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December 2006, Volume 9/ Number 12
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Unified Communications Meets SOA

While Unified Communications greatly enriches person-centric communications, the transformational value of Unified Communications comes from integration with business processes and applications leveraging SOA, the Services Oriented Architecture. In fact, some (see define Unified Communications as �communications integrated to optimize business processes.� This �application convergence� is the natural next step in the evolution of convergence, that started at the network level with everything on IP, and then evolved to the communications level with Unified Communications. SOA was initially conceived as the way to allow easier business process and application integration. SOA is being extended into real-time communications with the objective of reducing the impact of human delays in business processes.

Application Convergence (News - Alert) Drivers

There are three primary drivers for application convergence, the relative importance of which is dependent on business priorities and varies by vertical market.

Firstly, application convergence is driven by the need to enhance customer service in agent-assisted and self-serve contact centers. For example, a customer relationship management application could maintain the context of the customer�s experience, as a customer moves from an interactive self-serve voice response or kiosk environment to a live agent to a dialog with an expert, anywhere across the enterprise. For example, this ability would be of paramount importance in financial service institutions which are targeting to up-sell and cross-sell financial services. It would also be critical in any number of service desk environments, for example those run by SIs in support of SLA-based contracts with enterprise customers.

Secondly, application convergence is driven by opportunities to extend the value of business processes and applications by enabling them with Unified Communications capabilities, within the enterprise and beyond, through federations. For example, a supply chain management application detecting a change to a critical supply metric could initiate a collaborative session and deliver relevant data to stakeholders, speeding issue resolution. This general approach can benefit a broad range of industries, including manufacturing, hospitality, retail and healthcare. When combined with sensor networking (including location and RFID), this will result in new environmentally aware applications, adding context to this environment (e.g., identifying personnel in close proximity to an asset).

Thirdly, application convergence adds real-time collaboration capabilities to document handling and project management environments. A broad range of document types could be included here, including curriculum formulation in education, design documentation in hi-tech or in engineering firms, and copy in a publishing company � virtually any deadline-driven environment in which people need to collaborate. For example, a clinical emergency room admission application could route admission forms and electronic patient records to the next available clinician recognizing their roles, presence and location information, and handle exception handling through distributed consultation � all this to speed up the delivery of timely patient care.

Service Oriented Architecture

In many enterprises, the early adopters of application convergence have been contact center environments, tying customer-facing communications systems with back-office applications. These use well-established Computer Telephony Integration (CTI) interfaces, developer toolkits including application programming interfaces (APIs) and select Web Services standards such as XML (Extensible Markup Language). The future direction in this and other areas is SOA, the Service Oriented Architecture.

SOA was initially conceived as the way to interoperate, streamline and accelerate business processes; and to establish a set of service modules easily combined and reused to increase business agility for competitive advantage. One style of SOA uses an Enterprise Service Bus (a functional rather than physical entity), across which business applications can discover, invoke, and orchestrate services in various ways. SOA relies on a number of standards developed by three primary bodies: the Web Services Interoperability Organization (WS-I); the WWW Consortium (W3C), and the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS). Some of the more visible Web Services standards include SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol), WSDL (Web Services Definition Language), and various forms of XML.

Without getting into a protocol discussion, the reality is that SOA methodologies have entered the mainstream with the majority of larger enterprises adopting SOA for business applications development, leveraging products from IBM (News - Alert), Microsoft, Oracle, and others. The adoption of SOA is as important to business today as was the adoption of PCs in the 1980s.

With the accelerating adoption of Unified Communications capabilities based on SIP (the Session Initiation Protocol (News - Alert)) across enterprise and service provider environments alike, SOA and SIP are joining forces to be the engines behind application convergence across the entire IT industry. In the SOA model, Unified Communications is viewed by business applications as a set of real-time services (e.g., session control, speech recognition, presence and location status, personalization) that can be discovered, invoked and orchestrated in various ways across the SOA Enterprise Service Bus.

Show Me The Money

The value of application convergence through communications-enabled business processes is the acceleration of �time to X� � time to decision, to revenue, to service, to support, to product; and increased business agility, service velocity and business differentiation. It�s business transformational in that it results in a significantly more effective business environment. IT

Tony Rybczynski is Nortel (News - Alert)�s Director of Strategic Enterprise Technologies and has over 30 years experience in application of packet network and convergence technologies. Greg Saint James is a Senior Director of Marketing at Microsoft (News - Alert) and manages the Innovation Communications Alliance.

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