January 2010 | Volume 28 / Number 8
Call Center Technology
Short Message Service (SMS)
Open Mind Open Source
Open source is different from other software in that the core code is generally free and that it has a community of developers and users that works with it to create new applications and solve problems. Open source software can be completely no-cost and are usually available under general public licenses (GPLs). GPLs are an example of “copyleft” – a licensing scheme which, says Wikipedia, can give every person who receives a copy of a work permission to reproduce, adapt or distribute it: as long as any resulting copies or adaptations are also bound by the same copyleft licensing program. Yet they would require skilled internal or outside resources to turn them into specific proprietary-equivalent applications.
Open source is also available via paid commercial applications that built on it supply added functionality and provide formalized support. Many firms that offer commercial solutions based on open source also make available GPL or “community” editions. For contact centers focused on performance and reliability with little room for experimentation, commercial open source is arguably the best option.
Open source is loosely similar to living in a co-op building where the ownership is different i.e. shares rather than units and there is an active community developing and maintaining the shared product.
And just as co-op ownership is common, proven and accepted in large urban areas like New York City the same goes for open source.
The Linux operating system that is at the heart of many platforms is open source. The Cisco Unified Call Manager/Media Convergence Series 7800 series phone system gives customers the choice of Linux or Windows. Open source code has also been deployed as part of industry-specific applications. The Avaya Dialog Designer, which is an integrated development environment for Avaya Voice Portal and Avaya Interactive Response, is based on the Eclipse.org open source development framework. Dialog Designer offers Web application developers a reusable drag-and-drop environment for speech and video self service application creation.
There is also a widening array of increasingly versatile “direct” commercial open source contact center and enterprise solutions. They provide key functions such as CRM, ERP, IVR, recording and routing/switching, available both on-premise and cloud-delivered.
For example, KnowledgeBlue makes openBLUE, which is an on-demand open source solution that supports functions such as CRM, ERP and Web commerce. It enables accounts payable/accounts receivable, billing, budgeting, multilanguage handling, order entry, partner/vendor management and payroll. It provides an open architecture so that organizations can access their own data, reports and customizations. KnowledgeBlue also offers voiceBLUE, which is an integrated contact center/CRM/contact management solution also available as on-site appliance as well as on-demand.
Even so, contact center managers are right to be a little cautious about open source. Compared with proprietary solutions there are relatively few products and suppliers. They need to determine whether there is a compelling value proposition in open source software compared with proprietary solutions for their particular environments.
Open Source Benefits
In today’s environment, where contact centers are being pulled to boost customer retention and sales and pushed to cut costs, the key benefits with open source are flexibility and scalability argues Martin Schneider, director of product marketing, Sugar CRM.
Open source solutions are better able to integrate with existing platforms than proprietary tools by definition, without costly integration or rip-and-replace that is required with standard applications, he points out. This enables step-by-step improvements, such as routing calls to home agents and to subject matter experts via presence, and boosting call recording and IVR capacity, while keeping existing operations going with minimal strains on budgets.
“With open source you can slowly transform from a traditional hard switch, hardwired older proprietary-software-based contact center operation and phase into a modern and more scalable software and IP-based one cost effectively,” says Schneider. “Using open source will cost you less in the transformation and maintenance than with new proprietary products to achieve the same results.”
Another key reason for going the way of open source is product obsolescence protection. Bankruptcies, mergers and acquisitions and corporate decisions prompt and cause ending software lines and direct support for them. For example Sugar has a large deployment for a client, Convatec which switched to it because its Vantive deployment was no longer being supported; Vantive had been acquired by PeopleSoft, which in turn was purchased by Oracle.
“The product support model is becoming very confusing with the deals,” says Schneider. “The risk for customers is that if or when these any of these products become phased out and there isn’t an open sourced project in any of these plays there is no fallback policy by which customers can continue to have them supported.
“In contrast if they have ours, for example, or in the switching case, a Fonality Asterisk-based open sourced switch, you have risk mitigation because you can get down the software kernel to fix problems or build on the solution. You can also get support from the open source community. The same risk mitigation also extended to hosting firms that buy and use open source solutions.”
The last key value proposition for open source is lowered costs. This is most apparent in free editions though Schneider advises using them only if you have the IT expertise to build and support robust applications. SugarCRM’s Schneider points out that with commercial open source applications like SugarCRM Professional the price savings is marginal compared with competing products. Even with commercial solutions the savings can be enough to take allocations that normally go towards user licenses into customizing the applications, thereby achieving greater productivity.
“Direct cost benefits are the last thing you should be looking for in open source,” Schneider advises. “Instead, the gains are in the increased flexibility that saves huge sums in consulting and integration when installing proprietary solutions. You should take the costs of a proprietary solution and consider it as ‘X’ and then look at open source. The initial kind of cost may be ‘sub-X,’ but you need to think of it as budgeting for ‘X’ because with open source you get that extra room to do some customizations and integrations such as process flow modeling that provides more consistent multichannel service.”
As an illustration of open source speed, flexibility and savings, Bruce Kaskey, co-founder of OrecX, says that anyone anywhere can download the GPL version of his firm’s Oreka TR IP-based recording solution and go live within 30 minutes. If they purchase the commercial version that includes contact center grade voice recording, quality monitoring and screen capture solutions versus proprietary recording tools they can go live in 45 minutes to one hour. In contrast, implementing proprietary solutions takes one to two days.
“Through all the work of our community, we have developed a call center grade voice recording, quality monitoring and screen capture solutions for a fraction of the price of our competition,” says Kaskey. “Since our products’ core code is open source it is agnostic to the operating system, thus we can load it on any server anywhere with no integration hassles or added costs.”
New Open Source Solutions
There are a growing range of open source-enabled enhancements and solutions on the market. Among them
Open Source Concerns
Open source software used to be more problematic than proprietary solutions to install and support. The free products require extensive internal or consulting expertise that – unless it is already available in a firm – risk leading to them ending up costing almost as much as buying and supporting the proprietary-written competition. Commercial open source products have now been developed and have evolved to the point where they are equal to and often have an edge on the non-open sourced offerings.
“With open source, you do have the option if you are stuck on an install or with support to go outside the supplier and integrator to get answers,” Schneider points out. “While you can make changes in proprietary versions (but not always) but the process is longer, requires more technical expertise which usually involves an expensive consulting engagement, thereby driving costs up.”
Another key issue, one that is not so much technical is the limited numbers of open source products especially in the contact center space. For example, there is apparently not as of yet an open source workforce optimization solution.
SugarCRM’s Schneider thinks more open source products like for WFO will come onto the market. Even though the contact center sector is mature it is changing with the shifts to IP from TDM, and toward home and informal agents, which presents opportunities. It is more then sensing opportunity by the right entrepreneur at the right time rather than marketplace pressure. He cites his own firm that entered the CRM space where there were already several prominent players and became successful.
Schneider also points out that while the technical proof case for the viability of open source has been proven, adoption cycles are long. Even so, companies like Sugar are landing thousands of new customers per year; there are millions of businesses that could potentially make the switch to more open solutions. That also includes to using hosting firms that deploy open source software, though given the SaaS model pure code-level access cannot be granted to end users or developers.
“I would argue what we are seeing is a shift in the way all businesses create, distribute and manage software: shifting towards open development and other aspects of open source,” says Schneider. “While open source vendors are not currently dominating the marketplace, it is only a matter of time as we are only about five to 10 years into the history of commercial open source in the application layer.”
The customers have spoken and their words are being echoed by other contact center solutions suppliers that use open source software in their wares indicating a rising degree of marketplace acceptance. Fonality reports that its Asterisk-based PBXtra Unified Agent product which combines phone system, contact center, plus CRM capabilities via an integration with Salesforce.com has been very successful since its announcement in late 2008.
OrecX’s Kaskey point out that there have been over 48,000 downloads of the Oreka TR GPL software; the firm has over 20,000 end users. His customers have achieved success with the open source solution. One of them, Cross Check Communications, saved $292,000 with a cumulative savings of $300,000 over the next four years with the Oreka TR recording system.
He acknowledges, though, that a major challenge for any open source code company is credibility. Proprietary software and hardware firms have developed their brand and customer base over the past two decades, so open source companies are always battling the “who are yous?”
“We respond by allowing customers to try the software for free for 30 days without any type of commitment,” says Kaskey. “This gives our customers confidence and proof that we are who we say we are.”
There are companies that can help firms manage open source applications to ensure they achieve maximum benefits. For example, OpenLogic’s OLEX Enterprise Edition identifies open source alternatives to proprietary software to save money. It integrates open source provisioning, policy enforcement, online approval processes and full tracking and audit trail of open source usage from “cradle to grave” download to distribution.
“As more enterprises increase the use of open source software due to economic conditions prudent enterprises are demanding cradle to grave open source governance,” says Kim Weins, OpenLogic’s senior vice president of products and marketing.
The following companies participated in the preparation of this article: