A Disaster Recovery Solution

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By Bill Curtin IV

John D. Rockefeller’s pragmatic view of disaster recovery – “I always tried to turn every disaster into an opportunity” – is one which holds true for today’s call center industry just as it did for the oil industry of the late 1800s. Even so, actually turning a disaster into a business opportunity involves much more than reacting to a difficult situation when it occurs.

The first step towards disaster recovery is disaster preparedness – identifying all of the emergencies that could confront a call center and putting plans in place to deal with them in a quick, efficient, and effective manner.

Most call center clients expect more today than ever from their call centers. Many even require SLAs (Service Level Agreements) and proof that adequate disaster recovery plans are in place. In the event of an emergency, they want their calls to be answered.

The three most important resources for a call center to consider are the inbound telephone lines, the call center’s client data for properly processing calls, and the labor to answer the calls. A good disaster recovery plan addresses all three of these resources.

In order for a call center to take calls, calls must have an inbound path to the ACD (Automated Call Distribution) system. There are many disasters that can do away with this inbound phone path, and it can be very challenging to reroute the calls to a backup location.

Using the PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network), a call center’s options are limited by the services its phone company can provide. The call backup and call forwarding services that many phone companies provide vary greatly, so considering backup options when shopping for phone service is extremely important.

Alternative routing or call overflow are common product names that many PSTN phone companies use for describing their call forwarding service. How these services work will also vary by service provider. Usually these services will allow a call center to forward all of its DID numbers to a single 800 toll-free number if phone service goes out.

If a call center subscribes to an alternative routing service that forwards calls to a toll-free number, it can add more flexibility to its phone routing by having the 800 number reside at a RespOrg (Responsible Organization) instead having the 800 number resident within its phone company.

The services that different RespOrgs provide also vary – some allow a call center to redirect calls to its 800 number using a website, while others require the subscriber call center to call in to make the forwarding request.

Sometimes trunk groups can be used to forward overflow calls to a backup location. Every phone company uses different names for these services, and just finding the name of the service can be one of the bigger challenges.

Many call centers already are taking advantage of VoIP/SIP phone service providers – for a number of reasons and in equally as many ways. One advantage of SIP (Session Initiation Protocol – an Internet transmission method) providers is that they can have DID lines from many area codes terminate to one IP (Internet Protocol) address.

Many call centers can realize a cost savings using SIP services instead of using dedicated phone circuits to transport their DID traffic. These SIP phone providers also can aid in a call center’s disaster recovery plans.

When a call center gets its phone service from a SIP provider, the phone service is sent to an IP (Internet Protocol) address. To move the phone service to a call center’s backup facility, the SIP service provider directs the calls to another Internet IP address. These IP addresses can be changed manually, through a website, or can be set up to failover automatically.

The newer VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) technologies are allowing call centers to “collocate” their hardware to off-premise data centers. When the hardware is housed off-site, the entire staff can connect to the system like remote agents.

In addition to easing worries over power constraints, backup generator power, cooling, and Internet connectivity, collocation removes many of the worries of disaster recovery planning because the datacenter has already addressed them. Even if you are using PSTN phone lines, a collocation facility can provide you with greater reliability.

Data centers have fiber SONNET rings that connect them to the phone company’s CO (central office). For a reasonable fee, datacenters will allow you to run your PSTN phone lines from the CO to the datacenter on their SONNET ring, which provides two paths for your phone calls to travel from the CO to the datacenter. If one of the paths disappears, you won’t notice any loss of service.

With this network architecture, the main disaster concern for a call center is maintaining agent workstations. Since SIP connections can be initiated from any workstation with a live Internet connection, this is a powerful operational model for reducing a call center’s risk in disaster situations.

Based on a similar principle, real-time data backup can be a powerful disaster recovery tool for any call center. Utilizing existing ISDN or T1 telephony connections, an off-premise data center can receive a live update whenever there is a change to a call center’s primary database.

Several software solutions exist that allow database backup over the Internet. Instead of doing a full database backup, these backup software solutions backup the real-time changes. Every time a change occurs, the data is sent to the backup database through the Internet. The backup databases can be located in scattered and separate locations that are often geographically removed from the area that would be potentially impacted by an emergency.

In the event of a disaster that interrupts the primary database or ACD, service can be restored within minutes by turning on your backup server at the data center. With service rerouted to the backup server, an agent can connect and process calls without noticing any difference from being connected to the primary server.

Reliability is fundamental to the reputation and success of any call center. Being fully prepared for a disaster, with devoted resources and plans of action in place, ensures that when a disaster occurs, the visible effect to the call center’s clients and callers is as minimal as possible.

When a call center’s clients realize that even though a disaster has occurred, their service has not been affected in any way, the call center has turned that disaster into a good client retention opportunity.

Bill Curtin IV is director of corporate IT services for Amtelco and manages Amtelco’s hosted services enterprise offerings.

[From Connection Magazine June 2008]