Getting It Right at the Edge

By Dave Martin

Call center managers know that unified IP-based communications are able to boost productivity, reduce costs, and improve customer service levels. Additionally, cloud services – such as hosted PBX – can further lower operating costs by outsourcing the operational burden associated with running the system. However, to fully realize these benefits, call center managers face many obstacles on the path towards the next-generation communication and collaboration platforms, including:

  • Designing a network architecture that ensures maximum uptime
  • Getting voice and video traffic through NAT (network address translation) and firewalls without replacing equipment, redefining firewall policies, or dealing with complex certificate management issues and inconsistent encryption schemes across devices
  • Resolving interoperability issues and dealing with carrier/service provider differences
  • Securing voice traffic over IP networks, such as private WANs, service provider networks, and the Internet
  • Achieving visibility for monitoring and troubleshooting voice traffic once leaving the premises

Transforming mission-critical business infrastructure, especially when it requires overcoming major challenges, typically requires a major investment. A rip-and-replace strategy sometimes seems to be the only option.

However, businesses of any size can gain major communications advantages with an affordable edge solution that allows them to easily connect to today’s advanced cloud communications services. Integrated enterprise session border controllers (ESBCs) have come a long way from the original boxes that linked legacy voice over IP networks. The market leaders today offer devices that service providers are using to lower the start-up and management costs for a broad range of IP communication and collaboration services. Well-informed businesses are also deploying the ESBCs themselves, broadening their choices of service providers as well as services.

Like many other parts of the network, the enterprise edge benefits from silicon advances. The level of integration today makes it possible for ESBCs to replace previously discrete and therefore separately managed components. The simplicity of a one-device solution that ensures high-quality access to advanced IP-based communications services is realistic for even small call centers with five to ten employees.

Besides the simplicity and affordability of a single device, the benefits of an edge solution include faster time to new services and feature sets that meet the requirements for high-quality, business-class voice as well as multimedia communications. Industry-leading ESBCs can deliver:

Availability: IP phones are mission critical. Any new communications feature such as video conferencing will quickly become just as essential to daily operations. Businesses should select an ESBC that supports redundant deployments as well as facilitates access to backup connections. For example, in the event of a carrier network outage, the ESBC should be able to route traffic to a local PSTN connection.

Quality of service: Dropped packets for data transmission are often tolerable, but transporting real-time voice requires an elevated quality of service. An ESBC can provide built-in traffic shaping and call admission control, as well as intelligently prioritize traffic to ensure minimal latency for voice on a converged network.

Security: With public-switched telephone networks, privacy is assumed. Sending your voice calls through the cloud raises concerns about security and maintaining control of sensitive company information that can be shared in voice communications, instant messaging, and other forms of unified communications. Security and policy management are vital functions of the ESBC, and the best devices implement protocol-aware and application-aware security.

Reliability: Along with the inherent reliability of fewer components, many vendors have pioneered a new class of tools and troubleshooting capabilities that can provide visibility into call quality performance to support network engineers. These tools minimize downtime by helping to isolate issues on the customer premises, at the edge itself, or in the cloud or WAN.

Interoperability: The PBX and IP worlds are continually evolving when it comes to the protocols and interfacing standards at each layer of the network. An edge device can provide interoperability and a flexible platform for maintaining compatibility with prevalent connectivity conventions. This means that the devices themselves can be used to provide access to a broad range of services including:

  • SIP trunking
  • VoIP long-distance services
  • Hosted PBX services, which can augment or replace aging on-premise equipment

All of these attributes are an essential part of a shopping list that can help businesses find the best edge device. The list is appropriate for low-cost devices that fit the budgets of small call centers as well as devices that scale to serve the largest of call center operations.

The availability of affordable, full-featured enterprise session border controllers is an exciting opportunity for leveraging significant advancements in unified communications. Without a major up-front investment, businesses can utilize enterprise session border controllers to easily connect to leading-edge collaborative solutions and tap into cost-saving services from local carriers and service providers. Whether adding to existing call center capabilities or replacing on-premises solutions with hosted services, getting it right at the edge gives businesses exciting new choices.

Dave Martin has over twenty years of experience with networking and security technologies. He currently serves as vice president of marketing for Edgewater Networks.

[From Connection Magazine Jan/Feb 2013]

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