This article originally appeared in the Feb. 2011 issue of INTERNET TELEPHONY Magazine.
In the beginning, the Internet was conceptualized as a way to interconnect multiple computers, and the scientists who used them, for the advancement of science and technology. Today’s Internet has surpassed that fundamental purpose by evolving into the primary communication medium that connects nearly everybody to everything. It is ubiquitous, efficient, and forever evolving.
The perfect illustration of this maturation is the growth of voice over IP technology. When first introduced, VoIP was positioned as the perfect solution to reduce toll charges. But when customers baulked at the high costs associated with integrating the first series of IP PBXs, it took a while for the technology to find its footing. Once it was discovered that incredibly robust applications like linking to remote locations and collaboration tools were optimized in an IP environment, interest began to increase. And when companies realized there was a profound ROI by collapsing voice and data networks into a single infrastructure, the technology really took off.
And now, history is repeating itself. As the Internet continues to evolve and mature, the cloud concept is the most recent iteration garnering attention. Characteristic of the name, the cloud is difficult to define or pin down. For some, the cloud is just a new name for the same connectivity medium that underpins the Internet itself. However, in reality, the cloud is a temporal destination: a place where computing resources are available to execute tasks and generate results. Not a destination in a brick and mortar sense, the cloud is more a destination of a malleable nature that adjusts to the demand and applies the appropriate resources to match the need. Connectivity no longer has to be from point A to point B, now it can be from point A to point It Doesn’t Matter.
In telecommunications, cloud-based services take a large step beyond traditional hosted services by providing near limitless scalability, physical and geographic diversity, and operational resilience that are not commonly available in a brick-and-mortar hosted offering. Hosted telephony services targeted to most enterprises rely on a dedicated connection to a telephony server or call manager that is located at the service provider premises. Most service providers then employ strategies such as physical redundancy and failover capability to ensure reliability in the event of a catastrophic system failure. But, by the very nature of the services being hosted from a single physical location, connectivity can still be at risk. Hosting services in the cloud mitigates these hazards by employing resources located in dispersed locations that act in concert across the Internet.
Additionally, the distributed nature of the compute resources in the cloud can provide an elastic resource without the capital and operational expenses associated with in-house systems. Cloud-based resources provide nearly limitless scaling for development activities, which oftentimes place severe peak demands on compute resources. For the more mundane daily operations of an enterprise, the cost benefits are realized through virtual right-sizing of resources to meet the immediate need. Whether computer power is needed to support the widely varied demands of development, or the more predictable fluctuations in telecom usage of a typical enterprise, cloud-based service providers can easily support pay-as-you-go supply models that adapt to their immediate needs.
Amazon’s Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) is one such platform, which goes a long way toward eliminating the risks and costs associated with managing dedicated computing resources and infrastructure. The ability to expand and reduce resource utilization on the fly enables a multitude of advantages for service providers and developers. The latter group, in particular, gain the freedom to focus their energies on innovating and creating new applications tailored to address the changing landscape of commerce in the Internet-powered world.
The compute resource platform – or virtual machines – provided in the cloud form the foundation of the next generation of application development. But, as with every other technology paradigm, there are multiple layers required to deliver on the promise of developing in the cloud. These layers address essential business requirements, such as connecting to legacy networks; supporting a broad array of protocols and codecs; and maintaining vital security and operational functions.
Fundamentally, telecom applications manage various forms of digitized communications signals – voice, fax, video, and others – collectively referred to as media, for a multitude of purposes. Manipulation of the digitized media traditionally has been done by dedicated hardware or server-based media processing engines. These media processors each have unique programming requirements and most often require the developer to have intimate knowledge of the programming interface and the C or C++ language.
Enabling development in the cloud necessitates a shift from complex programming languages like C to higher-level scripting languages and web services APIs, making media processing more accessible to developers who are looking to create communications applications that can reach beyond the traditional telephony base. Opening the door to a broader scope of developers will have a dramatic influence on the type and variety of application-layer service offerings in the marketplace.
At this point, the cloud provides flexible compute resources and application programming interfaces that enable developers to go down the path that leads to new services and functionalities. Yet there are some fundamental requirements that must be managed for providers to deliver on the promise of a cloud-based enterprise service. The global nature of business necessitates the ability to integrate and manipulate media across disparate network types and accommodate many different communications protocols.
The final layer of the development toolkit should cover the features and functions that are commonly used in everyday business. Making and receiving voice calls, multi-party conferencing, contact center capabilities, call recording and playback, automated voice prompts, call transfer and hold, voice recognition and DTMF receiving are among the basic services upon which customers rely.
Heavier reliance on cloud-based communications services brings with it an increased risk of intrusion or eavesdropping on sensitive conversations or transactions. Securing sensitive information in place or in flight is a challenge for every business. It is critical that every ongoing development of cloud-based applications should include capabilities to incorporate secure protocols and encryption techniques as they become available.
Whether for regulatory reasons, or just prudent business practice, concern for the security of confidential and sensitive information is prominent for nearly every business. A concern shared by many is that the data in the cloud is somehow less secure than data held in a system on the corporate premises. Cloud-based service providers mitigate this concern with the implementation of secure access and encryption protocols and schemes that provide data security on a par with or better than that employed by many enterprises.
Cloud-based systems are comprised of multiple elements that act in concert. A necessity in such an environment is replication of data and rigorous version and operational control of all compute resources. A key benefit of the homogeneity of these systems is that it limits exposure to attacks and hacking by virtue of maintaining all machines at the same level of security and encryption technology.
There is a broad spectrum of access and usage models for cloud-based applications. The broadest use is the public cloud that provides limitless virtual resources made available on demand. In this public model, the user has access to many shared resources in a multi-tenant operational sense with absolute sufficiency of resources as needed.
Private cloud services are somewhat akin to a VPN connection employed by enterprises to enable remote connection inside the firewall. Use of a private cloud can reduce operational costs with cloud-based compute resources, but also addresses concerns about data security and control.
In a hybrid scenario, a defined set of resources are segmented from the public cloud infrastructure and dedicated to exclusive use. This scheme provides the enterprise with the look and feel achieved by building its own cloud without the up-front costs.
With all of the layers in place, and the cloud scheme that best fits the business’s needs, the cloud becomes an extremely powerful environment for creating the next wave of communications applications and services. The promise of the cloud as the next big step in the ongoing evolution of communications technology is becoming a reality. We can only guess what doors will be opened by the innovation that will be enabled. But if history is a guide, the success of cloud-based services will once again come down to nimble, visionary and creative providers who can leverage this platform to deliver innovations that can tangibly satisfy the needs and challenges of both businesses and consumers.
Learn more about Aculab’s (News - Alert) take on cloud communications by attending a keynote delivered by Aculab’s founder and CEO Alan Pound at ITEXPO on Thursday, Feb. 3 at 10 a.m.
Ian Colville (News - Alert) is product manager at Aculab (www.aculab.com).
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Edited by Stefania Viscusi