Opening the Door to Open Source
By Brendan B. Read
Senior Contributing Editor, Customer Interaction Solutions
Open source software, which is written with source code that is widely available with little or no proprietary copyrights, is now entering contact centers and for several good reasons. These chief ones include lower (up to 40 percent) pricepoints, ease of customization, many new solutions, and the coming of age of these applications to endure demanding communications environments.
Open source delivers these benefits because there are no licensing costs as there is with proprietary software and it has spawned a large and growing community of developers who believe in the concept. Open, though, does not necessarily mean ‘free’. While there is open-source-written freeware available directly via the Web, most applications that can meet the demanding needs of contact centers are packaged, hosted/delivered and supported by suppliers for fees. Those vendors typically offer a mix of core paid and free features.
There is as a result a gradually widening array of contact center-suitable solutions and customizations written in or based on open source. They include ACDs, business intelligence, call recording, CRM, and message handling. They also support more applications and provide more functionality. For example OrecX, which makes open-source-based call recording solutions, has upgraded its Oreka TR product to support speech analytics, thereby increasing the ability of contact centers to process call data and uncover hidden value.
The cost savings from these solutions are not insignificant. OrecX says its tools are available for fraction of the cost of proprietary recording applications that often run $1,000-$4,000 per user.
Observers say that it will be awhile before open source catches up with proprietary software in the ability to power heavy-duty applications such as robust ACD, IVR, predictive dialing, speech recognition, and workforce management. Yet the trend is pointing in that direction. The suppliers that are basing their products on open source have developed business models that will enable them to create, market, and support their wares without the profit protections of copyright. At the same time, tech-savvy firms can customize and create their own contact center applications with open source via the community if there is not an out-of-the-box solution readily available.
“At the heart of open source is a large community of people who believe in cooperating to solve problems with software technology,” says Natalie Petouhoff, senior analyst Forrester Research. “Because open source is not costing the enterprise any or very little, contact centers and their IT departments can develop applications for and with the open source community to give the functionality they are looking for. There is therefore less need to buy proprietary solutions.”
Open source customer benefits and challenges for contact centers
Open source software has several key customer-interaction-supporting benefits. The lower development costs enable creation of personalized messaging and customized customer service workflows, says Martin Schneider, Director, Product Marketing, SugarCRM. These applications enable firms to differentiate themselves on service, not always on price, by providing customers with value-rich experiences.
In contrast, customizing the environments in the older proprietary models is very expensive and time consuming, he points out. Firms must talk with vendor partners, systems integrators, and consultants about what they want and what the solutions can deliver. Once there is agreement there is development and testing. None of these comes cheap: firms are charged for integration work while additional licenses may be needed for new modules.
“In today’s highly competitive and economically difficult marketplace you can’t afford to have your competitors beat you to the market with new products and services or deliver truly amazing customer experiences,” Schneider points out. “With open source you can get at it the tools, run and test development environments quickly, and get the applications live ASAP at very little cost.”
The less expensive development environments have permitted suppliers to more easily create new and enhance their existing solutions. Szeto Technologies’ Call Linx call routing and message handling solution is built on the Linux operating system. The firm also uses Linux-based free application software such as Postgresql to manage the database, which it found rivals and outperforms commercially available counterparts.
Open source can make a substantial difference in product versatility. Schneider says that the purely open integration framework and interface in Sugar CRM 5.2, which taps business and social sites, enables users to easily bring in multiple data sources into their CRM systems.
“Also, with open APIs (application programming interfaces), it is easier to link SugarCRM to any data feed or source, since there is no proprietary code that must be learned prior to performing a data synch between Sugar and say a data provider like Hoover’s or Facebook, “adds Schneider.
Forrester’s Petouhoff adds that open source solutions enables contact centers easily and quickly keep their applications in step with changing needs, as opposed to buying proprietary tools that require lengthy approvals from senior management. For example it sometimes takes three years: from needs assessment to going fully live for contact centers to get the functionality they need from CRM applications.
Open source software also provides built-in buyer protection. If the firm that wrote an application with open code discontinued that version or went out of business, developers can more easily create tools to continue supporting and expanding on it than if it were written to proprietary code.
“In contrast with open source you have a large community of developers to keep your applications going and growing,” says Petouhoff.
The combination of features and affordability with open source-based solutions now enables many especially smaller contact centers to justify leading edge customer-service enhancing functionality such as skills-based routing and unified communications (UC), and CRM. In many cases they provide far superior features compared with proprietary technologies.
Fonality, which makes open-sourced-based PBX and UC solutions, now offers the Unified Agent Edition (UAE) which provides the ability to directly link voice into CRM applications at a fraction of the cost of custom integrations. UAE is integrated with Salesforce.com, but may be partnered with other CRM offerings in the future.
Fonality has found a large and growing receptivity to its products amongst contact centers because they can provide an extensive range of features at lower pricepoints.
“Since we launched our PBX/UC solution three years ago we’ve almost created this new market called the ‘micro call centers’: with less than 20 agents,” explains Fonality CEO and Founder Chris Lyman. “We can come with 60 percent of the functionality of a competing proprietary solution for 10 percent of the cost.”
The new Fonality/Salesforce.com release points to one of the cautions with using open source-based applications: a potential lack of out-of-the-box compatibility with other especially legacy solutions that contact centers may have. Yet as these applications become obsolete and are phased out, replaced by more modern software, this will become less of an issue. Newer software is typically written with service-oriented architecture, which permits easier data communications between applications.
“Open sourced applications, if they have not been around as long as their commercial brethren, will typically not have a long tail of backward compatibility features, as they are designed to support standardized, and often more modern, protocols,” explains Lyman.
The relative lack of packaged open source applications as compared with proprietary tools in the contact center space means that if you wants to stay with the open source model you may have to develop or reach out to the development community to create them. Or wait until suppliers build them, which may not be that long: check out TMCnet.com frequently for the latest open source solutions.
“The open source community and firms packaging these solutions will get there in time because more people are realizing that there are amazing opportunities in going to firms that are used to paying $3,000 to $10,000 per agent per year in license fees and say ‘we can cut that by 90 percent’, “explains Schneider.
DIYing your open source solutions may be easier than one may think, and the cost savings may be sufficiently high compared with buying proprietary tools to justify the IT resources.
Schneider is seeing more firms create call recording, CTI screen pops, and quality management applications using open source applications like Sugar to solve specific needs. One SugarCRM partner, Tau Space out of South Africa, is leveraging the open Sugar platform to create various high volume contact center solutions for its customers.
These applications are built from code ‘stacks’. The most popular one for contact centers is LAAMPS, which stands for Linux, Apache, Asterisk, MySQL, PHP, and Sugar CRM. This stack has a free CRM application which gives you knowledge base, management tools, sitting on top of telephony.
“With LAAMPS contact centers do not have to build these core applications themselves,” explains Schneider. “Instead they can add an increasing array of functions that are similar to proprietary tools that companies like Aspect and VerintWitness are putting out there for six-seven figures that they get for a few dollars per month for hosting and support fees.”
Avaya’s Blended Open Source/Proprietary Approach
Open source software provides a substantial and growing amount of low-cost functionality for a wide range of applications. Examples include analytics, business intelligence framework, and content knowledge management.
Yet open source may be a fair ways off before it can match already-developed proprietary software for complex rugged, cannot-fail purposes such as analytics, heavy-volume skills-based routing, IVR, and outbound productivity say many industry observers and practitioners.
“Companies are not yet comfortable in putting the crown jewels: their customers, in the open-source environment,” says Bob Lyons, Vice President and General Manager of Contact Center Solutions, Avaya. “Having said that, open source has come far enough along for less critical but value-rich applications.”
Avaya will be rolling out a series of new and upgraded solutions based on this approach of blended open-source and proprietary software, based in part from using open source software for more than 5 years to develop, prototyping and testing products quickly.
It will be releasing early in 2009 Pentaho's open-sourced based business intelligence analytics for its CMS reporting tool, which it says are ideal for handling low to moderate amounts of data. It will then launch in late 2009 a new version of its Interaction Center product. The solution will be comprised of its core IVR, ACD, and contact management proprietary software surrounded by a constellation of other add-on free-add on features written to open source such as content management.
“We are trying to build an eco-system around our products that leverages open source,” explains Sheldon Davis, Director, Architecture and Engineering, Contact Center Solutions, Avaya. “In this fashion we can give some software away that works well with our products. This lets the open source community pull through our core products by supporting each other in the use of these free technologies that integrate well with them.”
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