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Feature Article
June 2003

SIP Application Server: Enabling A "Hit" Strategy For Rapid Service Creation


Here�s something you may never have considered: Launching new IP applications in the telecom network industry is like launching new sit-coms in the broadcast network industry. With sit-coms, you never know what�s going to be the next big hit. You invest in building an entire production studio environment with the hope that at least one of your shows will become a big success -- but you don�t overspend up front in case the prime time lineup is only mildly successful. The same holds true for the telecom industry, and this is why next-generation networks have not progressed as fast as we all expected them to at this point.

Building a next-generation network (NGN) that blends telephony, video, data, and real-time Web services is a costly undertaking, and service providers know no big hit -- or, in this case, no monumental �killer app�-- has yet emerged that will justify the up-front and ongoing deployment costs of NGN. Not IP Centrex. Not video. And, not PC instant messaging. Today, service providers are not yet convinced that they can achieve a compelling return on their investment by deploying an NGN in the same way they deployed the PSTN.

The reality is that they might never get that one big hit -- the colossal killer app. Instead, NGN may grow and evolve over time through the continuous identification and deployment of both mass market and niche applications, to both consumers and businesses, on both wireline and wireless access networks, to a wide array of end devices. Just like TV sit-coms, popular new services will come and go. Some will last longer than others, some will be more successful than others, some will re-use parts of existing hits (think Aaron Spelling), some won�t, and it will always be difficult to predict what the next �hit� will be.

New applications and services will generate incremental revenue streams for service providers, but the revenues will grow unpredictably over time -- meaning that service providers must invest in a service architecture that allows them to maximize their rate of return.

Investing correctly first means embracing the IP. We all know the reasons why. IP-based networks are better suited for the data-centric traffic that now dominates both public and private networks, unlike circuit-switched, TDM networks that are inherently inefficient for today�s packet-based traffic demands. Research and development has all but halted on traditional Class 5 switches. The future is definitely IP.

Investing correctly also means buying into SIP, which has gained increasing momentum and support in recent years. A signaling protocol used for establishing sessions in an IP network, SIP has caught the attention of key players. Microsoft has incorporated the SIP signaling protocol into its Windows XP software, meaning that SIP is enabling real-time communications in most personal computers.

SIP has gained ground in other areas as well. Just a few years ago, the Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), a group formed to promote 3G wireless standards, released its plans for a 3G architecture that includes SIP. SIP is therefore destined to act as the foundation of real-time communications sessions for 3G users.

Meanwhile, SIP is increasingly becoming available within the enterprise via the use of SIP-enabled IP PBXs, a growing market expected to reach $2.2 billion this year with a growth rate of 66 percent, according to the research firm IDC.

These are just a few examples of the gaining acceptance of SIP, and analysts project that hundreds of millions of SIP-capable end devices will exist by later this decade. SIP is poised to gradually replace today�s Advanced Intelligent Networks for service creation and SS7 for signaling -- two technologies that have anchored the centralized public switched telephone network (PSTN) for years.

In gambling, the secret may be in knowing what to throw away and knowing what to keep. But a telecom player�s best bet is to keep -- and reuse -- resources as much as possible. Let�s go back to the sit-com analogy. Imagine if every sit-com required its own dedicated, single-use writers, producers, sets, camera crews, lighting infrastructure, post-production house, etc. You couldn�t use any of these network resources across the current broadcast line up or for any future production you may dream up. In order to justify such enormous up-front investments, each proposed sitcom would require huge audiences to make money for the network. And when a sitcom was no longer popular and the network was ready to pull the plug, all of those resources would go to waste. The reality is that, as we all know, television networks reuse resources across their lineup, this maximizing return on investment (ROI).

Fast forward back to telecom. Smart NGN investments are those that allow telecom network operators to share and reuse resources across the network (and among IP services) and thus maximize ROI. Fortunately, a new class of products has emerged to enable telecom operators to do just that: the open standards-based SIP Application Server.

SIP Application Servers are finally bringing the distributed, open application development Internet model to telecom -- one that maximizes the ability to reuse components from one service offering to another using open, published APIs. Migrating Internet development practices to the telecom industry means building an open standards-based environment that enables service providers and applications developers to create and rapidly deploy different SIP-based applications across NGN architectures.

By extending Internet-style development protocols and practices to real-time communications such as voice and video, SIP Application Servers deliver three key benefits to service providers:

Much Faster Application Development
Unlike the traditional service creation environment in the PSTN, where new services such as caller ID and Centrex took countless years to develop and roll out, a carrier-class Application Server environment enables applications to be developed and launched within weeks -- thus enabling quicker revenue generation.

This is through the use of the standard Java-based SIP Servlet �container� architecture -- analogous to the HTTP Servlet architecture prevalent in the Web services world -- as opposed to the legacy �silo� architecture found in today�s stove-piped PSTN applications.

A SIP Servlet architecture enables new capabilities such as video support to be easily added simply by adding a new �Servlet� to the container. Because these �Servlets� are based on open, standard Java-based application programming interfaces (APIs), service providers can easily add new capabilities and create new applications themselves -- unlike in the PSTN world, where the use of proprietary interfaces meant that service providers in most cases had to rely on their network hardware vendors to add new service capabilities to their products. SIP Application Servers finally separate software-based IP services from network-based hardware resources, thus giving more flexibility and control to the service provider.

Thanks to the emergence of SIP Application Servers, the telecom world is gradually moving to a �drag and drop� application development environment -- an environment that is already prevalent in the world of e-commerce and the Internet. This allows telecom carriers to easily and quickly offer the latest �hot� application, even if supporting that application requires adding new functionality in the network.

Relying on Servlet standards also leverages the existing skill set of the millions of Java developers currently writing Java-based Web applications today, thus reducing the learning curve and the design cycle for applications that can be written on a SIP Application Server.

Reduced Cost
Relying on standards isn�t the only thing that enables faster application development. Reusing resources also leads to faster development time. However, even more importantly, reusing resources results in lower costs -- and thus a faster ROI for service providers.

Without a SIP Application Server that enables reusable components, service providers must rely on the �silo�-based approach to telecom, whereby each service offering is a proprietary silo unto itself. Using this approach, applications development is not based on open standards, and applications cannot talk to one another, thus making them more rigid and less efficient.

In addition, deployment of applications in the stovepipe world means that service providers may have to test, qualify, and deploy duplicated network elements for each service they wish to offer. For example, just to offer Web, video, and audio conferencing services from different best-of-breed vendors, service providers would need to deploy three different media servers, three different instant messaging servers, three different presence servers and three different registration databases. The likely result: It costs the service provider three times as much to deploy and operate the same set of applications as it would if these services sat on a SIP Application Server and communicated via open APIs.

On the development side, the ability to reuse resources means that developers can reuse codes and features across many applications, thus increasing efficiencies and reducing costs. The same registration user database and click-to-dial capabilities can be used for both a hosted conferencing service as well as an IP Centrex application. The same Presence Management server can be used to support both simple instant messaging applications as well as more complex, premium-priced multimedia messaging services.

Increased End Customer-Friendliness
The ability to reuse resources also benefits another key player in the telecom industry as well: the customer. By reusing resources, service providers can more easily market a host of varied yet complementary services and applications to their customers using a consistent user interface and provide a single face to the customer. This makes it easier for customers to embrace new service offerings and improves customer satisfaction and retention.

Although it has been slow so far, the migration to IP-based next-generation networks that incorporate SIP is inevitable. Service providers know that they must deploy NGN resources such as gateways, routers, presence, and media servers in order to successfully compete for customers in the future. By maximizing the use of NGN resources, SIP Application Servers give service providers an edge by enabling them to hedge their bets and profitably offer many new applications -- some of which may be the next big �hits.�

Jeff Liebl is vice president, worldwide marketing and product management at Ubiquity Software Corporation. Ubiquity provides software platforms for the delivery of converged communications services in both fixed and mobile networks. Bringing together the worlds of telecoms and web services, the company�s mission is to harness the power of IP protocols, such as SIP, and broker the inter-working of multiple protocols and resources to simplify application creation and delivery.

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