Monday, April 26, 2010

A meditation on SIP, SOA and Software

Today, the blog is thinking about SIP.

This was triggered by one of my customers turning to me yesterday and saying,

"SIP, isn't it just another of the IT industry's three letter acronyms for marketing? Just like SOA really, but even less likely to change things".

Now the blog has looked at SOA before (see posts like: "SOA - bringing CRM, telephony and business together? part 1") and the blog is a strong believer that SOA is a very major change in how IT is done. The downturn has perhaps slowed down the rate of SOA adoption, but nearly all the customers I work with are considering SOA approaches to at least some part of their IT environment.

For the communications industry, I think there is now little doubt of the impact of SIP. I suspect that SIP is going to bring with it a radical series of changes. To a certain extent (and to stretch an analogy), while SOA is the consequence of what client/sever did to the mainframe, SIP is the consequence of what IP has done to networking.

While I wouldn't defend this analogy beyond a certain point, I do think it highlights one interesting truth. The consequences of IP were to open up standards (much as client/server blew apart the vertically integrated architecture of the mainframe) and SIP just takes that to the next level. The impact of SIP may also be as disruptive as those changes were to some of today's business models.

The big thing for me about SIP is that it removes some of the last remaining geographic restrictions on call control. SIP trunking removes the last part of the TDM world, namely that lines had to terminate somewhere and there had to call control near it. To be sure, in the SIP world there still is a need for physical lines, but many of the physical dependencies on call management have gone.

For the call centre industry, this raises interesting possibilities. For example, Avaya have started to show how the use of a SIP session manager might allow them to virtualise ACDs without the application layer approach of Genesys or the network management approach of ICM. For Cisco, the rise of SIP represents a significant opportunity as services at the network layer (such as security) become increasingly important when using such a lightweight protocol. Also, SIP permits video as easily as voice, something that Cisco sees very much as the future. For other vendors, who haven't yet become so comfortable with IP, the rise of SIP represents a fundamental challenge.

Of course, an industry change tends to bring in new entrants and this is where it gets really interesting. I see SIP as ensuring that the future of the voice industry lies with software. That is a view some of the software firms share and is why so many have entered the voice market. I blogged this time last year on Microsoft and Google (See "The future of contact centre - Google, Salesforce, Skype & Microsoft"), but that was primarily from a CRM perspective.

Following VoiceCon this year (which I covered in this blog post), it's clear that so far Microsoft has the most advanced plans for voice of the software vendors. The enabler for this is SIP and OCS 14 leverages a very significant portion of its capability from what SIP enables. It's the capabilities of SIP that that provide OCS with its more interesting capabilities around presence, video and voice integration.

SIP has triggered a very interesting three-way fight. Previously separate areas (voice, data and desktop) are now different aspects of the same question. SIP brings into conflict the legacy voice vendors (with their communications expertise, such as Avaya), the network vendors (who have deep IP protocol vendors, such as Cisco) and the desktop/ software vendors (who understand presence and the desktop, such as Microsoft). It will be very interesting to see who can win this collision of different architectural layers.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Voicecon 2010 Orlando - Microsoft, Cisco, Avaya & SIP...

Most contact centre blogs don't start with Kierkegaard, but his famous quote, "Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards", is very applicable to VoiceCon. I find that it is only with sufficient distance from the event (VoiceCon 2010 ran Feb 28th to March 3rd this year) that you can actually get a perspective on what was said. In previous years I've blogged on the main events (see posts like "VoiceCon 2009 - Now that the dust has settled, and IBM and Microsoft" or "VoiceCon 2008 - IBM, Microsoft & Aspect") but this year I want to stand back and take a longer view.

There's a very good summary of what happened on Blair Pleasant's No Jitter blog, and I don't intend to duplicate that here. Similarly, there is some very good ideas for the overall state of the voice industry on Dave Michels No Jitter blog. I'd slightly disagree with his order (I agree virtualisation is very real and very significant, but I wouldn't have put it at number one ahead of the change we're seeing from SIP and the vendor landscape) but I think his sentiments are spot on. Rather, my aim is to think about what was new for contact centres, and what wasn't from a strategic perspective.

This, for me was as important for what wasn't said as what was. There has been a lot of excitement following Voicecon about the release of OCS 14, and most of that is deserved. The capability to do 911, the transcription of voicemails and contextual calling are all nice features for the business user and strengthen Microsoft's case in for enterprise voice/ telephony systems.

What hasn't been commented on so much is the amount of time that Microsoft devoted to the call centre. In the 45mins of the video below, about 9 mins (from about 29mins in to 38mins) a decent proportion of Gurdeep Singh Pall's pitch:

Clarity Connect isn't a vendor I'm that familiar with, but they represent a very interesting Microsoft based approach to the contact centre and the customer service market. I've been previously quite dismissive of Microsoft in contact centre voice (see blog posts like: "Technology firms, Europe and speech recognition") while positive about their CRM Dynamics and CCF offerings (see posts like "The future of contact centre - Google, Salesforce, Skype & Microsoft").

I think my views have changed. Microsoft may not have announced that they are in the contact centre, but there is no doubt about the thrust of OCS 14. Microsoft are a serious voice player and have arrived in the contact centre even if much of the rest of the industry hasn't realised it yet.

I think Avaya have to get full marks for managing to make a joke about entropy! It's not a natural subject for comedy, so not mean feat to get a decent laugh at the start of the presentation. The message I got from Avaya was that SIP was the source of profound & fundamental change in the nature of contact centre architecture. I'm inclined to agree and I believe that while SIP may not bring immediate change tomorrow, I think it's likely to fundamentally change how the technology works. Whether or not Avaya will ride this change or be crushed by it (much as Aspect has struggled with IP), I'm less sure. The Avaya Aura architecture looks very powerful, but it is as yet relatively unproven and the Avaya Session Manager is something I need to understand better to have a clearer view on. There's a lot of potential advantages to the Avaya approach and SIP helps explains how they think they can get synergies from their Nortel acquisition. The downside risks, though, should not be underestimated and I feel Avaya still have to negotiate some very tricky changes to achieve their transformation.

The contact centre was only briefly covered in the Cisco pitch (from 14mins to 15:30mins in the key note address!) and was focused on the role of social media in contact centre. It was interesting and the role of Twitter, Facebook and so on in customer service is one that excites marketing departments greatly. This will be an area of future activity for contact centres, I have no doubt, but I'm not sure whether it will be a major one. Blog analysis (for instance) has been much hyped and can yield very interesting insights, but only about certain demographics and is still a niche part of analytics. Twitter is perhaps more widely used than blogs and so more revealing but I still think there is a debate to be had as to whether it is going to be a core part of customer service. My suspicion is that where industries are already using it (e.g. airlines) we will see it used by related industries (e.g. rail or toll roads) where customers are disconnected from the PC and reliant on mobile phones. Whether we will see it more widespread than that, I'm not sure.

In short VoiceCon revealed that there are some fundamental changes underway in the voice industry. The organisers have clearly recognised this with the decision to re-brand as 'Enterprise Connect' and I think they are right to. The future looks to me to be about software and communication, and anyone still pushing voice hardware will find it challenging.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Will Broadband make Cornwall a Contact Centre hotspot?

A very interesting article in The Times earlier this week looked at the prospects of high-speed broadband coming to Cornwall.

The plan is that Cornwall, historically one of the remoter areas of England, will receive ultra-fast broadband giving users speeds of between 100 megabits per second and one gigabit per second, making it one of the fastest internet connection areas in the country. The figures to support this are that it will create 4,000 jobs and £250m for the Cornish economy.

Fortunately for Cornwall, this plan does not rely on the UK Government's proposed 50p broadband levy (which the BBC says is scrapped until after the election), but rather on European Union development funds.

The Times article focuses on the benefits this high-speed broadband will bring to 'sexy' industries like digital animation, but I rather think this misses the point and sets Cornwall up for failure. Animation and creative media are growth industries and Cornwall is lovely place, but many of these dynamic, rapidly changing companies will be employing outsiders rather than locals and keeping their head offices in London, especially the media-centric areas around Soho. These companies will put money into the local economy, but they won't necessarily create many jobs for local people. Instead, I suspect that it's industries like customer service that could make the most difference.

It is often not appreciated how dependent the contact centre industry is on bandwidth. It's obvious that you need bandwidth for the volume of voice calls, but less obvious that you need vast amounts of bandwidth for the data that needs to accompany those voice calls so that you can do something useful with them. This is occasionally highlighted by outages (see my past post "Onshore, Offshore & Internet Resiliency" for when a break in sub-sea cabling caused major problems for offshore Indian contact centres) but otherwise not always visible. To a certain extent, the policy of 'build it and they will come' has worked well in other areas. A few weeks ago the Economist ran an excellent article entitled "Fibre in Paradise" looking at the impact optic fibre has had on Bristol, Virgina. The key point for contact centre was,

"...and the fibre brought jobs. In 2007 both Northrop Grumman, a big American defence contractor, and CGI, an international IT consultancy, said they would hire between them 700 technicians, consultants and call-operators at offices in nearby Lebanon, Virginia, part of BVU’s [Bristol Virginia Utilities] fibre backbone. Both cited the area’s universities and low cost of living, but neither would have come without BVU’s investment, which Northrop calls absolutely critical."

It's far from guaranteed, but the likelihood is that if Cornwall wants to create local jobs and boost its economy then building broadband is essential and attracting call centres and back office operations is where they should focus.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

The blog is back

Apologies all readers, I've been absolutely laid out with 'flu and not been able to blog for weeks.

I'm back & better now and I've finally got time to blog. The first post should be up and posted tomorrow and I look forward to resuming posting.