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December 03, 2007

Sphere Communications: 2008 the Year for 'Service Oriented Communications'

By Mae Kowalke, TMCnet Senior Editor

With the final days of 2007 fast approaching, many in the telecommunications industry are looking ahead to a new year and all the developments it might hold. And whenever predictions take shape, it’s a sure thing that industry-specific acronyms can’t be far behind.
For example, during a recent conversation with TMCnet, Todd Landry, Senior Vice President at Sphere Communications (News - Alert), said he thinks 2008 will be the year for what he called “Service Oriented Communications” (SOC)—the next evolutionary step when you combine unified communications (UC) and Service Oriented Architecture (SOA).
Landry defined SOC as what happens “when you take all the methods and capabilities available to people in business for communicating with one another, build a system that enables them to use those tools, then open up those capabilities for integration in a Service Oriented Architecture.”
To fully understand what Landry is saying requires coming up with relatively straightforward definitions for SOA and UC.
Landry defined SOA as “a framework and an approach for business systems within enterprises to share and reuse their services among one another.”
He stressed that SOA is not a protocol, but rather as he stated in his definition a framework or approach to building communications and information systems. The approach involves two types of entities—producers and consumers. A consumer might be a human resources system that needs information from a resource planning system. The resource planning system is the producer.
While SOA can be defined in a variety of ways, given its inherent complexity, Landry said most definitions overlap when it comes to a particular key point.
“The consistency among definitions for SOA is about different software entities interacting with one another,” he told TMCnet.
Okay, so we’ve defined SOA. What about UC?
“A broad way to think about unifying communications is unifying the business, which means bringing communications capabilities into all aspects of business processes,” Landry said.
Like SOA, UC has many possible definitions, with a significant amount of overlap between them. Again, it is at the intersections where the clearest picture emerges. The common thread among definitions for UC, Landry said, lies in the concept of unifying messaging, voice and video into a single system.
So, let’s see if we can pull SOA and UC together to create SOC. Landry explained that by Service Oriented Communications, he means a system in which a variety of disparate systems (presence, voicemail, messaging, IP-PBX) are combined into a single UC system that is “opened up” for use within a broader SOA.

The concept behind SOC, really, is that communications tools (like voice calling and text messaging) should be easy to use and thus should integrate seamlessly with other types of business systems (like customer records databases and billing applications). When this happens, information and communications capabilities alike become reusable—accessible in a variety of ways from a variety of applications, eliminating redundancies and therefore increasing efficiency.
SOC in 2008
So, why does Landry think SOC will really take off in 2008? He based his prediction on a variety of factors, including how back-office budgets at enterprises look these days and how businesses are using UC.
First, Landry said that a look at back-office budgets shows enterprises are focusing their IT investments on software-based technologies rather than hardware. The cost of these software products is increasingly being justified by how well they will help the business optimize its operations for greater productivity and agility.
The software enterprises are buying, Landry said, tend more and more to be service-oriented, providing the chief information officer (CIO) at a company the flexibility to integrate the product with SOA initiatives.
Another trend Landry sees is UC capabilities beginning to converge with back-office applications. Studying telecom forecasts provides only part of the picture; to really predict what will happen during 2008, one also needs to look at what software CIOs are spending enterprise money on—inclusive of business performance management (BPM) and SOA components like enterprise resource planning (ERP) and customer relationship management (CRM). Taking a peek into the back office paints a somewhat different picture than telecom forecasts alone.
Using UC to Create SOC
Landry also said it is important to take a look at how businesses are using UC and why. Today, UC is often viewed as a way to gain increased productivity. As the possibility for increased productivity is examined by enterprises, many are heading down the path to SOC by thinking about how UC capabilities can be incorporated into business systems and processes generally thought of more as serving informational rather than communications functions.
As this process continues, Landry predicted that more vertically-oriented solutions will enter the market, and that IP phones will increase in value as these devices become useful for more than just placing phone calls.
“We’re going to see an era where the phone becomes more of an appliance that offers business functions,” Landry predicted.  
What type of business functions? Landry thinks they might include things like time-card and employee mapping and inventory checking.
“We'll still call it a phone, no differently than most mobile businesspeople call what they carry on their belt a phone—yet they use it more for e-mail than phone calls,” Landry said. “We use mobile phones for e-mail, Web, directions, checking maps, text messaging and we happen to make phone calls on them, too. We’ll see a similar shift with desktop phones.”
Unifying the Enterprise
Underlying all the systems unification inherent with UC, SOA and now SOC, is an even broader change within enterprises. This change has to do with the way telecom and IT systems are managed.
Landry pointed out that, historically, telecom within the enterprise was its own siloed department, run by specialists who handled proprietary systems that didn’t touch the back office at all. Two changes have taken place in recent years relating to telecom. First, IP-based technology enabled telecom to become part of data networks. Second, software and SOC-type technology enabled telecom to be moved into the data center.
What happened when IT personnel at enterprises began looking at telecom in the data center? They realized that the software-based telecom platforms look and act a lot like other business applications. This opens up a lot of questions about what else these applications can be used for besides just “communications.”
“Historically, the data center and business applications people in an enterprise were never really exposed to the telecom system,” Landry told TMCnet. “The telecom system was a proprietary system that allowed phone calls. Today it's becoming a business application in the data center.”
Landry added: “There’s no longer any reason why a business needs to deploy specialized hardware other than IP phones to enable reliable communications. That's a significant shift for the telecom industry.”
New Applications
As the evolution toward SOC marches on, Landry said he expects entirely new types of applications will be created for, and adopted within, enterprises. Many of these will include voice or video elements.
For vendors, these changes will necessitate creating solutions that go far beyond the basics to address specific needs within the enterprise—even as those needs change in response to more powerful, more accessible technologies.
Landry called such solutions “enhanced business applications,’ and said they will address a wide range of enterprise needs, from inventory to security. For example, a company could attach RFID tags to expensive items in the office (e.g. computer equipment), which would trigger an alert call to security if one of the items was moved.
Another possible application Landry presented was the idea of using video conferencing as a front-door security measure. A video monitor could be installed at the front door of an office, and another at the desk of an executive. When a visitor arrives at the door, he or she can use the screen to first look up the name of the person being visited, then “buzz” that person at his/her desk, initiating a video call. This type of application has both efficiency and security benefits.
Video for Verticals
To get a better sense of the ways SOC will be used, Landry said, it is necessary to examine the specific needs of companies in particular vertical industries. For example, universities are often challenged to optimize interactions between students and teachers. In situations where face-to-face classroom interactions aren’t possible, technology is helping to keep the connections open.
The concepts and technologies behind SOC, Landry said, will help universities improve upon tools like Blackboard to enable more meaningful student-teacher interactions. An example would be a system that allows a teacher to host a one-hour study session on a particular subject for students who need assistance after-hours. Such sessions would make use of voice, video and other tools.
Here again is the concept of integration, and also the idea of using video chat in new ways. Video, Landry said, has the potential to provide subtle but powerful improvements to long-distance communication.
“When you talk to someone in the hallway and ask them about the issue you can see their facial expression tell you something isn't right,” Landry said. “You don't get that over the phone. With videoconferencing, you get on the phone with someone and can see his or her facial expressions. It's that subtlety that often we miss.”
Resellers Readjusting
All of the changes discussed here, of course, will affect not only solution makers and enterprises, but resellers as well. As has always been the case, Landry said, resellers will find they need to continue growing their knowledgebase as they add new capabilities to their portfolios.
Successful vendor-reseller relationships, Landry predicted, will be based in part on how easy-to-use the tools provided to the reseller are. Also, how well vendors show resellers new ways to utilize open capabilities so they can be more responsive to customers.
Differentiation, of course, is a big deal for resellers. Selling SOC solutions, Landry said, will provide more differentiation—and in that it differs from selling PBXs which for the most part come with set features that can’t be altered. In the PBX (News - Alert) market, successful competition is usually based on customer service and price. The SOC market presents a different set of opportunities.
“With SOC, we're building the tools in a more Web-centric way and it's more simplified,” Landry explained. “Your average Web programmer now has the ability to build customer-centric applications for you as a reseller and you can differentiate in entirely new ways.”

Want to learn more about the topic covered in this article? Check out TMCnet’s White Paper Library, a collection of in-depth information on relevant topics affecting the IP communications industry. This information is free to registered users.

Mae Kowalke is an associate editor for TMCnet, covering VoIP, CRM, call center and wireless technologies. She also blogs for TMCnet here.

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