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SIP based Contact Center

Migrating to a SIP Contact Center

With every year, SIP is becoming more and more common in unified communication solutions in general, and contact center applications in particular, as companies increasingly recognize the benefits that an all-SIP environment can provide. Legacy contact centers have become expensive to maintain and upgrade and harder to integrate with new and high-value applications. Companies with limited in-house resources can especially benefit from SIP which can support a more dispersed work force including home agents or those working from remote locations.

The SIP based contact center allows companies to leverage new capabilities without pouring more resources into management or IT, infrastructure and applications. These capabilities can be deployed quickly, they are easy to deliver to remote agents and as the companies grow, the solutions can grow with them.

SIP based Contact Center

For many organizations, SIP is an integral part of an upgrade, while for others, SIP is part of a telecom cost reduction strategy.

Consider the following migration paths and best practices:

Step 1: Disconnect the PBX from Contact Center trunks

By disconnecting trunks from the PBX, calls can go directly into the contact center, enabling the introduction of new features not supported by the PBX. Data centers can be centralized, routing calls to dispersed contact centers and sending calls to agents that may be company-based, remotely-based or home-based.

Step 2: Computer Telephony Integration (CTI) Migration

Moving to SIP removes some major pain points that have limited contact center efficiency improvements in the past. In particular, it removes the dependency on the PBX. With traditional PBXs, the link between the PBX and the contact center is via a proprietary CTI link. If the CTI link does not support a certain function or does not provide the data necessary for a specific operation, nothing can be done to overcome the limitation. However, in a SIP environment the flexibility is significantly increased because calls can be directed to the contact center application directly.

Step 3: SIP trunking

Consolidation of telephony trunks into SIP trunks saves a considerable amount of money and is far more flexible and scalable. In addition to the estimated cost savings that can be achieved by using VoIP calls, SIP offers the ability to introduce a whole range of additional services to make the customer service operation more effective, ranging from high definition voice to video and more. Contact centers can save considerable expenses by cutting back on toll-free numbers, as VoIP enables click-to-call, which customers can initiate from their PCs or smartphones. Also, with domestic calling being free, VoIP provides another option for agents to make outbound calls to customers, allowing them to be more responsive or even proactive. In terms of enhancing the customer experience, SIP trunking also enables HD audio, providing a high quality call which can be a real differentiator for many companies.

The Key: Seamless Migration

A seamless migration from legacy infrastructures to SIP is key for organizations making the move, many of which are deeply invested in their legacy equipment. In moving to a SIP-based contact center, there is no need for “rip-and-replace” or discarding earlier investments. Customers can choose to convert to this architecture at their own pace and the SIP solution can grow in line with business needs.

Of course, an open architecture like SIP does have some pitfalls: there is no guarantee that two SIP devices will seamlessly operate together out of the box. Basic functions will work but enhanced functions may need to be tested first. AudioCodes provides a complete end-to-end solution consisting of gateways, SBCs, IP phones and other devices that have already been extensively tested and documented in the contact center environment to ensure full functionality out of the box, considerably reducing risk and professional service requirements in a SIP installation.

TCO Reduction

Ultimately, the result of the move to SIP is a significant reduction of TCO.  This is reflected in the considerable savings generated by a reduction of infrastructure costs including the consolidation of telephony trunking and the elimination of separate infrastructure at each location. By virtualizing the resources through the provision of centralized administration, enterprise-wide resources are better put to use, and the company benefits from the flexibility to support multi-channel interactions with customers and a distributed contact center structure which can consist of multiple sites, home agents and hosted services. Additionally, SIP future proofs new media and applications. All this leads to increased agent satisfaction and a better customer experience which also saves costs.

See what AudioCodes has to offer for your Contact Center.

Redundancy & High Availability

High Availability Redundancy for All

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The Need for High Availability

The need for businesses to remain on-line at all times, if the connection to the service provider or on premise equipment should go down, is a critical one. And it is critical for all businesses, large and small alike.

In VoIP networking, the ability to always keep the network up and running is called High Availability (HA) and it can mean several things. For one, it means survivability. If the WAN connection (SIP trunk) to the service provider goes down, the customer needs a “Plan B”.  This is typically accomplished with a Session Border Controller (SBC) deployed at the enterprise, playing an important role in continued phone connectivity and routing at the customer site. It also can mean resilience. Here, the calls at the customer will find their way out of the local site to their destinations via alternative channels. This can be via PSTN fall-back, via GSM connection or even via a connection to a back-up second SIP trunk.

Redundancy & High AvailabilityAnd then there is redundancy where fully redundant networking infrastructure is used, eliminating single point of failure risks. With VoIP networking this would mean there are two SBCs deployed in an active/standby configuration. In normal operations, the first SBC does everything while the standby SBC is only synched with the first one. However, if for whatever reason the first SBC goes down, the second one takes over and all the active calls now go through it, ensuring that no active calls are dropped. User registration is synched between the two devices and a transfer to the standby SBC, seamless to both the network and to the users, occurs.

Increase in HA Demand for Medium to Small Businesses

Survivability and resiliency tend to be features provided in networks of all sizes. However, redundancy, for many vendors, seems to be reserved for only the larger carrier and enterprise networks, those with over 600 sessions. To handle requirements for High Availability redundancy for small to medium businesses some SBC vendors offer their customers over-sized carrier-class SBCs. This mismatch forces customers to deploy SBCs which don’t fit neatly into the enterprise environment, as they are more expensive, have unnecessary features on the one hand and may be missing other features necessary for this environment on the other.  (We call this “Going duck hunting with a Howitzer” – overly complex and in the end, not very effective).

At AudioCodes, we have witnessed a sharp increase in demand for High Availability Redundancy in small to medium businesses.  Perhaps these businesses have reached the conclusion that even in these smaller business environments they simply can’t take the risk that something will take down their network. AudioCodes has moved to satisfy this demand from the smaller businesses by installing High Availability redundancy in the Company’s Mediant 500 and 800 SBCs in addition to the higher-session SBCs.

(BTW: no ducks were harmed in the writing of this article)

Let’s Hear IT from the Middleman

Let’s Hear IT for the Middleman

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The rapid rise of e-commerce internet sites in recent years has brought about significant changes in the way we go about purchasing goods and services. In particular, items that previously we would only have considered acquiring through an agent are now freely available for us to buy directly via the web. Despite all that, there are still some areas where we are more reluctant to cut out the middleman, like buying a house or car. The added complexity of this kind of purchase (e.g. legal issues, payment plans and just the amounts of money involved) means that we feel more comfortable in the knowledge that someone else is acting on our behalf.

Technological Middlemen and the SBC

Let’s Hear IT from the MiddlemanThe same can be said for the world of technology and telecommunications. Many middleware systems and mediation devices are available today to simplify and control interconnectivity between all sorts of platforms. In the world of IP communications, the predominant mediation device is the Session Border Controller or SBC, which sits at the border between two VoIP networks and provides security, quality, and access control between the two domains.

Connecting Microsoft Lync to SIP Trunking Services

Several recent posts on the AudioCodes blog have discussed the importance of deploying SBCs in a variety of different scenarios. One scenario where there seems to be grounds for leaving out an SBC is when connecting enterprise Microsoft Lync deployments to SIP trunks. According to Microsoft’s own recommendations, the Lync Mediation Server acts as the mediation device between the enterprise Lync Server pool and the outside world. Using this architecture, companies are able to connect to Microsoft-certified SIP trunking services and start to reap the technological and commercial benefits that they offer. With tight IT budgets always competing with the draw of technological innovation, the addition of an SBC into such a scenario would, on the face of it, seem to be something of an unnecessary extravagance. A closer look, though, reveals a number of important considerations that, when weighed up against the alternative, support a strong case for deploying an SBC to connect Lync to SIP trunking services.

Mediation Server or SBC?

Recently, we published a technical guide document entitled “SIP Trunking in Lync Networks – The Easy Way Out” (download it for free here). The aim of this document is to highlight some of the considerations when connecting Lync to SIP trunks which may not be obvious to many IT managers. The document explains how the complexity of SIP trunking connectivity cannot always be handled adequately by a direct connection from Lync’s Mediation Server. SBCs, on the other hand, deliver critical technological and cost-savings value to SIP trunking connectivity in areas such as:

  • Flexibility
  • Interoperability
  • Security
  • Voice quality

The guide goes into some detail in each of these areas. There isn’t room in a single blog post to cover all of them but, for the moment, let’s just take a closer look at one aspect of the first item to illustrate the limitations of Mediation Server when compared with using an SBC. (In future blog posts we will look at some others.)

SBCs for Routing Flexibility

Least cost routing (LCR) is a common feature in any communications setup for controlling costs, giving administrators the ability to decide how to route outgoing calls in the most economical way. Mediation Server is only capable of connecting to one SIP trunking provider at a time, meaning that enterprise-controlled LCR for outbound calls is not possible. With an SBC in place, however, administrators are able to connect to multiple SIP trunks simultaneously and create extensive LCR schemas to ensure that calls are handled in the most efficient and cost-effective manner. And, if your SBC is a hybrid device supporting both SIP and TDM connections, you can perform LCR between multiple SIP trunks and PSTN connections.

SBC – The Middleman You Can’t Do Without

So maybe not all middlemen are unnecessary evils. Just as your real estate agent might have the market knowledge and experience to find you a better deal than you could have done yourself, so too deploying an SBC can help you control the costs, quality and security of your SIP trunking connections.

To quote from “SIP Trunking in Lync Networks – The Easy Way Out”:

An experienced IT manager knows that sometimes the potential downsides of taking shortcuts outweigh the cost of well-designed deployments. The expense of an SBC is relatively small compared to the overall cost of designing, implementing and operating a Lync deployment. The decision to include an SBC is, therefore, a simple one, given the value it offers in terms of security, interoperability and quality.

If you want to learn more, please download our guide. We’d love to hear to your thoughts in the comments section below.

Michael-Williams

Using the SBC Configuration Wizard: An Interview with Michael Williams

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Speaking with customers is always a great way to get feedback. The PM team at AudioCodes does this regularly. Avi Grabinsky who is already well known on the AudioCodes blog was kind enough to invite me to join one such virtual meeting. The result of that meeting is this first customer interview on our blog. The interview is with Michael Williams who is a Technical Consultant for Nexus Open Systems. Nexus is an AudioCodes partner using our SBC Wizard as part of their installation and maintenance process for their customers. It was interesting to hear Michael’s view on this tool.Michael-Williams

Michael, for our readers who are not familiar with Nexus Open Systems, can you tell us what the company is all about?

Nexus Open Systems delivers IT solutions, software, websites and support services to companies and organisations of all sizes that require true technical expertise to meet their goals. Established in 1998, the company has two offices, incorporating a digital media studio and a hi-tech IT Training and Exam Centre, in Exeter the heart of South West England.

We are a networks and technology solutions company working throughout the UK and beyond. 15 years old, we have 75 staff encompassing a team of 40 engineers and developers.

Nexus has been involved with the Microsoft Lync product since its inception and amongst our 18 Microsoft competencies we hold the Gold Communications competency which relates to the Lync product set. This is testament to our ability to consult, install and support Lync solutions. For 2014 our goal is to become a Premier Lync Support Partner and our software development team are developing a Lync application which will go to market in 2015.

We have strategic relationships with key vendors within the Lync Ecosystem including: Microsoft, AudioCodes (Silver Partner), Mitel (Gold Partner), Dell (Premier Partner), VMware (Enterprise Solutions Partner) and Jabra (Gold Partner).

In the segment of Microsoft Lync who are your prime customers and what segments do you cater for?

Nexus works primarily with medium to large enterprise clients with regards to Lync, with on-premise deployments making up the majority of our current projects.

We are not confined to any organisation segments and work across all verticals, including professional services, public sector, education, non-profit and general industries.

Where do you see  AudioCodes products playing a role in Lync environments?

AudioCodes form a core part of our Lync environment offerings, both in terms of gateways and also handsets. We build our solutions primarily around the AudioCodes product set and then bring in other elements from the Lync ecosystem.

You have been an early adopter of the AudioCodes SBC Wizard. What did you find as the key benefits of this tool and how was life before it?

The SBC Wizard helps us reduce the amount of time needed to setup an SBC: as the wizard applies the most common settings, it saves around an hour and a half per SBC.

Before the SBC Wizard we would have to configure all the basic settings that are needed manually. This can be very tedious and time-consuming.  Moreover, previously when we did the configuration manually there were configuration errors. If we were lucky, those errors were discovered on the spot as part of the configuration process and then we had to spend some time figuring out the errors and fixing them. In the harder cases, errors were discovered after deployment when users were already using the network and some scenarios weren’t running well. Such cases are more of a problem because they involve bad customer experience. Therefore, using the wizard not only saves us time but helps us improve our customers’ experience.

You have several Unified Communications partners. How do you handle cases of multi-vendor sites and do you use AudioCodes products to support these environments?

Our engineers have the expertise to be able to integrate Lync together with AudioCodes devices within multi-vendor sites. Microsoft Lync and AudioCodes are our prime focus for Unified Communications; alternative solutions play a much smaller role in this part of our portfolio.

What do you see as the future direction and growth areas for Nexus?

Nexus is increasingly moving into the large business and enterprise sector. With regard to voice, we are currently developing this segment of the market and are driving it through a direct and reseller channel pre-sales and consultancy regarding Microsoft Lync and AudioCodes gateways.

I think the technology that will have the biggest impact in the communications market will be SIP trunks. They allow our customers to reduce costs and improve disaster recovery options.

If you are interested in sharing your experience with AudioCodes products in an interview on this blog please send me a note.

SIP Trunk

The SBC: A VoIP Network’s Best Friend

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The Move from TDM to SIP Trunking

SIP TrunkI recently participated in an interesting webinar hosted by NoJitter entitled Real World SIP Trunking Advice: How IT Managers Seize the Opportunity and Avoid the Pitfalls. The webinar focused on the increasingly popular trend to move to SIP Trunking from legacy TDM.  The webinar highlighted research by Forrester which pointed to the fact that while only some 25% of companies have moved over to SIP Trunking so far, the move to SIP Trunking is indeed the future trend and will increase in the coming years.  The move is inevitable as it will save businesses a considerable amount of money, including dramatic reductions in telephony costs by moving to VoIP. And the key ingredient to the success of the move over to SIP trunking is the Session Border Controller (SBC).

The Necessity of an SBC

Theoretically, SIP trunks can connect to the existing IP-PBX without the need for an SBC. However, not using an SBC can lead to a whole array of issues which need to be taken into consideration.  For example, SIP implementation variances can lead to interoperability issues across multivendor systems and service provider networks.  Delivering high voice quality by minimizing packet loss, jitter and latency are also issues that need to be handled. And finally, the vital issue of security must be taken into account as well as SIP trunks are exposed to security threats. Conventional firewalls are not designed to secure VoIP traffic from denial of service attacks or toll fraud.

All of these issues are handled by the basic functionality of the SBC which includes: Security (encompassing such features as providing a VoIP firewall, topology hiding, encryption, and protection from attacks such as denial of service and call fraud); Connectivity (including SIP normalization, NAT Traversal, voice mediation and transcoding, DTMF and Fax conversion); and SLA and Quality of Service. Additionally, the SBC ensures business continuity by minimizing potential service interruption due to call spikes, power outages, service failures, loss of connectivity and natural disasters.

(For more on the role of SBCs, see our previous post by Amir Zmora, Who Needs an SBC Anyway?)

SBCs Handle Unique Challenges Facing Large Enterprises

SBCs are indeed very powerful devices that provide a plethora of services to the enterprise or service provider on whose network they are deployed, and they play a major role in the move to SIP Trunking. This is especially true for large enterprises which have their own unique set of challenges that go beyond the basics, challenges that are also well met by the SBC.

Large enterprises tend to have several major data centers and many geographically dispersed branches. These branches many times have different PBXs, different technologies and different network hardware, and they all need to talk to each other.

These large enterprises will face challenges managing their VoIP networks. Here are some examples:

  • Different branches may be using equipment from different vendors, for example, from Cisco, Avaya, Microsoft Lync and others. Through mergers and acquisitions, large enterprises may have acquired different systems that are now incorporated into the larger network and have to be managed differently.
  • The organization may be going through a migration from one technology to another (moving from TDM to SIP Trunking, for example) but still needs to interoperate with its legacy equipment.
  • The enterprise cannot afford down-time on the network and must ensure the survivability of the network in the case of the loss of WAN connectivity to the Service Provider.
  • IT Administrators would ideally want to see all the alarms monitored on the network in a single location, aggregated and prioritized, rather than have to go out and get them from different systems.
  • Because large enterprises deploy complex networks with a number of SBCs and Gateways, sometimes with different PBXs and IP-PBXs in the various branches, they are faced with complex routing challenges for their VoIP networks.
  • And more…

(For more information on the opportunity of VoIP for small businesses, see our previous post by Itzik Feiglevitch, Small Businesses-Big Opportunity)

 A VoIP Network’s Best Friend

More and more IT administrators are recognizing the power and value of the SBC on their voice networks. In their March 2014 Enterprise Session Border Controllers Quarterly Worldwide and Regional Market Size and Forecasts: 4Q13 focused on the enterprise, Infonetics Research reported that 2013 SBC revenues rose 42% over the previous year and they projected revenues to continue to rise at around 12% annually through 2018. Infonetics states that the primary driver for growth for SBCs is the adoption of SIP trunking services (no surprise), and while most sales are currently in North America (76% of total sales in 2013), other regions are expected to post growth as well, especially in Europe, where the adoption of SIP trunking is accelerating.

Clearly, large enterprises with complex VoIP network deployments face considerable challenges. However, the SBC provides tremendous functionality that can address these challenges well. As the move to SIP Trunking continues to gain momentum, more and more IT Administrators are sure to discover that the SBC is their VoIP network’s best friend.

Image credit: Flickr user Christina Quinn. Modified by AudioCodes under Creative Commons licensing

One Voice Operations Center

The VoIP Network Management Jigsaw Puzzle

Have you ever felt that your VoIP network management system is like a jigsaw puzzle requiring you to jump from one application to the other in order to complete a full cycle of handing an issue? Well, you are not alone. Meet Alice. Alice works in the IT department of a mid-size company with 3 offices in the US, 2 in Europe and 2 in APAC. This is what happened to her last week.

8:45am, Los Angeles

Alice gets a notification on her browser-based alarm system that there is a high call drop rate in the Boston branch office. She turns to the voice quality monitoring system to zoom-in on the problem.

She waits for the monitoring system to start, it’s a different GUI so it takes her a minute to find the information on that specific branch.

Since it looks like a problem that happened repeatedly over the last 2 hours, she runs a report to get the details of all calls dropped.

She flips back for just a minute to the alarm system to make sure these are really the calls for which the problem was reported. Alice then realizes that the problem has to do with one specific SIP Trunk that is dropping calls.

She must act fast. The Boston site executive was in touch with her from his mobile several times already. He and his team are about to go into a conference call with a customer and he is worried the call will fail.

Calling the service provider support line doesn’t look like something that will solve the problem for the call about to begin at the top of the hour. It is 8:53am and there is no time for support IVR and a call queue.

Alice decides to work around the problem and bypass this SIP trunk by configuring the branch SBC to route the calls through the Chicago branch over an MPLS link. She is still on the monitoring system so Alice now needs to switch to enter system with a different GUI, for the SBC configuration system.

OK. So I made up the story and invented my character Alice. But scenarios such as this one do play out every day for IT managers.

The multitude of independent management and configuration tools, each dealing with a specific task, is a major drawback in VoIP network management. You may think that this jigsaw puzzle is inevitable as each system comes from a different vendor or simply because each product has its related system even if they all come from the same vendor. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

But Gentleman, We Can Rebuild It

One Voice Operations CenterWhat if there was an all in one unified VoIP management suite? What if call quality monitoring, alerts and management of your network servers were all managed from one system? Well…that is exactly what AudioCodes One Voice Operations Center is all about.

The AudioCodes One Voice Operations Center is a suite of management tools providing full coverage of the entire set of actions required to manage a voice network in a Unified Communication environment.

It uniformly manages, monitors and operates the entire AudioCodes One Voice portfolio, including SBCs and Media GatewaysMicrosoft SBAs and IP Phones.

For example, in case of an enterprise using a Lync server, the One Voice Operation Center provides a complete view of the network voice quality, including Lync client to Lync client calls and Lync to PSTN calls. All in real-time. And if you need to fix a configuration, there is no need to go far. The same suite provides a provisioning interface to manage all your SBAs, SBCs and gateways.

Want to learn more? Come visit our booth #625 at the ‘Lync Conference’ to watch a live demo of our ‘One Voice Operations Center’.