Meet the new dynamic-provisioning hot shots

4 Jan 2009

Voice over internet is no longer just about Skype, but about businesses being able to cut corners and achieve quality calls on their own terms. IF ever there was a three-letter acronym best calculated to cause accountants and technicians sleepless nights, and business executives a cure for insomnia, it had to be ‘PBX’.

PBX – or private branch exchange – was the dull black box that either sat in its own throne in a cabinet, or was tucked haphazardly underneath the receptionist’s desk. It was the beating heart of most businesses that was conveniently forgotten about until something bad happened and people couldn’t make sales calls.

It was the main means through which 10 or more phone lines could function from the various desks of executives. It was that ticking numbers box from which accountants and telcos gleaned information to survey the butcher’s bill every month.

The PBX as we know it is an endangered species. Its replacement, the ‘virtual PBX’ can have two kinds of existence. It can sit in the server room of any enterprise, or it can be managed remotely from the internet cloud by a service provider or a telecoms firm.

“SMEs we have worked with over the past two years prefer to use a converged software that includes voice, data infrastructure and IT, and we’re seeing that with the new technologies available these days, which offer more than just a PBX,” says Trevor Evans of Alcatel Lucent.

“Now, providers are offering a complete communications system for a small business. What we see is that as voice over internet protocol (VoIP) becomes increasingly deployed on a firm’s data infrastructure, it is becoming more integrated into the overall IT infrastructure, so in effect, a voice server often sits alongside the email server.”

Evans says because of the capabilities of communications servers that align voice with email, businesses are making more dynamic use of these systems for business effect. Users can make voice and video calls straight from their productivity systems such as Microsoft Outlook and Lotus Notes. Soon, this could go even further into the internet cloud, and Google’s Gmail already boasts exciting new voice chat apps.

“What we’re seeing is that the communications solution is becoming a much more critical business tool for the company,” Evans continues. “Five years ago, if you bought a PBX, it just made and took calls. Now, your communications solution is actually a critical part of your business.

“With VoIP as an enabler, you can change the way the company works and allow people to work flexible hours from home. We have examples where firms can reduce their office space by half by allowing flexible home-working.

“A worker could be living a long way from the office and be based in their home, and the IT manager can dynamically provision their needs over the internet. We work with a company that sells holidays over the web. It has 10 agents who are all mothers with children at school and they all work from home. It suits the mothers because they can take their children to school and work from home. It suits the firm because the physical head office has three people, and therefore it can keep its office costs down,” Evans says.

Alongside established telecoms operators and tech firms like Alcatel Lucent, Nortel and Cisco, a new breed of start-up has emerged that is taking open-source software standards and transforming them into dynamic virtual PBX systems for businesses.

One example is Soft Telecom, which started life as a software developer for voice applications using the Asterix open-source software switching engine.

“We have developed a whole management suite that takes a bunch of applications that allow customers to deploy telecoms software rather than hardware,” says David Reddy of Soft Telecom.

“The technology means that instead of phone systems being complex hardware boxes, the system is instead a software application, and they just pay rental.”

Soft Telecom has developed a product called VoxOffice, which has been deployed for customers in Ireland, the UK and the US.

“If you need a phone system and came to us, we would turn a server in your office into a phone system, or you could have the system hosted and just connect in as you need to. We’ve gone for the Microsoft Office approach where everything is integrated, even the billing engine. The software comes with analytics and business intelligence, so firms can see who’s making calls and where their money’s going.

“This can be very insightful for businesses. Security is also important, and because your phone system sits on a server, it is treated like any other IT resource that needs to be protected.”

Reddy says ultimately it’s the financial savings that VoIP provides businesses that is driving demand.

“One company we’re working with is the charity organisation Merchant’s Quay Ireland, which has eight sites around Ireland. Originally, it had a number of PBX systems, but with a hosted phone system in a data centre, all the offices just connect in. These are saving money because they don’t have to worry about line rental and can easily manage their own telecom needs.”

Another company that has taken open-source voice applications to the next level is Connect IT, which has deployed full-featured, hosted PBX technologies to businesses with call-centre environments to help them reduce call costs.

“Hosted virtual PBX technologies are well suited to SME businesses because they can reduce costs and don’t need worry too much about the management of the technology,” says John Brennan of Connect IT.

“With open-source software like Asterix as the basis of the technology, its possible to provide firms with very sophisticated services such as call routing, auto attendance, voice messaging and queue management. Often, firms only need to buy the VoIP handsets and we’ll do the rest.”

Brennan cites one company that works with Connect IT, which runs a virtual assistant service. “It has 10 to 12 different clients, and each time someone rings those clients, the technology is sophisticated enough to tell the call handler which firm is being rung.”

He says that, typically, firms with standard 3Mbps or 4Mbps broadband packages can support up to 15 or more executives on hosted virtual PBX systems.

“It’s getting a lot easier. A few years ago, it was difficult to deploy VoIP because broadband wasn’t widely available and Skype didn’t provide the right quality levels. Now, VoIP is everywhere, and people are comfortable about using it. Often, our users forget they are on a VoIP system.”

Brennan says firms with workers on the move can also deploy the VoIP software as soft phones that can sit on their laptops and make calls anywhere in the world if they are near a Wi-Fi connection.

“We also have executives who use the soft phone using their HSDPA mobile broadband cards. Depending on the 3G network, results vary from location to location, but in optimum locations, it functions perfectly,” Brennan concludes.

By John Kennedy

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years