IP Telephony: The Platform of Choice

By Robert Winder

Only a year or two ago, very few contact centers worldwide were operating with a complete Internet Protocol Telephony (IPT) infrastructure all the way to the agent desktop. However, this has changed considerably in recent years. With its promise of cost savings, simplified management, and greater business agility, IPT is rapidly becoming the platform of choice for upgrading contact center networks or deploying new contact center facilities.

In fact, according to results from a 2006 global research study commissioned by Genesys, sixty percent of all respondents expected to deploy IPT in at least one contact center within a year, rising to eight-two percent within two years. The study, which involved 500 contact center technology managers from twenty industries and fifty-three countries, revealed valuable insight into the technological expectations, architecture choices, and future deployment plans of new contact center applications.

Also notable among the findings was the fact that among organizations with IPT being deployed or planned, almost ninety percent said they expect to activate their first IPT contact center within one year – although most will only migrate some contact centers initially. This staged approach reflects the industry’s traditional caution about any organization-wide technology change. As a result, most technology managers expect to employ a mixture of traditional circuit-switched telephony and IP-packet switching telephony across their operations for some time.

As the deployment of IP contact centers has grown, infrastructure architecture has become one of the most important technology considerations. So far, the majority of IPT deployments have been hybrid solutions which add IPT capabilities to existing time-division multiplexing (TDM) switches. Until recently, proprietary IP solutions have been popular. Recently, a clear trend toward open standards IP as developed, particularly among those planning or investigating IPT architecture to replace existing contact center infrastructure.

The widespread emergence of open standards, such as Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), is helping to promote the adoption of IP telephony and is delivering many economies of scale. With a telephony framework based on SIP, for example, contact centers are able to separate the voice application software from the underlying hardware infrastructure, which allows them to purchase and deploy best-of-breed solutions.

With this approach, telephony functionality is provided by an application server on a company’s network and hardware based on industry standards replaces expensive proprietary systems. As a result, contact centers no longer need to tear out an old system to add functionality, eliminating a large amount of the switching cost and risk of data loss. In fact, seventy-five percent of all respondents in the study see great value in being able to retain and leverage existing infrastructure. Almost ninety percent consider it highly or extremely valuable to retain existing applications as they migrate.

Flexibility Drives Decisions: Choosing the right architecture for an IPT solution is vital for any contact center. A wrong choice can limit future technology deployment options and restrict the performance of a contact center as it evolves and grows. Equally important is the ability to retain compatibility with existing infrastructure and to ensure the flexibility to deploy new applications.

For example, eighty-five percent of the technology managers surveyed in the study expect to retain their current analytical routingcapability when they migrate to IP. Likewise,eighty-one percent believe it is very important to retain the flexibility to select and deploy new business applications without being limited by infrastructure. Balancing flexibility, reliability, functionality, and cost is critical – and different architectures balance these parameters in different ways.

Proprietary platforms offer potentially greater reliability, easier integration initially and lower upfront costs, but they also limit flexibility and functionality and grow increasingly expensive over time. Conversely, open standards-based platforms can offer greater flexibility and functionality, including increased application portability. While the benefits and drawbacks of each architecture type differ from product to product, potential limitations need to be considered when deciding which type to deploy.

Most contact centers have already made significant investments in a stable and efficient technology environment to support quality customer service delivery. Therefore, there is a general reluctance to make significant changes unless substantial new benefits are expected. Still, the importance of having a flexible telephony infrastructure that can accommodate technological shifts is magnified by the expectation that the business requirements of the contact center are likely to change in the near future. This rapid – and inevitable – pace of change reinforces the value of open platforms and also helps explain the risingpopularity of open standards IP.

Until recently, cost savings has been the main driver of business cases that support IPT implementation. However, broader benefits are emerging from the experience of early adopters. These benefits can help build stronger business cases for organizations whose recent investment in telephony infrastructure is holding them back. These benefits include:

  • Ability to mix legacy TDM hardware with IPT infrastructure components and still create an integrated contact center environment
  • Business improvements resulting from centralized, consolidated operations management
  • Easy virtualization of resources – providing a single point of enterprise-wide call control and routing
  • Application portability
  • Ability to purchase technology from multiple vendors
  • Flexibility to work with external, third party systems

Strong Business Drivers: Until recently, the business case for deploying IPT in the contact center has been based on the same two parameters for deploying IPT across the corporate network – network and toll cost savings and easier operational management. However, the broad business benefits of IPT lend credibility to business cases that look further than simple cost savings, especially those that take into account opportunities to deploy new business applications and features and extend the functions of the contact center beyond the enterprise.

For example, deployment of IPT can be used to flatten and consolidate the contact center infrastructure, reduce network facilities, and control multiple locations from a centralized set of applications. This supports the creation of a single solution to incorporate contact centers, remote agents, satellite locations, and outsourced resources, all of which can be centrally managed and maintained. Moreover, centralized call processing means quicker deployment and significantly reduced maintenance costs.

The cost of implementing such a “virtualization” scenario using a traditional voice network is prohibitive. The combination of IP networks with IP telephony applications makes it possible for users located anywhere on a company’s network to have access to voice and data — at a fraction of the cost. In addition to the software now available, today’s commoditized hardware, including gateways between traditional voice and IP networks, media servers, and IP phones, plays an important role in widening the choices available to companies and reducing the overall cost of the solution.

Flexibility, compatibility, and protection of business continuity are distinctly the most important considerations for many organizations. It is not surprising, then, to find that hybrid IP remains the most common type of telephony architecture, while open standards IP is rapidly growing in popularity.

The Pathway to Deployment: While IPT seems to be inevitable for the majority of contact centers, the way to proceed is less clear. Each organization needs to develop a migration strategy that maps closely to their overall goals and current infrastructure needs – one that can create a best-of-breed communication solution with reduced total cost of ownership and without sacrificing existing capabilities. Fortunately, because IP runs on a standards-based SIP infrastructure, it can be seamlessly integrated into the contact center and organizations can easily make the transition in a phased approach, bringing value to the customer at each new phase.

A key point with implementing IP technology is that it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition – that is, there’s no need to migrate your entire environment to a single-vendor IP solution to begin leveraging the advantages of IP. By choosing vendors that support an open standards-based approach, organizations can deploy multiple technologies from multiple vendors in different places and use SIP to enable all of these pieces to work together. The good news is that the benefits of IPT can be leveraged even with a small initial deployment.

When considering return on investment (ROI), organizations should look beyond the short-term, easily measurable elements. The true measurement of return must take into account the long-term opportunities that IPT enables. Implementing IPT should be seen as a strategic move, rather than just a cost-cutting exercise.

By designing a strategy around business needs and taking a phased approach, companies can ensure existing investments are not compromised and that the implementation will not disrupt current business processes. Ultimately, the best approach to ITP implementation is to view it as a long-term investment – one that will provide returns in capital savings, productivity, and future innovation.

Robert Winder is the vice president of business development, IP for Genesys Telecommunications Laboratories, Inc.

[From Connection Magazine October 2006]