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April 2007
Volume 10 / Number 4
Feature Articles

Next Steps for Voice over IP:

Evolving from Collaboration to a Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA)

By Jeff Ford, Feature Articles

At a recent industry conference, I was struck by the number of vendors, influencers and customers that were singing the praises of Voice over IP (VoIP) communications as a real and tangible business tool. Many of these companies and individuals lauded the applications that are optimized in an IP environment, most notably unified communications, presence management, collaboration and mobility tools. A growing number of companies — and even some vendors — are starting to experience the tangible impact that these applications can have on most fundamental business processes, such as generating revenue, streamlining operations, enhancing customer service, and certainly, controlling costs. It is a welcome sign that more and more customers and users are appreciating VoIP for these profound business benefits, and not just as a mechanism to transport voice over a data network.

What also intrigued me was the notion that, as robust and powerful as all of these tools are, it appears that collaboration applications have captured the most mind share among customers. It’s easy to understand why. IP technology now enables businesses to seamlessly conduct audio and videoconferences at any time, with any number of participants, as long as they have a broadband connection. White boarding, document sharing and remote support are other examples of tools that overcome the traditional barriers of time and geography. Through IP-based collaboration solutions as they exist today, a remote office, by definition, can be at any location with Internet access — airports, hotels, restaurants, coffee bars and so on. Translated into the lexicon of business, collaboration means real productivity and efficiency gains.

And, we’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg.

Enter SOA
Giving people the ability to work together, in real-time, while hundreds or thousands of miles apart is certainly a major achievement, and one worth getting excited over. But in reality, with the pace of technological innovation that permeates enterprise communications, we’re only starting to comprehend how we can redefine the impact on business processes through IP communications.

Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA) is rapidly becoming the raison d’etre for IT professionals and technology visionaries around the world. It is the concept of linking previously disparate business processes together to interoperate cohesively — almost intelligently — to improve the speed of business, the productivity of business, the efficiency of business, and above all, the profitability of business, in ways never before experienced. And IP communications is now regarded as a key link in the performance of service-oriented architecture.

At a high level, SOA is similar to IP collaboration tools, but in an automated manner. It’s built on software that speaks to and with other business applications. While SOA relies heavily on standards, it is a fundamentally different approach to standards than is typical in telecommunications products. In telecom, to prove interoperability between communications devices, we make sure that two network elements have implemented compatible versions of the same protocol stack: in essence, that they speak the same language. With SOA, we don’t have to prove interoperability in order to get two applications working together. Instead, we standardize the way we describe the exchange, rather than the exchange itself. With this approach, it is straightforward to build connectors between applications that don’t share the same protocol. SOA is fluid and flexible in nature, ready to address instantaneous changes to business needs.

How does SOA work in a practical sense? Consider a manufacturing company. As with most well run companies, this particular business relies on multiple constituencies, including its employees, suppliers and customers. In traditional business practices, a plant would receive an order, pull together the necessary materials, conduct the work and ship out the finished product. Accounting, billing, shipping and other tasks would be performed, and the project would be completed.

In this scenario, every business process relied on communication among employees. Certainly, nobody can fault this approach to operate a business. Communications is key. But what if there was an issue with the supply chain? Or a machine was broken? Or an incorrect invoice was generated? Again, the company can rely on its workforce to identify problems, correct them and pass information down the chain of command, but in reality, this is can be a long and cumbersome solution. In today’s economic environment, businesses rarely have the cushion to circumvent problems once they make themselves known.

Service-oriented architectures promise to integrate the entire suite of VoIP communications services with business processes and business applications to improve the execution of vital tasks, such as troubleshooting and addressing problems. To illustrate, consider a database application that manages raw materials. It can interact with the appropriate personnel when suspicious inventory conditions arise, by invoking the IP communications system in order to open an instant message session or initiate a phone call. With VoIP, the application might deliver a report to the person via an IM screen pop, or get feedback via an IVR application, depending on the location of the person, their current availability and their available modes of communication. This is more than an automated process: It becomes a process that can tap into the chain of command, and tap into human knowledge, whenever it encounters conditions it cannot process, using real time communication infrastructure. VoIP provides SOA with the solution to the classic science fiction ‘does not compute’ problem: the robot that self-destructed when encountered by a paradox, had it SOA, would simply have asked for guidance and then moved on.

On the front end, a customer may be calling into a contact center to check on a shipment. Through a single portal, the agent can not only track the package, but also retrieve the customer’s payment history, share screens of recent purchasing activity and initiate a conference call between the customer and the finance department. Though all of this information may reside on separate databases on geographically disparate servers, SOA pulls it together into a single location for easy access.

Just The Facts. . .
Successful companies are usually dynamic, ever-changing entities that can adjust to evolving market conditions, customer preferences, the geo-political landscapes and just about any internal and external factor that may or may not be planned. SOA recognizes that static IT infrastructures place businesses at a distinct disadvantage. SOA, in contrast, can be organized and configured and reconfigured to support a process undergoing evolutionary improvement. SOA delivers the agility and flexibility that customers need to properly manage change.

In order for a communications infrastructure to play an active role in SOA, it needs to behave just like any other application within a data-centric business infrastructure, which in essence means the components must be standards- based. From an IT perspective, the data infrastructure is by its very nature optimized for the plug-and-play, fluid world of SOA. There is a lot of commonality in the standardized way certain ERP, CRM and accounting databases perform. Standardized signaling interfaces like Session Initiation Protocol (News - Alert) (SIP) provide a basis for the requisite interoperability at the component level. Through SIP, the conference server can receive an event notification and then, depending on the nature of the specific event, can initiate that telephone call, instant message, e-mail, and any combination thereof, to the appropriate parties in near real-time. The application offering the communication interface to the SOA utilizes these standard VoIP protocols to bring together complete communication services that touch on multiple components.

The use of SIP and other standards is important not only in an application sense, but for communications devices as well. Since employees have their own preferred methods to communicate, it is vitally important that the phone, PDA, softphone and other endpoints can work seamlessly within the SOA environment. Where applications deliver data, VoIP will deliver communications services.

Of course, with seamless interoperability comes a laundry list of security questions, most of which can be answered by extending a company’s own unique security procedures into the network. Governing entry into SOA is an issue that most companies handle right from the onset of deployment, usually through encryption authentication and standards-based security protocols.

Redundancy and disaster recovery are other topics that come up often. Again, businesses relying on IP technology already have a head start on decentralizing their network components, so a network failure solution in a service-oriented architecture can look very much like any other redundancy plan that is built as a data-centric network.

SOA and Web Services
Service-oriented architectures are not limited to interoperating only with other applications that reside within the enterprise infrastructure. These are basically computer-to-computer interactions, or business-to-business interactions, and the implications for the enterprise market are immense.

But there is also another side to SOA, human-to-computer interactions, that adds a whole new dimension to how businesses can create new opportunities for SOA to work in combination with web-based services that often result in exciting, new applications.

For example, we continually see more “mashups” entering the market. By definition, these mashups occur when “two worlds” collide, or when two completely independent web portals are combined to create a new solution. Imagine a possible mashup between Google (News - Alert) maps and a local realtor’s website, much like (news - alert) The mashup could depict an area map overlaid with recent home sales. If a buyer is looking to purchase a house in a particular neighborhood, the communications component of the SOA could initiate a cold-calling campaign to residents in that specific area to targeted homeowners, notifying them that there is a buyer interested in their property. Through the portal, the realtor could share the prices that similar homes in their neighborhood have sold for, and how to contact the realtor if indeed they are interested. In this scenario, the speed to market becomes faster and more efficient, while saving the realtor’s time in securing listings and locating and qualifying potential buyers.

Or it could be the combination of a local weather website and golf course. A mashup application could be designed to inform customers what the specific conditions will be during their round of play. If a thunderstorm is forecasted to cause a lengthy delay, customers who have not yet arrived at the course can be notified through a variety of mediums to re-confirm or re-schedule their tee times.

The possibilities are boundless through Web Services and SOA. In this dynamic environment, communication tools such as presence management, collaboration, instant messaging and voice communications can be tightly integrated with web-based services into new desktop applications. This more focused, relevant and productive use of such previously disparate tools can serve businesses in a multitude of ways by enhancing the customer experience, improving efficiency and maximizing existing resources.

Collaboration as we currently define it in the IP environment — empowering people to work together in real-time — is gaining well-deserved traction in the market. But the productivity improvements that we’re now experiencing may pale in comparison to the efficiencies that will emanate from SOAs that leverage these VoIP services.

Once again, IP technology is finding a way to re-invent itself and become even more integral to business processes.

Jeff Ford is Chief Technology Officer of Inter-Tel (News - Alert). (news - alert) For more information, visit the company online at

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