paper Minyard gives the example of one that requires in a major disaster a contact center to be shut down and calls rerouted to another site in a different geologic/climate zone. Yet has anyone vetted that plan with the carrier to make sure that those lines can be switched? Is there a succession plan and delegation of authority that will allow the telco to take those orders from someone who may not normally be responsible for that area? And has this plan been tested?
“In disasters you can’t always count on people that are at the top of your org chart being there,” Minyard points out. “You need to test and drill so that when these events happen the plans are launched effectively.”
Technology Benefits and Issues
There continues to be more technologies that can enable cost-effective BC. For example Allworx has come out with advanced multisite functionality on its phone solutions aimed at small-midsized businesses. The call routes can be defined to include handsets at other sites. The system ‘learns’ the multi-site topology, requiring limited manual entry of site settings. Handset status can be monitored remotely.
Bob Mellinger, president and CEO of BC planning firm Attainium, sees social media such as Facebook and Twitter being valuable in disaster communication as they deliver short and interactive audience-customizable messages to employees and suppliers hosted via the Web. Staff and firms can acknowledge or reply without eating up landline or wireless bandwidth that is often scarce in major disasters. To make these methods work, though, there needs to be succession planning and failovers to other techniques such as phone and text trees in case there is no Internet access, or power.
SIP/VoIP can help firms survive disasters by enabling calls to be more readily and routed to other locations such as home agents, temporary sites, and satellite offices compared with PSTN explains Alla Reznik, director of VoIP product marketing, Verizon Business. In a VoIP network, calls can be automatically re-routed based on conditions such as a reachable IP address associated with a customer's premise equipment. In contrast TDM-based solutions typically consist of manually invoking call forwarding of individual telephone numbers to redundant TDM facilities.
“[With VoIP] traditional data load-balancing options can now be applied to voice service applications, “adds Reznik. “This cuts costs associated with maintaining temporary redundant facilities typically associated with TDM disaster backup plans.”
VoIP is becoming more reliable for more users. Ecessa’s ClariLink is a WAN link controller which enables SIP traffic to be deployed reliably across multiple WAN and/or service provider networks for redundant link connectivity and automatic real-time failover. ClariLink manages diverse WAN links and bandwidth capacities to provide a redundant SIP origination and termination solution.
The one downside to VoIP and consequently an upside to PSTN is that the older technology is not as reliant on the utility grid as taps DC power from batteries backed up by powerful generators at COs. In response organizations that go to IP and need to stay live should consider deploying and/ensuring backup generators with enough capacity to run their voice systems. If their at-home agents use VoIP they should be generator-equipped too, adds Minyard.
Onsite generation solutions are becoming more versatile and location-friendly. Generac’s new Generac QuietSource units feature specially designed engines that run quieter at lower engine speeds, producing power from 22 to 60 kilowatts, with lower noise and longer life. Offering a choice of cleaner liquid propane or natural gas they have fewer emissions and no odor compared with diesel. They can be installed with a choice of several different switches, including for automatic load-shedding to meet virtually any local code requirements.
Hosted applications provide added resiliency because they can’t be lost if the users’ locations and servers are destroyed. They can also be accessed and managed from alternative sites. Alteva, which provides hosted VoIP, adds that with its call controls located in the cloud it allows for telecom restoration plans not to be limited by what happens on site.
“If there is an interruption at the contact center's location which prevents on-premise TDM PBX to communicate with the carrier switch, all calls get fast-busy signals,” explains Alteva CEO William Bumbernick. “But with hosted VoIP this is no longer the case.”
Hosted solutions are only as robust as the hosting firm’s network, and their own BC plans. inContact, which provides hosted contact center services, has a highly resilient network thanks to utilizing and load-shifting on more than one carrier. If one supplier’s lines are cut, the traffic will be moved to another vendor. If multiple lines are severed, agreements may be made with vendors not currently utilized to restore service. inContact may also use SIP/VoIP to restore services.
inContact relies on two Intelligent Network Server Centers, which are widely dispersed: in Dallas, Texas and Los Angeles, Calif. Its databases are each backed up in both INSC locations, ensuring that if one were to fail at one site it would failover to the other location, explains COO Scott Welch.
Imaginative Disaster Response Solutions
There are other new and continually refined solutions that enable organizations to respond to and recover from disasters of many kinds and scale. Some of these are built into other related functionalities while others are standalone.
Veolia’s new hosted Varolii Contact Center Agent automatically outbound-notifies agents to ensure staffing requirements are met, even if unexpected events disrupt operations. For example, in a hurricane warning an organization could use Varolii Contact Center Agent to send messages instructing agents in the affected area to stay home, while asking additional agents in another region to report for work to handle the overflow.
Nirix Technology is rolling out Hosted Backup, Enterprise Edition, a customer-premises-located BC appliance and service. The unit, owned by Nirix, enables businesses to quickly replicate the entire server OS, data, and installed applications including sophisticated solutions such as analytics, CRM, CTI, routing and workforce management.
Full system and/or mission critical/archival data recovery can now take place in minutes or hours instead of days or weeks. Firms do not have to scurry around for tapes, software license keys, or try to remember how the applications and its associated security settings were originally configured.
Hosted Backup, Enterprise Edition can also replicate another copy of the backed up servers to a highly secured CICA5970 / SAS70 Type II compliant data center managed by Nirix Technology. This protects in solutions and data should a disaster completely destroys the buildings where the production servers and the appliance reside.
Nirix on-premise appliance presently works only with Microsoft Windows–based servers. Upcoming versions to be released within the next several months will work also with Linux/Unix-based servers.
“Most of today’s backup solutions back up the data, but what good is that from the disaster recovery perspective if the applications that they run on aren’t backed up as well?” asked Nirix Technology President and CEO Steven Hsu. “You can’t read the data without the respective application. It is like giving a Microsoft Word document without having Microsoft Word software installed on your desktop.”
Matching BC/DR Investments and Needs
Many of the tools required to launch an actionable plan can be expensive, and will require time to install, and test. Onsite generators may run thousands of dollars depending on the kilowatts required. There are often lease and property issues and zoning restrictions that affect whether and how they can be situated. Home agent strategies will demand network changes, setup and management.
Yet other solutions can be as simple as employee education i.e. wash your hands and if sick don’t come in to work. Global BPO firm Sitel is using these methods, bolstered with additional hand cleaners, in response to the feared H1N1 pandemic and the fall flu season.
To ensure that you have an actionable BC plan that is not budgetary overkill Minyard recommends that you engage your BC planners and executives in analyzing all potential threats, risks and impacts from what might happen to the unthinkable. With this involvement they will know what is it stake and can decide on the best program for your organization. Then carefully examine the costs of being down, including legal/regulatory liability and for how long versus the costs of the options available.
“Take a look at your risk, potential what is your appetite for that risk, and then make a decision based on that not based on the economy,” says Minyard.
Jim Koniecki, unified communications solutions manager for Dimension Data, advises finding out the disaster impact of your systems to a $/hour ratio. This is the ratio you should use when determining whether budget should be investigated for providing disaster recovery solutions and to what extent it should be applied. This dollar figure will also help achieve those budgets when money is tight.
“A disaster or pandemic might decrease the demand for your products or services, but remember that it could also potentially increase demand to unsustainable levels,” says Koniecki.
Verizon is one of the disaster-experienced carriers in the U.S. and arguably the world. It has had to respond to and recover both its operations and those of its customers from horrific events including the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina.
Capitalizing and utilizing its proven capabilities Verizon Business now offers several new BC services. An application infrastructure deployment review assesses current application and infrastructure deployment to determine if the deployment – including the application and operating system, as well as patching – it is up to date. Business continuity compliance service reviews existing business continuity strategies to determine whether it meets compliance requirements; it also includes gap identification. A business continuity/disaster recovery testing support program develops strategies and plans for business continuity testing. It also offers BC/DR training.
Included in the BC suite are virtual file-sharing, storage replication and restoration services and a full complement of managed information technology services to help enhance enterprise resilience. For example, Verizon Notification Services helps enterprises automate the delivery of time-sensitive information via cell phone, pager, fax or home phone.
“Our consultants meet with key stakeholders to gain important insights into current capabilities and critical business issues, enabling organizations to identify and measure higher-impact risks and concentrate on the systems necessary to maintain critical operations and activities,” explains Robert Clark, Verizon Business director of business continuity. “From there, a plan containing key findings and recommendations is developed and delivered to the organization for continued discussion and implementation.”
Wireless in Disasters?
Wireless cellular communications appears to be an ideal tool to stay in touch during disasters in that they are not dependent on central office, power grids and vulnerable overhead wires. Yet it is the riskiest as emergency responders take priority; their call volumes are so great it leaves little bandwidth for anyone else.
“What happens in disasters is that communications demand increases to the point where cells get saturated and your capacity gets eaten up in a hurry,” explains Minyard. “If the utility grids are down the cell systems rely on backup generators whose fuel sources are limited and can run down if they are not replenished.”
Bob Mellinger, president and CEO BC planning firm Attainium sees SMS/texting as one solution in wireless as it uses very little bandwith and power.
“A text message or blast is more likely to get through than voice calls regardless of channel if the wires are down,” says Mellinger.
The following companies participated in the preparation of this article