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Feature Article
June 2000


Online Exclusive Open Systems Make Managing Convergence Easier


Go directly to an Alliance Systems/Centriq case study

Today's proprietary telecommunication equipment offers many appealing features, but also presents some unwanted limitations, especially in dealing with network convergence. With proprietary systems, customers are forced to rely on the original vendor for changes and enhancements. Unlike the data and PC world, third-party vendors cannot work on most telecommunication equipment. This traditional communication architecture often inhibits convergence because it requires two separate networks, one for voice and another for data. In an office scenario, this requires running two sets of wires to each desktop, one for the telephone and the other for the PC. It also requires that system administrators install and manage two separate networks and user databases.

In addition, most of the legacy enterprise communication environments currently include peripheral systems such as voice mail servers, fax servers, and voice response units integrated with the PBX. This requires multiple boxes often provided by multiple vendors. The result of separate PBXs, ACDs, IVRs, and voice mail systems integrated together is the chance for multiplied performance, administrative, and support headaches.

As the telecommunications industry continues to undergo unprecedented growth and evolution, expectations are that in the next few years, the existing communication infrastructure of closed, proprietary hardware and software solutions will be replaced with open, standards-based solutions. Adopting open standards will allow greater interoperability, drives costs down, and provides a robust development environment for third-party software developers. In many important ways, the movement towards open technology also streamlines the administration and management of voice, IP, and wireless network convergence.

Separate Voice And Data Network Architectures

Diagram courtesy of Interactive Intelligence

The development and adoption of open, standards-based systems could do for converging networks and the telecommunications infrastructure market what it did for the computer market. In the computer data world, open technology resulted in increased speed and power for processors, dramatically lower system prices, and greater interoperability. Software packages and reseller channels developed by tens of thousands. With open systems, customers are not locked into one vendor, nor do they struggle with the integration issues associated with deploying multi-application, multi-vendor solutions.

Today's open communication systems provide a completely flexible, single box solution for multiple networks and applications such as voice mail, auto attendant, IVR, and even advanced functions such as IP-based communications. Communications servers based on open hardware enable customers to choose best-of-breed third-party software applications to perform virtually any voice, data, or Internet communication functions.

Rather than installing and operating separate networks, open systems enable voice and data traffic to share the same network. Not only do open systems help facilitate functional convergence, but customers are freed from exclusive ties to their initial vendor for upgrades or expansion. Plus, open systems enable companies to take immediate advantage of voice and data integration trends.

Open Communications Server Network Architecture

Diagram courtesy of Interactive Intelligence

We can list at least six major factors that are driving open telecommunications.

Convergence: The PC quickly became the first convergent point for computers and communications equipment. Since the PC is also the primary platform for day-to-day data management, the convergence of information and communications is now more prevalent than ever. As the Internet movement further accelerates the convergence of voice, data, and video, including videoconferencing, Internet telephony and multimedia development over the Web is growing at exponential rates.

Lower System Costs: In most cases, the initial investment to deploy an open telecommunication system is comparable to that of a traditional PBX or ACD, but long-term savings for open systems can be significant. Since traditional ACDs and PBXs have long product life cycles, buyers cannot readily take advantage of advances in technology and are not able to benefit from future price/performance improvements. However, since open systems come equipped with much more functionality and flexibility for expansion, they provide more capability per dollar. This declining price curve, coupled with rising competition, should drive the cost of ownership of open telecommunications systems far below traditional systems.

Toll Bypass On VoIP Networks: Open systems can be used to establish voice over IP gateway networks through the Internet or corporate intranets to reduce or eliminate toll charges for long distance calls. By using open, standards-based voice over IP gateways, companies with branch offices or international operations can save significantly by maximizing bandwidth usage over existing leased data lines.

Reduced Administration With Converged Networks: With open systems, administrative costs are reduced because of greater flexibility and easier interoperability with other equipment and software. With traditional PBXs, something as simple as moving a phone or adding/removing a line can require the vendor to send someone on site. Open systems can also merge voice and data onto a single network, unlike traditional PBXs that require separate voice and data networks.

New Market Opportunity: Open telecommunications represents a large untapped market that offers significant growth potential for data and computer technology companies that have traditionally been outside the telecommunications industries. Tech giants such as 3Com, Cisco Systems, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, and Intel have their sights set on the telecommunications opportunity and intend to use their commodity computing models to expand rapidly into this market segment. Most analysts believe that these major data vendors will drive the adoption of open telecommunications standards at the expense of traditional proprietary telecommunications equipment vendors. Smaller computer telephony companies that have long embraced the open, standards-based solutions concept are in full support of the data vendors entering the telecommunications marketplace, and in many instances are forming beneficial strategic relationships with them.

Improved Bandwidth Utilization From Converged Networks: Voice calls over the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) are allocated 64 Kbps of bandwidth. Approximately 50 percent of all conversations contain significant intervals of silence both in the gaps between words and the time between one person talking and another responding. This results in a large waste of the allocated bandwidth. In addition, each conversation is allocated a dedicated circuit for the entire length of the call. With the growing popularity of the Internet, people are dialing up and remaining logged on for prolonged periods of time -- even when they're not actively using their connection -- thereby making circuits unavailable for other calls. With IP-PBXs, voice travels over the existing data network using the excess bandwidth that is paid for but not used. For those systems that offer gateway capabilities, voice calls can be extended to external locations by transporting them over the Internet or over a managed IP network.

Open communications systems can provide network integration by including multi-purpose functionality within the same open switching platform.

PC-PBX: Provides call control and processing functionality within a standard PC chassis. In its most basic form, the traditional proprietary PBX box is replaced with a PC chassis delivering PBX functions running on a standard operating system such as Windows NT or Unix. Desktop phones are generic analog 2500 station sets connected via traditional Category 1 or 3 telephony wiring. Besides the wiring for the phone, there is a separate wire for the desktop PC.

IP-PBX: Any IP telephony-based device that can be connected to a LAN or intranet that provides basic PBX functionality. All IP-PBXs use IP as the protocol to deliver voice, but they may or may not deliver the voice to the desktop over the network via IP phones.

PC-ACD: Provides automatic call distribution and management reporting capabilities within a PC server by using standard operating system software and third-party or proprietary DSP resource boards. Like the PC-PBX, the PC-ACD replaces a traditional proprietary "box" while the associated infrastructure remains unchanged, thus making its operation transparent to the call center agent. These open systems continue to work with existing equipment such as telephones, IVR units, predictive dialers, and CTI middleware.

IP-ACD: Similar to the PC-ACD, IP-ACDs are built on standard PC servers and open software environments. However, rather than utilizing the PSTN, voice traffic is delivered over an IP network. This allows the call center to operate in a multimedia environment with Web-based callers, but also presents the challenges associated with VoIP. Desktop communications are conducted with either a multimedia PC or a proprietary Ethernet phone. Like the distributed IP-PBX, if the network fails, voice communications will be lost. Unlike the PC-ACD, IP-ACDs are not limited to just voice interactions. Because of the IP transport call center, agents can conduct voice, e-mail, video, and text chat customer interactions.

Open telecommunications solutions are particularly attractive for managing network convergence for two market segments: enterprises and alternative or ISP Centrex applications. In both markets, customers are faced with expensive, difficult-to-manage telecommunication alternatives that do little to help integrate voice and data management.

Open systems not only help streamline convergence into one network, but they give customers greater flexibility for upgrades and system expansion whenever needed. The net result is lower initial installation costs, better use of bandwidth, decreased administrative costs, and the elimination of multiple vendors.

Jonathan Shapiro is chief executive officer of Alliance Systems. Since founding Alliance Systems in 1992, Shapiro and his company have focused solely on standards-based, open systems for voice, data and other telephony uses. Alliance Systems open switching platforms run more open communications applications from more software vendors installed in more locations by more Value Added Resellers than any other company. As a result of its years of open systems leadership, Alliance Systems is one of the pivotal companies building the open infrastructure that enables converged networks and services in this new era of communications.

Alliance Helps Centriq Unleash The Power Of Open Systems

Centriq is a systems integrator and consulting firm that specializes in e-commerce and Customer Relationship Management (CRM) call centers. Most Centriq customers are growing rapidly, have a high volume of communications transactions, and require immediate access to mission-critical information across multiple networks.

An E-Commerce Provider Faces Growing Pains
One such Centriq customer is an e-commerce provider (we'll call the company ECP) that conducts e-business campaigns for enterprises. ECP must provide customers with Web-centric CRM campaigns with customized front-ends. For all its customers, this ASP converges voice and data networks over the Internet. For some customers, intranets, LANs, and WANs are also integrated.

Less than two years ago, ECP bought a proprietary PBX and voice mail system, expecting the new equipment to accommodate its future planned expansion and services. Within a year of purchase (and with growth far exceeding expectations), ECP faced expansion to a second building. They realized they couldn't continue to manage and expand their business on inflexible, proprietary equipment.

Partnering For A Flexible, Expandable System
Centriq recognized its customer's need for a total communications solution that converges all networks and methods of communications into one scalable, flexible, and reliable solution. So Centriq teamed with Alliance Systems and Interactive Intelligence for a powerful, all-in-one, open communications system.

"To meet the needs of fast-growth, e-commerce companies, we're challenged to deliver the most advanced communications capabilities available in totally reliable systems," said Mike Peek of Centriq.

"Teaming with best-of-class, open systems leaders Alliance Systems and Interactive Intelligence, we are managing converging networks and complex applications in open systems that are also very simple for people to use," Peek added. "If people can operate a mouse, they can learn to use our systems in a matter of hours," he concluded.

And The Solution Is...
The solution devised by Centriq includes an Alliance open switching platform handling a 265-user, e-business call center spanning three separate buildings. All trunks come into the software-based, open switch where all call processing takes place. Two T1s provide long-distance; two ISDN spans are for local trunks. A fiber backbone runs off the open platform and uses multiplexers to enable full functionality in remote buildings.

Centriq also integrated ECP's legacy Web server, SQL server, and MS Exchange e-mail platform with the Alliance open switching platform. Centriq selected Interactive Intelligence to provide unified messaging and call management through its all-in-one communications application, Enterprise Interaction Center.

As a result of choosing a standards-based, open architecture communications system, ECP manages voice and data networks, as well as Internet and intranet access, on its open switching platform. Mission-critical data from all networks is accessible to all users. ECP utilizes and provides total CRM to its customers, including unified messaging, automatic call distribution, and interactive voice response, as well as conference bridges and a fax server.

New services and networks such as wireless Internet can be easily added in the future. With the flexibility and scalability offered by its advanced open systems, ECP can also accommodate additional growth -- even into additional remote buildings -- by continuing to build upon its robust and reliable open systems platform.

With its mandate of delivering 24x7 mission critical communications, Centriq's customer could not allow any downtime for bringing a new system online. "Our plan was to operate an alternative communications system in Centriq's headquarters over a weekend, allowing us to divert all communications traffic for about three days while bringing up the new open system," Peek explained.

"As a result of flawless functionality, integration, installation, and support, we finished 36 hours ahead of time," Peek noted. "Months later, our customer continues to enjoy total reliability from their open communications system."

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