The Marriage of Computers & Telephones

Computer telephony merges two disparate technologies-computers and telephones-to enable communications solutions that improve not only corporate efficiency but also customer service.

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The offspring from this marriage are turning heads

Most businesses today are feeling tremendous pressure to reduce expenses andincrease productivity using fewer employees. Although the transition frommainframe power to faster desktop computers, better desktop tools, andhigher-performance LANs and servers has increased productivity, the improvementsare still not enough for some companies. Those companies needing to do even morewith less might be able to take advantage of computer telephony (CT) technology.CT technology merges two disparate fields--computers and telephones--to providecommunications solutions that improve not only corporate efficiency but alsocustomer service.

Even if you have never heard of CT before, you can put its innovation togood use in your organization once you understand the benefits of its use. Butfirst, you need to know the trends shaping the future of CT.

Trends Driving Innovations
Although CT systems were first primarily used for voice mail and dial-upgames (telephone horoscopes being among them), companies are now using them formore sophisticated applications. Several key trends are driving the creativeforces behind CT product development.

One important trend is the paradigm shift in how businesses think of andtreat voice, fax, and other media. In the past, businesses associated voicemessages with voice phone calls. Now, with a variety of transmissiontechnologies available, businesses treat message media just like any other datastream. This simple shift in perception enables companies to do much more withexisting resources. For example, they are now sending voice, fax, and video fromone corporate location to another in realtime over the Internet or via FrameRelay or ATM virtual private networks. Internal corporate ATM backbones canserve double duty by moving both LAN data and voice, fax, and videotransmissions, thereby potentially eliminating the need for separate telephonewiring.

The Internet offers great savings when compared with Public SwitchedTelephone Network (PSTN)-routed connections. You can save by using fax gateways,which let you send faxes between locations with virtually no transport costs,and voice gateways, which let you make free phone calls. You can even holdvideoconferences across the Internet at low cost. All you need are the tools tomake it happen.

Another influential trend is the business environment. Competition isdriving corporations to provide an increased level of customer service whilereducing corporate costs. This is an area in which CT shines. Many CT solutions,such as interactive voice response (IVR) systems and call center technology,simultaneously satisfy both needs.

Trends in the computer industry are also influencing CT productdevelopment. For example, Windows NT will likely displace Novell NetWare inyearly network server sales by the year 2000, so CT vendors are makingmajor-league bets on NT's future. In fact, NT has helped ignite the CTexplosion. Using NT as the core platform, standards-based CT servers aresteadily gaining momentum as key organizational communications tools.

The push toward open, expandable solutions is another computer industrytrend affecting CT. Proprietary, closed, limited-function solutions are nolonger accepTable. Instead, open CT server platforms and products that easilyexpand to support multiple media message types and automation functions arebecoming the norm.

The shift in the media-transport perception, the current businessenvironment, and computer industry trends are already shaping the CT productsbeing designed. In addition to unified messaging systems, major innovations arehappening with fax servers, IVR systems, Automatic Call Distributor (ACD)software, PBX-enabled CT servers, and IP telephony products.

Save Time with Unified Messaging Systems
Nonrealtime communication is a critical activity that demands a great dealof time from people's busy schedules. It's not uncommon to spend at least aquarter of a day sorting through and responding to mail. As a result, companiesare constantly looking for ways to make communication more efficient. Saving theaverage employee just 15 minutes a day can result in noticeable improvements inproductivity.

Unified messaging systems based on NT can help employees save time. Thesesystems provide universal mailboxes that support voicemail, fax, and email; theywill soon support video as well. (For detailed coverage of unified andintegrated messaging, see Chris Bajorek, "Unified Messaging," May1997.) With the advent of NT and the popularity of Microsoft Exchange Server andOutlook, unified messaging is emerging as a strong growth segment in CT. (To seehow one company used unified messaging with NT, see " Unified Messaging Success: Paralon Technologies.")

With unified messaging, you can enjoy universal access to your messages atthe office, on the road, and at home. Using Outlook's GUI, you can scan yourinbox messages and read only the most important ones, quickly filing the othersaway for later review. Using a telephone user interface (TUI--an interface thatlets you use a touch-tone phone to control a CT application), you can listen toyour email and even many of your fax messages from any telephone.

A single user directory streamlines systems administration tasks. It cutsin half the time spent configuring, supporting, and maintaining separate voice,fax, and email directories.

In addition, the unified messaging system lets you choose the medium youwant to use to respond to any message. Herein lies an important key to thepromised productivity enhancements. Responding with a voice message might takeyou only a few minutes, whereas a typed reply could take 15 minutes or more.

Although this technology's tangible benefits are impressive, it has anintangible benefit as well: A messaging awareness mindset develops when unifiedmessaging enters your daily life. You handle messages more quickly andintuitively; you are more in control.

Several new developments are on the horizon for unified messaging.Automatic speech recognition (ASR) will slowly become an alternative to TUI.Continuing advances in ASR technology with gradual reductions in per-linepricing will probably lower the price of ASR add-ons.

Unified messaging systems will most likely be more reliable in the future.As unified messaging systems assume greater responsibilities in handling allmessage media and related tasks, messaging servers will attain mission-criticalstatus. Passive-backplane platforms with many slots, enhanced cooling,hot-swappable power supplies, and RAID setups will be the norm rather than theexception.

Using video as a communications tool will also become the norm rather thanthe exception. As videoconferencing and video servers make their way intobusinesses, the demand will grow for supporting video as another message type.Unified messaging vendors, however, will still need to contend with video's2MB-per-minute storage requirements.

Although vendors will have limitations when using video, the sky's thelimit when it comes to making other enhancements. For example, more vendors willlikely release true, single-store, unified messaging products, most of whichwill be based on Exchange Server. In addition, a growing number of vendors willprobably offer Web-browser front ends, allowing your unified messaging GUI torun on any browser-enabled workstation, anywhere in the world. These front endswill use the Internet to tie disparate messaging systems together via the VoiceProfile for Internet Mail standard. (For more information on this standard andother CT terms, see "Computer Telephony Terms and Technologies," page118.)

Fax as a Core Technology
Although fax is a mature communications technology, it remains a ubiquitousstandard for moving documents and information. It is also a strategicallyimportant messaging medium that corporations are integrating into theircomputing environments.

Fax servers let a company use a corporate LAN and standard desktopinterface to centralize the faxing hardware and phone lines. Although the faxserver started as a standalone application, it is a communications anchor whenintegrated with messaging, transaction processing, and workflow applications, asFigure 1 shows.

NT is a well-suited platform for fax. You can add NT fax systems to an NTserver to provide a fax solution that peacefully coexists with otherserver-based processes. Fax servers also scale gracefully, centralizing theability to respond to increased user demand. For example, both Biscom's NTEnterprise fax server and RightFAX's RightFAX NT 5.0 can serve two or 2,000users by adding more fax cards to the server as demand increases--you do notneed to deploy additional fax machines. Both of these products can load-balanceacross multiple fax servers, adding another dimension to scalability andredundancy. One fax-server farm can support 96 or more faxing ports. (For moreproducts that can perform faxing and other applications, see the"Computer Telephony Buyer's Guide".)

NT's security protocols let administrators ensure personal fax inboxsecurity. Administrators also benefit from NT's intuitive GUI standards; you canadminister and monitor a typical NT-based fax server from any LAN workstation.

Many fax applications are possible when you use a fax server. One suchapplication is fax mail. Sending and receiving personal fax mail is possiblewhen the server is integrated with messaging front ends such as MicrosoftExchange and Outlook, Lotus cc:Mail and Notes, and Novell's GroupWise. Thesefront ends feature Direct Inward Dialing (DID) phone-line support at the faxserver. DID directs incoming faxes to personal inboxes, increasing security andeliminating the manual routing of faxes.

With this level of integration, messaging front ends let you simultaneouslysend messages to both email addresses (internal and Internet) and fax numbers.To do this, you simply type the text and specify a file attachment (e.g., a Worddocument file). Then the messaging client, email server, and fax server send themessage text and file either as a native fax or as text with a file attachment.You do not need to decide how (i.e., what medium to use) to send the message toeach recipient or prepare the text in two different formats.

Another application available for a fax server is fax-on-demand. FODsystems let you request one or more fax documents by calling into a system usinga touch-tone phone to request those documents. IRS tax forms and company productand pricing information are but a few examples of the types of documents youtypically receive by FOD.

A related application is fax broadcast. A popular alternative to mailing,fax broadcast is commonly used for newsletter and other periodic announcements.Although service bureaus handle a significant amount of this broadcast traffic,fax servers usually offer convenient fax broadcast features.

Because fax servers are versatile, easy to administer, scalable, and atimesaver for users, it is no surprise that the market is rapidly growing at arate of 20 percent annually. In 1997 alone, vendors expect to ship more than200,000 fax servers.

Automate Phones with IVR
You can use IVR systems to automate all or portions of phone transactions.Companies commonly use these systems in such applications as ordering, support,or answering product or service questions.

In the simplest IVR systems, a single menu routes the caller to the rightgroup of employees in an organization. This menu uses such directions as: "Forhelp with your Super Widget, press 1. For help with your Software Shredder,press 2..." Such basic front ends eliminate the need for callers to speakto a live operator before being routed to the right employee or department.

More sophisticated IVR automation can guide callers through a series ofquestion-and-answer menus to meet many or all of their needs. Sophisticatedsystems can feature skills-based routing, which directs callers to thoserepresentatives who are best qualified to meet their needs. Routing isaccomplished through caller ID information and callers' touch-tone answers toquestions about their needs.

An impressive array of benefits is compelling many corporations to use IVRsolutions. Companies can experience shorter call times because callers can getanswers to commonly asked questions before being connected to a live person.(Although vendors do not state so publicly, IVR deployment can result inworkforce reductions and improved bottom lines. Companies generally avoid suchstatements to avoid negative publicity.)

Companies can also increase their customer satisfaction levels becausecallers are connected to the right person faster (even if that person is offsite) and get their needs met faster. Some IVR menus even let callers selecttheir language of choice, offering better service to callers who speak differentlanguages.

Finally, using Dialed-Number-Identification-Service (DNIS) or DIDinformation from incoming calls, one IVR platform can provide multiple services.For example, using the same platform and phone lines, a business can offerorder-by-phone and technical-support services, thereby reducing costs whileimproving customer service.

IVR systems are quite at home in corporate LAN and NT server environments.Because the heart of any IVR system is the database, the database is usually "live"and located in a database management system (DBMS) server or a set of files onthe corporate LAN server. You can use NT to deliver near-universal databaseconnectivity with Open Database Connectivity (ODBC) protocols. Microsoft SQLServer is widely used as the database server engine. The NTFS file systemprovides a robust foundation for ensuring solid file-access performance and lessdowntime.

NT-based IVR, properly designed, is inherently scalable, allowing suchsolutions to seamlessly migrate to multiple systems. NT's clustering technology(Wolfpack) will enable IVR solutions that achieve true hot-standby status. (Formore information on how to ensure a successful solution, see "7Tips to Deploy a Successful IVR System,". For more information onclustering, see Mark Smith, "Clusters for Everyone," June 1997.)

Call Center and Workgroup Solutions
The concept of call centers started many years ago as a simple one: Put lotsof people in a big room, give them phones, and have them answer incoming callsor place calls from a predefined list of numbers. Now, call centers are highlysophisticated operations that rely on computers, networking, and CT technology.

Call centers are usually quite large, requiring hundreds of employees,expensive ACDs (or ACD loads on PBX systems), and host computer systems. The ACDqueues incoming calls, asks callers to answer a few questions via touch-tonephone, and then prompts them to wait for the next available representative asrecorded music or information plays in the background.

Computer telephony integration (CTI) enables a wealth of call-handlingfeatures that can improve any call center's performance. Some features aredesigned to help company representatives operate more efficiently. These includescreen pops (which put the caller's record on the representative's screen beforethe call is connected), call blending (which mixes outgoing calls with ordinaryincoming call traffic to keep representatives busy when incoming calls areslow), and call control (enables representatives to transfer callers with aquick click of a mouse rather than pushing telephone buttons). A predictivedialer feature can even predict the right flow of outgoing telemarketing callsso that when a person answers, a representative becomes available and can beimmediately switched to that call.

Other features are designed to help callers either reach the right person(skills-based routing) or take care of callers' needs without their talking to alive person (IVR automation). But a customer doesn't even need to dial a phoneto be helped. With Web-enabled connectivity, you can synchronize a call centerwith a customer's Web browser activities. When the customer clicks a button onthe company's home page, it triggers a company representative to call thatperson. From there, the representative can see the same screen the customer isviewing or even control the screen that both are seeing.

Companies don't need large call centers to benefit from CTI. You can thinkof small organizational workgroups (such as a support group of 20 employees whowant to improve their efficiency) as small call centers because they have manyof the same needs as large call centers. Although most vendors have overlookedproviding call center technology to small workgroups consisting of fewer than100 people, a few have risen to the challenge. Vendors such as Applied VoiceTechnology (AgentXpressNT) and MaxQ Technologies (ComSense) offer NT-basedsolutions that provide workgroup-level support without giving up anyfunctionality. (For more about how to use CTI technology in small workgroups,see the sidebars, "How to Build Your Own Call Center," and "Call Center and IVR Success: Number Nine Visual Technology.")

The PBX-Enabled CT Server Revolution
A revolution is brewing in the PBX marketplace. CT servers, sometimesreferred to as "UnPBXs," are making their way into the business world.These devices will forever change the way you think about PBX phone systems.

Historically, companies have encountered difficulties when interfacing CTsystems with PBX phone systems because PBX manufacturers have kept theirproducts proprietary. To get a CT system to work in a PBX environment, CTvendors had to reverse engineer the native methods of integration that enabledthe CT equipment to perform. PBX manufacturers maintained secrecy for as long asthey could to ensure a captive market for their own CT solution add-ons. Theirexclusivity drove up solution prices and inhibited new product innovation.

But CT vendors have started to fight back with a new product thatintegrates PBX features with voicemail, auto-attendant, ACD, IVR, and other CTfunctions. NT has been at the core of this new revolution. Although not every CTserver uses NT, more than 80 percent are NT-based.

As Figure 2 shows, very good reasons exist for the high percentage ofNT-based CT servers. First, NT's OS provides a true preemptive multitaskingenvironment, which is necessary for writing responsive applications. Second, NThas a solid GUI framework that enables intuitive administration programs. NT hasvery good intrinsic support for IP connectivity and a solid security layer thatprovides a tight security envelope around critical-administration andsensitive-message data. Finally, NT offers database connectivity, letting itconnect to corporate databases for seamless IVR and ACD functions.

But enterprises won't be throwing away their PBXs overnight, so the firstuse of CT servers will likely be to provide workgroups with ACD functionality.CT server vendors are keenly aware of this first shot and are making theirpackages strong in this area. As businesses become more confident that CTservers can reliably handle their telephone services, the trend will probably befor interconnect companies to offer CT servers as part of their standard line ofcommunications products. As the next wave of CT servers hits the market witheven easier installation processes, the computer distribution channel isexpected to begin moving these products through LAN resellers.

Compared with installing and maintaining separate PBX and CT systems, usinga CT server has several significant advantages. The CT server is easier toinstall because you have no PBX integration issues to deal with. Once you hookup the LAN, incoming lines, and station-set lines, the hard part is finished.Administering and maintaining the CT server is also easier because of the commoninterface for all resident functions. Ultimately, most companies will be able tomaintain their CT servers, saving time and money.

Companies will also benefit from enhanced call handling and betterperformance. Packages such as AltiGen's AltiServ offer such features asFollow-Me, which forwards calls, and Boomerang, which lets you listen to a voicemessage, press a button, and initiate a callback to the person who left themessage. Because the PBX features are intrinsic to the CT server architecture,ACD features work fast because the CT server's ACD software knows the state ofeach station line at all times and can instantly respond to incoming calls andchanges in station-set status. Voicemail and auto-attendant features will alsowork faster because they don't need to contend with a slow or problematic linkto the PBX.

The field of CT server products is dynamic, with new vendors popping upalmost monthly. With the scramble to be recognized as one of the first to enterthis new market, many vendors have announced products that are clearly notfinished. Also, unlike the venerable PBX products that vendors are attempting toreplace, the new products have standard and optional feature lists that varyconsiderably from vendor to vendor. So plan to spend time sorting out vendorsand their products before you buy. (See "When Shopping for aCT Server," for buyer tips.)

The Merger of CT and the Internet
Just when you think you've grasped the idea of computers and telephonesworking together, the Internet joins the mix, changing the picture radically.Any CT integration plan must consider IP telephony, which includes both voiceover IP (VoIP) and fax over IP (FoIP). IP telephony had two parents: the bypassbusiness and VoIP.

In the bypass business, companies used permanent, dedicated T-1 (or larger)links between locations. Calls placed in one location were digitized, sent overthe bypass link, and dialed closer (and cheaper) to the recipient. As corporatesophistication grew, so too did the need to run conventional data over existingwide-area links. Thus, wide-area links had to carry both voice and datasimultaneously, a feat made possible by a technology called voice over data.This technology integrated voice traffic with data.

Voice over data, however, worked only between sites you controlled. Youcouldn't call someone with a computer connection directly, nor could you call acustomer service center via the Web. In fact, the business world didn't givemuch thought to the idea of sending realtime data such as voice over theInternet. The mind-set was that phone calls run over circuits, the Internet ispacket-based, and making the two work together would be difficult.

Meanwhile, consumers were buying computers with sound cards and microphonesto call their friends over the Internet. The PC industry decided to meet theirneeds and developed such VoIP programs as NetSpeak's WebPhone. Calls made usingthese half duplex programs had dropouts and delays, but they were much cheaperthan calls made using Ma Bell. Thus, VoIP became IP telephony's other parent andmarked the beginning of the upcoming changes in the long-distance market.

VoIP is evolving faster than "traditional" CT. In 1996, VoIP wasbarely more than a dream. After the concept was proven both practical andconsumer-friendly, enterprises began pilot implementations. Today, vendors aredemonstrating voice-enabled customer-service Web sites, and some companies useVoIP for internal communications.

Not surprisingly, a standards body--the Internet Telephony Interoperability(ITI) Consortium, based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology--has comeinto being. The consortium works on the entire Internet phone business,including everything from numbering and find-me issues to tariff structures(i.e., payment rates). Its members include many of the heavy hitters in thephone and computing industries.

VoIP is split into several product subcategories: computer-to-computer,computer-to-telephone, and phone system-oriented approaches. In addition, manyCT-application software development tools support VoIP.

The best-known VoIP subcategory is consumer computer-to-computer. Beingwell known, however, doesn't mean VoIP is mature. Interoperability betweenproducts is still a big issue, as vendors slowly adopt H.323 and relatedstandards. Quality has much improved over the early days, but this technologystill suffers from lag and fadeout. Number assignment is another unresolvedissue. Few Internet users have a permanently assigned IP address.

Meanwhile, computer-to-computer VoIP in companies is turning pro. Forexample, VocalTec's Surf&Call Web plugin lets companies put a "callcustomer service" button on a Web page. Once the button is pushed and thecall reaches the customer-service call center, the customer uses onscreen orvoice prompts to connect to a representative. The representative can then "push"pages on the customer's browser window. (If the customer makes separate phoneand Web calls, the two must be linked before the representative can change thebrowser window. To link the two calls, the customer usually types a unique IDnumber from the Web page on the phone.) The Web plugin approach has no numberingissues. The receiver's IP address is static, so the Web plugin knows where tocall.

Computer-to-telephone VoIP/FoIP solutions, such as Integrated DeviceTechnology's (IDT) Net2Phone and Inter-Tel's Vocal'Net, are rapidly maturinginto businesslike products. Net2Phone lets you place international calls onlineat low rates. Although the user software is free, charges usually appear on yourregular phone bill, further blurring the line between phone and computer.Vocal'Net is a gateway that connects to your existing phone system. If acomputer can place a call via the Internet, automatic route selection sends itthrough the gateway to the other end. More software-only NT products of thissort are likely to be released in the next year. These products occasionallysuffer from dropouts and delays, but they still offer savings for long-distancecallers.

Some companies aren't waiting for Internet specialists to mitigate dropoutand delay problems in computer-to-telephone VoIP. VocalTec's Telephony Gateway(VTG) is a good example of an enterprise-level solution. It compensates fordropouts by sampling the surrounding voice and interpolating the missing bits.VTG also watches link characteristics (e.g., latency and total bandwidth) andadjusts performance. It supports multiple gateways and includes Windows-basednetwork monitoring and management software. VTG can work from Web to phone andfrom Web to Web. With a network of outbound gateways, a company can even placephone-to-phone or fax-to-fax calls.

For corporate road warriors, an inbound application of VoIP is essential.You dial a local Internet service provider number from your laptop computer, logon to your corporate site, and then use all of the phone system features as ifyou were in the office. More sophisticated universal inbox programs will evendownload faxes, email, and voicemail using the same connection.

In the FoIP side of the CT-Internet merger, most approaches are essentiallystore-and-forward schemes. A fax goes to a local server location or directlyinto a unified-messaging universal inbox. From there, you can route it over theInternet as a file attachment to an email address or send it as a native faxfrom a remote fax gateway server.

Some FoIP solutions use least-cost routing (LCR) algorithms to transportfaxes as far as they can go over the Internet to minimize line-access charges.For example, suppose you have a corporation with multiple locations throughoutthe United States. With an Internet-connected fax gateway server in eachlocation, the originating server determines which gateway location to send thefax to that would incur the lowest phone toll charges when you place the call.Because a high percentage of most companies' long-distance telephone bills isattribuTable to fax, LCR fax systems can pay for themselves in considerably lessthan a year. NetXchange, RightFAX, Black Ice Software and other vendors haveproducts that provide fax gateway functionality and various levels of LCR.

CT's Come a Long Way
CT technology has come a long way from its humble beginnings of phonehoroscopes and similar games. It has now matured into a compelling set ofsolutions that can dramatically improve productivity and communication. Withsuch tools as unified messaging systems, fax servers, PBX-enabled CT servers,IVR systems, and IP telephony products, companies can better meet the currentand future needs of their customers.

Contact Info

NetXchange Communications * 408-248-6200Web: [email protected]Black Ice Software * 603-673-1019Web: http://blackice.sendfax.comAgentXpressNTContact:Applied Voice Technology (AVT) * 425-820-6000Web: http://www.appliedvoice.comAltiServContact:AltiGen Communications * 510-252-9712Web: http://www.altigen.comEmail: [email protected]ComSenseContact:MaxQ Technologies * 716-389-1500Web: http://www.maxq.comEmail: [email protected]FAXCOM for NTContact:Biscom * 508-250-1800; 800-477-2472Web: http://www.biscom.comEmail: [email protected]Net2PhoneContact:Integrated Device Technology * 800-345-7015Web: http://www.net2phone.comEmail: [email protected]RightFAX NT 5.0Contact:RightFAX * 520-320-7000Web: http://www.rightfax.comEmail: [email protected]Vocal'NetContact:Inter-Tel * 602-961-9000Web: http://www.inter-tel.comEmail: [email protected]VocalTec Telephony GatewayContact:VocalTec Communications * 201-768-9400Web: http://www.vocaltec.comEmail: [email protected]WebPhoneContact:NetSpeak * 561-997-4001Web:

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