Beyond Asterisk High Availability (HA) Solutions

High Availability (HA) Asterisk solutions, once reserved for mission critical deployments, are now a part of every normal setup. With VoIP, clustering solutions depend on moving the IP traffic to a working server. Setting up a main and standby Asterisk system allows continuous availability of such a working Asterisk system. But telephony is more than a data system using IP traffic and such an HA arrangement is inadequate in ensuring the continuation of all the on-going calls at the time of the hardware or software failure.  Going beyond this high availability for Asterisk, is the patented call survival method (US Patent US 20110310773 A1) and system that keeps calls alive while providing high availability.

A call center software manages hundreds of calls in different queues, connecting them appropriately. The call center ACD is a layer above the PBX which controls the routing through skills based routing and queue prioritization. When a software or hardware failure is encountered, all the on-going conversations and calls in the queue are lost. HA for Asterisk will get your system ready for future calls. With Call survival, the callers will be able to continue their on-going conversations or calls without the need to re-initiate. Implementation of call survival in call center solutions offers a redundancy beyond the normal high availability solutions implemented for Asterisk based call centers.

High Availability Asterisk Solutions

Asterisk High Availability (HA) solutions, once reserved for mission critical deployments, are now commonplace in normal contact center setup. With VoIP, clustering solutions make it relatively straightforward to move IP traffic. Setting up a main and standby Asterisk system will allow such an arrangement to ensure continuous availability of an Asterisk system. Since telephony systems are not mere data systems using IP traffic, such arrangements to ensure immediate availability of the system is inadequate in ensuring the continuation of the calls that were underway when a hardware or software failure happened. Voice solutions require better options. One such option is the call survival capable high availability for Asterisk systems based on US Patent US 20110310773 A1 – a method and system for fail-safe call survival.

One of the most exciting technology to shake the telecommunications landscape in the last decade is Asterisk. Its use in unified communications (UC) and contact centers is unparalleled. Therefore high availability solutions for Asterisk have gained significant attention.  The high availability implemented using the above mentioned patent provides the technology to recover calls and successfully continue the on-going calls and conversations in the event of a failure. This technology is available as a part of a call center ACD that manages and scales to multiple Asterisk servers in a cluster to handle very large call volumes.

Enhanced multi-channel ACD routing to improve call center software efficiency

A multi-channel ACD does not imply separate queues for queuing different media  like voice, email, and social media. As a matter of fact, voice media might have many queues to take advantage of skills-based routing and queue priority. One reason to have exclusive queues for different media type is to simplify skill-set assignment. The more important consideration is to retain the ability to handle the different media calls judiciously with the realization that certain media type requires synchronous real-time communication while others require timely response, not necessarily real-time and synchronous. We know that voice conversations are real-time responses whereas emails require timely response in keeping with good customer service practice. This blog will review multi-channel ACD queue setup for skills based routing and discuss aspects of multi-channel media handling using enhanced features within a call center software.

Queuing and routing within a call center ACD is dictated by skills based routing and queue priority. Queues require specific skills to handle the voice calls, email, chat, or social media. Skills are dictated by the business requirements. For example, ability to conduct a conversation in English, Spanish, or French would each be a skill. Similarly, ability to answer customer inquiries on a specific product can be a skill required for handling calls coming into a specific queue. Writing skills and responding appropriately can be a skill essential for handling emails. Queues also have a priority that differentiates the level of service offered. A higher priority queue means it requires quicker response. Service is usually measured in terms of the average duration a customer waits before a call is handled. Employees who are involved with handling calls in the queue are assigned skill levels for the skills they possess. When an employee is logged into the call center ACD, their skills dictate the media calls they can handle and the skill level dictates the pecking order.

Queue priority is another important factor in the management of the service level within a contact center ACD. A higher priority queue will be handled before a lower one. When an employee becomes available, he or she gets the media from the highest priority queue for which they have the skills. Now let examine how to introduce efficiency in a multi-channel ACD with skills based routing and queue prioritization.

An emails do not require real-time synchronous response and therefore can be in a lower priority queue compared to a voice call. If an agent is offered an email from an email queue by the contact center ACD based on the skills based routing, it indicates that there were no calls waiting in any higher priority queue. When the employee starts working on the email response, a call can come into a voice queue that may require a faster response. With advanced call center software offering powerful ACD features like ability to re-queue media calls into a personal queue and make out of band announcement of calls waiting in higher priority queue, the employee handling an email can quickly re-queue it back into the ACD and be ready to handle the voice call. Here too, it can be re-queued into a personal queue that belongs to the employee so that they continue where they left off when it comes back to them. Such contact center ACD features will contribute to increase in the call center efficiency.

Influence of Asterisk on Cloud call center landscape

Cloud based managed service providers are rapidly growing. The most recent financial statements from inContact and Interactive Intelligence point to this trend. Most call center software vendors are making a concerted effort to move from selling hardware and software as a product to selling an on-demand service. This move is being thrust upon them by the rapid change in networking and infrastructure. But the biggest threat to their survival comes from technology companies that leverage Asterisk and other open source elements for the technology stack.

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Is Cloud computing forcing consolidation within Unified Communication technology providers?

Shift in technology forces change. Cloud computing is the result of high speed internet, superior hardware and software, and fast paced evolution of computer technology. This allows shared computing resources interconnected through the power of internet. UC offerings bring IP telephony and ‘Presence’, combined with other real-time communication services. Let us examine its commercial impact on the unified communications (UC) industry.

The market was once dominated by large players like Lucent and Nortel with many smaller niche players. The products geared towards enterprises were purchased outright and support was handled as a service. Automatic Call Distribution (ACD) and Interactive Voice Response (IVR) allowed space for the growth of the back office. The back office operations were boosted with the evolution of the call center ACD which runs as a layer on top of an underlying telephony infrastructure. The computer telephony integration (CTI), Personal Computers (PC) and the availability of computer telephony boards were the driving forces in the evolution of the call center software, that went far beyond the capabilities offered by an ACD. The internet revolution and the growth of VoIP presented opportunities for new players like Cisco. The astounding growth of Asterisk, the open source hybrid switch, revolutionized the industry and turned it upside down. Even though the need for both UC and contact center technology exploded during the last decade, the presence of Asterisk has exerted considerable downward pressure on the market leaders who offer UC and contact center technology.

Did all these changes impact the technology leaders of the day like Nortel, Lucent and Alcatel. We know that Nortel does exist and the modern day Alcatel is the combine entity of Lucent and Alcatel. Avaya is a leading UC provider that inherited some of Nortel’s technology. It is now owned by large equity groups who are known to look for opportunity to leverage growth and exit with investment gains. This has not transpired even though the media makes periodic pronouncements about Avaya, due to tepid growth and huge debt load. Shore-tel, another leading UC provider that offers enterprise IP telephony solutions, came out with an IPO in 2007. Its stock prices have been languishing much below the IPO offering. Recently, Mitel Networks has launched a hostile take-over bid at a value well below the initial IPO offering in 2007. The re-alignment and consolidation within UC technology providers may be a reflection of the downward pricing pressure caused by the growth and availability of UC and call center technology for open source platforms like Asterisk.

What is the role of open source technology like Asterisk in the growth of cloud based solutions? How much influence does cloud computing have on the on-going consolidation and re-alignment? Cloud solutions have introduced a newer paradigm where enterprises don’t make the upfront capital investment and retain the ability to switch providers. Imagine the size of today’s economy versus the year 2000. With globalization, the market  has exploded and in spite of this, large players have disappeared. The impact of the continued growth of cloud computing driven by powerful open source driven solutions will continue to put immense pressure on larger established UC technology providers. It will feel like the race to the bottom for many of them.

Cloud contact center solutions based on Asterisk offer all the UC features within their call center software at considerably less cost. When offered as a service, the cloud services take away the risk of large capital expense from an enterprise, while offering flexibility. It remains to be seen how legacy players in the UC realm react to the downward financial pressures brought on by Cloud contact center solutions, especially the ones driven by Asterisk with other open source technology stack.

High Availability for Large Asterisk based contact centers

Cloud based call center software cater to very large systems. Asterisk is by far the most widely used telephony platform. As a natural evolution, the use of Asterisk in both Cloud and large premise based installations have come a long way. Technology for call center software is to some extent driven by the ‘assemble and build’ mode where various accessory technology element available in software form come together to deliver the final solution. Call center software depends on the underlying PBX technology and other technologies for web, database, SIP, and redundancy. Continue reading High Availability for Large Asterisk based contact centers

Contact Center Software for Cloud Platform

There are two distinct approaches to setting up a Cloud platform for offering contact center services. The first approach is to use a multi-tenant contact center software to build a call center solution on a given infrastructure. The second approach is to virtualize the underlying infrastructure and replicate the Contact Center ACD in each instance. The difference in the two approaches is the level at which abstraction is introduced. Cloud contact center solution does not necessarily mean multi-tenant or virtualization. When a service provider looks at building a Cloud platform to offer contact center solution as a service, these are the two available options.
Virtualization provides the ability to run multiple instances of the operating system co-existing on a shared hardware. This abstracts the underlying resources and the service provider manages multiple instances of contact centers providing dedicated instance for every customer. This approach brings out the benefit of Cloud delivery of service and centralizes the management of the infrastructure. It does not increase the operational efficiency at the Call Center ACD level. This is often the case when service providers virtualize Asterisk to offer Cloud based services.
A multi-tenant contact center software provides the ability to run multiple tenants using the same multi-channel ACD. Here the abstraction is at the contact center software layer, allowing the Cloud platform service provider to run one instance of the multi-channel ACD to deliver contact center solution to multiple, distinct, and separate contact centers. This is preferred to a virtual contact center solution as it brings about greater operational efficiency with less management overheads. There are powerful contact center solutions that support multi-tenant operation at the contact center ACD level with great degee of sophistication. Such solutions scale by increasing the capacity of the system without creating  additional virtual instances to manage.

Impact of Cloud Contact Center Services on Inbound Call Routing

Cloud contact center services are a natural progression of distributed computing where both voice and data services are made available through hosted platforms. Cloud-based solutions offer flexibility and benefits where services can be scaled on-demand and does away with the need to implement and maintain, hardware or platforms.

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Essentials of a Cloud Contact Center Service Platform

Gartner makes available for public distribution, a write-up called “Magic Quadrant for Contact Center Infrastructure”.  Aside from the market analysis and evaluation of some of the contact center solution providers, the narrative dated June 18, 2013, also provided insight into how the market perceives the technology. Under “Market Overview” it articulates that more and more solutions are now shipped as contact center software which can be run on properly configured commercial off-the-shelf servers.

Now this may be a recent phenomenon for proprietary solutions that are closed but it has always been the case with open source software driven technology platform particularly the Asterisk based contact center solutions. Linux O/S, Asterisk Telephony, MySQL Database, Apache Web Server, and all the dominant Web Browsers are open source and they form the backbone technology stack of the contact center solution. They are to a great degree, hardware vendor independent. There are many Cloud platform vendors like Rackspace and Amazon who offer the computing power and the backbone technology as a service, for deploying a cloud based contact center solution.

Cloud contact center service providers will require a contact center software that leverages a comparable technology stack and offer the essential functionality required for a contact center operation. Multi-tenant capability with a multi-channel ACD is a must for every Cloud based service provider. Skills based Routing, Dialer, and robust API for CRM integration are some of the other key elements required.

Distributed computing has been around for years. The unprecedented growth of network infrastructure and the evolution of Internet Protocol (IP) based technology methods has made it possible to move distributed computing capabilities to new heights. Cloud  platforms assemble the technology backbone and the contact center software to make it accessible through the IP networks. The shift to a service on demand model is one of the significant advantages offered by Cloud based contact center solutions.

Integration to Cloud Contact Center Services using API

Application Program Interfaces (API) are essential for integrating business and third party systems into the contact center solution work-flow. This is an important consideration when selecting a Cloud contact center solution. Mature service providers offer web services API that allow external applications to automate tasks. Almost all contact center software functionality available through a user interface can be exposed through Web API.

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