The Benefits of IP Contact Centers

By Stephen Collins

Voice over IP (VoIP) has forever changed the telephony industry and radically transformed the way voice services are priced and delivered. Every day, millions of consumers use VoIP services like Skype and Vonage for low-cost calling. The vast majority of business phone systems sold today are IP-based as well.  Yet most businesses have been slow to adopt IP in the contact center. Concerned about VoIP reliability, call quality, and security, most contact centers still rely on conventional TDM architectures.

Traditional contact center implementations are costly and inefficient. Each site acts as an autonomous island with its own telephony systems and PSTN (public switched telephone network) trunks. Each island is independently administered and maintained, adding cost and overhead. Worse still are expensive “take back and transfer” fees – costing millions of dollars per month in the largest call centers – as calls are transferred from site-to-site back across the service provider infrastructure. Additionally, since legacy networks weren’t designed to support Internet users or unified communications (UC), contact centers have to build separate networks to enable home-based agents, implement live chat, or employ interactive video capabilities.

Enterprises can overcome all these limitations by implementing a more efficient IP contact center architecture.

IP Contact Centers Reduce Cost and Complexity: With an IP contact center architecture, telephony systems are consolidated into a central data center (or two data centers for disaster recovery). Remote sites and agents are connected to the data center over a private IP network or through the public Internet. IP architectures offer a number of advantages over traditional TDM (time division multiplex) architectures. With an IP contact center, businesses can:

  • Reduce capital expenditures and operating expenses by consolidating equipment into a central location, realizing economies-of-scale, and simplifying administration and maintenance
  • Eliminate expensive carrier “take back and transfer” fees by redirecting calls over the IP network
  • Create cost-effective “virtual contact centers” and intelligently route calls based on presence and business rules
  • Extend the contact center to home-based agents and satellite offices
  • Utilize offshore or outsourced resources to reduce labor costs or handle overflow
  • Engage customers in a variety of mediums, such as voice, live chat, and video
  • Integrate interactive communications into business processes, sales force automation, and customer relations management solutions to improve agent productivity and boost customer service
  • Reduce local, long distance, and international calling costs

SIP – the Foundation of the IP Contact Center: SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) is the cornerstone of the IP contact center architecture. A standards-based signaling protocol for controlling interactive communications over IP networks, SIP is supported in a wide variety of telephony systems (IP-PBXs, ACDs, and IVRs) and devices (desk phones, soft-phone applications, and UC clients).

Dozens of established and upstart service providers offer cost-effective SIP trunking services for site-to-site connectivity and PSTN access. Unlike PSTN trunks, SIP trunks can be provisioned on the fly, enabling contact centers to adjust capacity quickly in order to support last-minute campaigns or meet seasonal business demands.

IP Contact Center Implementation Challenges: As with any new technology, enterprises must resolve a number of technical issues when implementing an IP contact center:

  • Security: Conventional IP firewalls and application layer gateways (ALGs) weren’t designed to support real-time interactive communications. They leave IP contact centers vulnerable to denial of service (DoS) attacks, viruses, VoIP spam, and other threats.
  • Interoperability: SIP specifications are less rigid than traditional ITU (International Telecommunication Union) telecom specifications. SIP implementation variances can lead to vendor incompatibilities and interoperability issues.
  • Reliability: IP contact centers must deliver superior customer experiences with PSTN-like reliability and call quality. Networks must route around system and infrastructure failures, and services must remain operational during office closings or emergency situations.

Leading contact center infrastructure vendors such as Avaya, Cisco, and Genesys recommend the use of a session border controller (SBC) to solve these technical challenges. An SBC is specifically designed to address the unique security, interoperability, and service quality issues associated with interactive IP communications. SBCs are installed at SIP trunk termination points the same way firewalls are installed at Internet termination points. SBCs are also deployed within the service provider network to maintain the integrity of the provider’s infrastructure.

SBCs can come in the form of software-based applications, dedicated blades, or stand-alone platforms. Features and capabilities vary greatly from product-to-product and vendor-to-vendor. When evaluating an SBC be sure to consider the following:

  • Interoperability: If you run a multi-vendor network, be certain to identify an SBC that will support all your SIP systems and endpoints. Some UC and IP telephony suppliers offer vendor-centric SBCs that address only the most basic interoperability issues and work best in homogeneous environments.
  • Extensibility: Identify a vendor who can address all your requirements in a single platform. Some manufacturers offer different solutions for different applications, such as SIP trunking and remote access. By selecting an extensible platform, you’ll avoid separate management systems and unnecessary training, spares, and maintenance overhead.
  • Breadth of Features: Some SBCs focus mostly on SIP security issues. Look for an SBC that delivers a broad range of capabilities. Best-of-breed SBCs help overcome common IP migration challenges, such as implementing emergency calling services, enabling call recording, or minimizing the impact of IVR on the network.
  • Reliability: Choose an SBC that delivers carrier-class availability. Some SBCs offer no system redundancy at all. Others offer redundancy schemes that preserve the media-stream only. For ultimate reliability, identify an SBC that supports media and signaling protection and meets your full disaster recovery and business continuity requirements.

By choosing the right SBC, you can successfully overcome SIP security, interoperability, and reliability challenges and enjoy all the benefits of a modern IP contact center.

Stephen Collins is vice president of marketing at Acme Packet, a provider of session border control solutions.

[From Connection Magazine November 2010]

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