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IP Communications Ushers in a New Age of Collaboration

By David Hart, Networked Information Systems

 


For the past quarter-century, companies have acquired and deployed information and telecommunications technology in a never-ending search to improve collaboration between stakeholders while cutting costs, boosting productivity, and improving the user experience. Progress has been painfully slow and difficult. IP communications promises to change that by introducing better, faster, and cheaper ways for employees, suppliers, partners, and customers to work together.

Collaboration tools are nothing new. Teleconferencing, e-mail, workgroup solutions, video, and Web conferencing have been with us for many years. But until now they have been expensive to acquire, deploy, and manage, and difficult, if not impossible, to integrate. By converging digital voice and data traffic onto a single physical network, IP communications enables companies to deploy a robust infrastructure that will support a wide range of integrated and cost-effective collaboration solutions, including: voice, data, and Web conferencing; unified messaging; call center systems; even IP gateways that can be used as universal translators to enable incompatible RF systems to communicate with each other an important collaboration tool for first responders to disasters like Hurricane Katrina or the terrorist attacks on 9/11.

Unfortunately, because many companies acquire IP communications systems as a cost saving measure, they sometimes overlook the ways in which IP communications can be used to transform their business operations. Companies that marry a collaboration strategy to their IP infrastructure investment will gain the most benefit from this transformative technology.

There are many good reasons for making the move to IP Communications. Maybe you are moving, growing, merging, or consolidating offices. Maybe your old PBX maintenance costs were too high, important features were lacking, or you decided to include IP-based voice into your next generation IP-based data network. Whatever the reason, you are in good company. Most experts agree that IP Communications has crossed the chasm from early adopters to mainstream technology. According to the Enterprise Communications Association, IP Station shipments are growing at an annual rate of 36 percent and will top 4.5 million in 2005. Conversely, TDM station shipments are shrinking by almost seven percent per year. Synergy Research Group reported a 30.6 percent year-over-year growth for Enterprise IP Communications in the third quarter. According to Nemertes Research, 71 percent of IT professionals surveyed have deployed IP Communications in some fashion.

Now is the time to focus on maximizing your investment. Expect more than just a phone system replacement. As you make the transition from TDM to IP, you must distinguish between Infrastructure and Applications. While designing and implementing the proper infrastructure for IP Communications is critical to success, it is the implementation of IP Communications Applications that will drive the productivity and enhanced customer experiences intrinsic in the potential of this new communications paradigm. By deeply integrating IP Communications applications into your environment you can reap a truly significant return on investment that goes far beyond mere cost cutting.

Building Blocks: Laying the Foundation
Like any new technology, the IP Communications infrastructure needs to be engineered to be robust and resilient. Beyond the IP Phone, the basic building blocks for an IP Communications system include:

Next Generation Local-Area Network and Wide-Area Network;

Server-based Call Control;

Distributed Trunking Gateways;

Management and Monitoring Tools.

Next Generation Local-Area Network
Since IP will now be the transport for your voice traffic you will be reliant on the LAN to provide the five nines reliability your users have come to expect from their phone system. This means you need to be sure that your network is both redundant and intelligent. An intelligent network can use Quality of Service (QoS) techniques to make voice packets and prioritize them throughout the transit of your network. An intelligent network also uses sophisticated routing techniques to ensure reliability in the event of link or device failure. Also, be sure to have standards-based IEEE 802.11af Power over Ethernet for each end-station LAN port in your network. Finally, be certain to include tools to manage your network infrastructure. Beyond the rudimentary tools that are provided by the LAN/WAN hardware manufacturers, there are many third-party companies that offer excellent tools to provision, instrument, isolate faults, manage, and report on your network infrastructure.

Server-Based Call Control
After much debate, the best practices architecture for deployment of IP Communications has been settled. The fundamental device in this design is centralized call processing on redundant server or appliance platforms. These devices make the routing decisions for all call processing. These centralized call processing platforms can be integrated with lower-cost survivable call processing engines to service remote/SOHO locations in your enterprise. Further, these devices can be integrated with other major hub sites to provide for a global dial plan. Also, these devices provide advanced services like Call Detail Reporting and CTI application integration.

Distributed Trunking Gateways
Though enterprise communications is rapidly migrating to IP, the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) remains the transport for off net calls. Trunking Gateways are the devices that provide termination and transcoding services to interconnect the PSTN to the private IP Communications network. Because IP is a routable protocol, location limitations are eliminated in IP Communications networks. Therefore, you should distribute PSTN Trunking Gateways throughout your LAN and WAN to provide high availability, flash traffic control, and optimized toll bypass services to each endpoint in the network, regardless of location on the network.




Management, Monitoring and Ongoing Support
In most every organization, dial tone is the most critical application in their environment. Now that youve decided to migrate from your TDM network and put voice on your IP network, you need to be certain that you have the appropriate tools to support and monitor your environment. Start by understanding your requirements. Besides uptime, what do your employees and clients expect from your IP-based voice applications? What does voice quality mean? What is the recovery time objective in the event of an outage? Once you have identified your requirements, map them to the service level agreement (SLA) or service metrics that define these requirements. Once that mapping is complete, survey the tools offered by your primary IP Communications vendor, as well as third-party providers. These tools will prove critical in implementing your support strategy. Finally, define service management processes within your organization. These processes define the roles and responsibilities required to measure, analyze and react to management data as it is presented.

Turning IP Telephony into IP Communications

Once youve deployed the infrastructure required to replace your TDM phone system with IP Communications, you are ready transform the way your organization communicates with your clients, your partners, and your colleagues. IP and IP-based applications enable one-to-one, one-to-many, and many-to-many communications in a multimodal fashion. Beyond voice, an IP-enabled network removes the physical and geographic limitations of TDM and affords many new forms of communication. Some examples include:

Unified Messaging

Next Generation Contact Centers

Presence/IM

Rich Media Conferencing

Unified Messaging
Unified Messaging is the capability to integrate your Voice and Electronic Mail into a single message store for retrieval and management. While available on a limited basis in the TDM world, Unified Messaging has become the most common application deployed as part of the transition to IP Communications. In the Unified Messaging environment, a voicemail is simply another object in the message store. It can be retrieved, forwarded, deleted, modified, saved, backed-up, and restored in the same manner that any mail object would be handled. Using IP as a transport, end users no longer need to call in for messages. Voicemail can be presented as an attachment to an e-mail available from PC or PDA with access to the enterprise mail environment. Some UM solutions provide additional services, such as text to speech engines, which allow for e-mails to be read to a user over an IP or PSTN voice call.

Next Generation Contact Centers
Contact center technologies, including Automated Call Distribution (ACD), Integrated Voice Recognition (IVR), and Voice Response Units (VRU), are critical for business operations today. They create access points for clients to be serviced and reduce the friction that can come with client service communications. They also have tremendous value in providing historical data as to how an enterprise communicates with its clients and how well it manages customer service representatives. These technologies have been available in a TDM world for some time. However, they have typically been stove-pipe solutions with little or no integration with the rest of the enterprise communications environment. They are further hampered by limited capabilities to integrate with other enterprise applications such as customer relationship management (CRM) or enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems. Again, by breaking the rigid physical, geographic, and proprietary limitations of TDM, IP Communications has opened up new avenues to improve client service and organizational efficiencies with next generation contact centers.

With IP Communications, voice becomes an application that can be integrated with most any enterprise application. This produces more and smoother avenues (click to chat, click for call back, short message service (SMS), Web cam/video) for your clients to communicate with you as well as significantly improving the quality of the client experience by putting vast amounts of enterprise data at the fingertips of your service agents.

Finally, significant cost savings can be achieved. By eliminating stovepipe TDM systems, you have lower operational and maintenance costs. The dynamic nature of IP allows for more efficient use of the existing communications network, which lowers telecommunications costs. Agent physical location becomes almost irrelevant so smaller pools of agents spread out geographically (onshore versus offshore) to support more client interaction. Integration of presence technologies allows for more efficient use of agent resources. Integration with enterprise data allows for shorter call times and faster wrap-up, again shaving agent costs. Finally, a consistently high-quality client experience will reduce client churn, dramatically reducing client acquisition costs.

Presence and Instant Messaging
The integration of voice, video, and data over IP has significantly streamlined communications and provided multiple channels for exchange. That said, communication still is not entirely synchronous. E-mail and voicemail, in particular, tend to be non-real-time exchanges. The advent of Instant Messaging brings with it the concept of Presence. Presence allows an individual to advertise his or her availability to communicate and which communication modes are available and/or preferred. Today, all of the major IP Communications vendors are driving the capability of presence into their solutions. The most common emerging standard seems is based on the IETF draft standard SIP for Instant Messaging and Presence Leveraging Extensions (SIMPLE). As vendors continue to ship next-generation products, expect SIMPLE-based Presence technology to be a major feature of their end point solution sets.

Rich Media Conferencing
Integration of voice, video, Web, and enterprise data is the ultimate goal of a converged network. Once we have built the infrastructure to support IP-based communication, we can begin to integrate previously stovepiped audio, video, and Web-based data applications into a common user experience. By providing a means for both scheduled and ad hoc conferences where users can share information in a multimodal fashion, we can boost productivity, speed up business processes, provide higher quality educational experiences, and improve client interaction.

This means more than simply reducing travel costs and sharing documents. By leveraging our IP network, we can provide for real-time communications and collaboration between multiple parties, regardless of geographical location. Teams share ideas and data in a virtual conference center where documents can be shared and mutually edited. A virtual white board can create a knowledge sharing environment for all attendees. Instant Messaging technology allows for off-line, person-to-person exchange. Integration of IP-based video makes the communication as close to an in-person experience as possible.

The Promise of IP Communications
Its not just about cheaper phone calls its about transforming the communications experience. IP Communications means eliminating the redundant, stovepipe approach of separate voice and data networks.

IP Communications enables customers to invest and grow in the part of the network they plan to keep (IP), not the part they plan to phase out (TDM). By consolidating call control, distributed gateways, and new management and support on a next-generation IP network, we can build a robust platform for advanced communication and collaboration.

Applications like Unified Messaging, Contact Centers, Presence IM, and rich-media capabilities are key cost savings and productivity enablers for converged IP networks. Add these applications to give your employees and clients the true benefit of IP Communications. Make it more than just a phone. IT

David Hart (dave@netinfosys.com) is the Chief Technology Officer of Networked Information Systems, a Value Added Solutions Partner focused on IT infrastructure solutions including Networking, IP Communications, Systems, and Storage. Find out more about NIS at www.netinfosys.com.

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