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Building A Next Generation SMB Office Phone System

Building A Next Generation SMB Office Phone SystemThere was a time not so long ago when your business had not arrived until the local phone company rolled up and wheeled in a Private Branch Exchange (PBX) with hand trucks — installing the equipment somewhere in your utility closet. You had to keep it cool and heaven help you if you had a problem, hopefully, you had signed up for the service agreement.

Over time, less expensive PBX servers became available, but they still required IT specialists to install, maintain, and troubleshoot. On the positive side, with an on-premise PBX you gained the ability to hold and transfer calls and even a voicemail client for your customers. The technology itself is now several decades old but many businesses are still using them. The question to ask in today’s cloud enriched technology driven environment is “why”?

Evolution of VoIP Technology

Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) is a technology that has evolved rapidly since its commercial inception around 2004. The promise of free or cheap long-distance communication allowed the technology to quickly gain a global foothold. Problems with dropped calls and noise may have deterred some, but that has changed quickly in the last five years with advances in noise cancelling technology and general Internet reliability.

Unified Communications has been a business buzzword for the past half decade and simply means we’ve reached the technical capacity to combine things like phone calls, faxes, mobility, voicemails, email and Web conferencing within a single office IP Network. Basically, the same data network you use to send and receive emails can now handle all facets of your small business communications landscape.

What Cloud computing brings to the table

The latest technology advancement to sweeten the business communications pot has been the emergence of Cloud computing. It may seem like a natural extension today to introduce outside computing sources to handle more advanced specific tasks – the layman’s definition of Cloud computing – but the technology put into practice is relatively new.

With Cloud computing, we evolve from the traditional silos of communication like voice, fax and email to more specialized applications that help business become more productive. Now we can integrate any number of Software as a Service (SaaS) applications like Sales Force Automation (SFA) and Customer Relationship Management (CRM) with all our communication channels. It’s at this point that the Cloud leapfrogs even the most advanced PBX boxes. Foregoing the difficult and expensive integration that would be required with an on-premise PBX, these SaaS tools can be layered directly on top of the existing network with little or no IT technical expertise. Try doing that with the old “box” in the closet.

How Vocalocity brings the two together

This convergence of VoIP and Cloud Computing is the exact technological crossroads where Atlanta based Vocalocity launched to begin serving small businesses in the U.S. with a dynamic set of features, security and quality that can help grow business and achieve a cost savings.

The core architecture of the network is based on the concept of sub-tenants. Every Vocalocity customer, rather than having their own dedicated PBX, becomes a sub-tenant of Vocalocity’s Cloud-based communications system. It includes VoIP phone service and fax with the capability for full integration with email, CRM, Google Search, Google Maps, and any other hosted SaaS application. Each Vocalocity customer can also choose selectively from features such as conference calling, call queues, call recording, or voicemail-to-text. All of this is available to a customer from wherever they have an Internet connection, which means that your employees can be connected to your fully-integrated business phone system whether they are working in one office, multiple offices, or from home.

The sub-tenant architecture allows Vocalocity to reserve the required call-handling capacity for each customer and to protect each customer’s calls and data from all other customers. Phone calls are dynamically routed to any one of Vocalocity’s multiple Cloud-based server clusters. As one cluster is busy, then calls are simply forwarded to an available cluster using Vocalocity’s patent-pending cloud communications load balancing technology. Vocalocity also provides state-of-the-art protections against Internet outages. In those instances where business calls are placed, even if entire clusters of servers go down, calls can be automatically re-routed to cell phones or other landlines using patent-pending VoIP interference bypass technology.

Vocalocity’s software is designed in a similar fashion to the highly scalable models of leading Cloud-based services such as Facebook and Salesforce.com. This means that all service requests, including phone calls, are routed to Vocalocity using standard Internet services such as DNS. Vocalocity software is able to handle thousands of customers and tens of thousands of phones (SIP devices) with a single cluster or set of servers. Key customer data is stored in distributed memory caches to ensure sub-second response times without costly disk I/O for call-handling operations. All operations require secure credentials, and all customer systems can be monitored and configured by end users through Web browsers or through applications running on mobile devices like iPhones, iPads, or Android phones.

The entire system is driven by the concept of horizontal scalability which means that as more capacity is required, it can be achieved by adding more servers with similar capacity to those already in use. This approach has allowed Vocalocity to scale operations efficiently to meet demand. No specialized servers are required in the architecture. All Vocalocity services are designed to run on redundant arrays of Linux-based servers with Intel processors and standard components, and the failure of a single server or component doesn’t result in noticeable service disruption or data loss. Since servers are “commodity” systems, Vocalocity can easily maintain and expand multiple service centers in a highly efficient manner.

Since 2007, Vocalocity has designed the system to be highly scalable, extremely efficient, reliable, and manageable. With this design, in 2011 Vocalocity has successfully expanded data centers regionally while still maintaining central operations control from its headquarters in Atlanta. Sub-tenants can be moved dynamically from one server cluster to another in a matter of minutes. Using the latest in virtualization and software deployment automation technologies to keep hundreds or thousands of servers in sync and up-to-date, Vocalocity cloud communication services are poised to expand to an ever-growing and international customer base in the coming years. With dynamic load balancing technology, Vocalocity customers will continue to benefit from the increased capacity and expansion as it is deployed.

Extraordinary innovation raises the bar

Vocalocity designs and implements its own proprietary software to handle the core business communications services it provides.

For example, Vocalocity provides cost-effective and high-quality conference calling using a patent-pending technique that creates “dynamic conference clusters” in the Cloud. When a conference call is initiated, the call is assigned to the least-busy server which acts as the conference “mixer.” Other application servers are then dynamically connected to build a “dynamic cluster” of servers to receive, mix and distribute audio to all participants and even enable other features such as call recording. The solution negates having dedicated servers or resources yet pulls the necessary computing power to enable high-quality audio on conference calls.

Another key innovation is the real-time fraud detection system that Vocalocity has implemented to protect customers from losses due to fraud. Hackers attempting fraudulent VoIP calls plague many hosted VoIP providers, and in response, Vocalocity has implemented industry-leading protection. The fraud detection system runs continuously in every cluster and automatically identifies likely fraud based on a number of factors down to specific phones and accounts. The system quickly and automatically blocks any in-progress fraud attempts and changes the phone credentials – without customer involvement. It also notifies the Vocalocity customer support team so they can take further action as required. As a result, customers do not have fraudulent call activity showing up on their accounts.

Traditional premise or hosted PBX systems have sometimes offered packaged integrations or come with a set of complex APIs for integration. Integrating these communication systems to other business applications has traditionally been difficult, costly. Vocalocity has utilized its Cloud-based architecture to change the game by introducing a secure JavaScript API packaged with the Vocalocity Desktop. It allows any customers or partners to develop “plug-ins” that securely integrate with the Vocalocity call-handling system using nothing more complicated than HTML and Javascript. Plug-ins can provide screen-pops, automatic logging, automatic dialing, and the ability to integrate various phone call capabilities into existing Web sites or Web applications.

Where do we go from here?

In the Fall of 2011, Vocalocity added the availability of iPhone and Android command and control functionality for its nearly fifteen thousand customers throughout the U.S. Through the iPhone and Android applications, Vocalocity clients now have a real-time window into their office communications system anywhere they get a cellular signal.

At the core of the applications is the ability to access a real-time call monitoring dashboard screen from both the iPhone and Android smartphone. The dashboard shows the activity of each extension, insuring the boss is never away. Other features include the ability to play and delete voicemails and have an office number follow you anywhere. Vocalocity subscribers can even make remote calls that will appear as though they are using their desk extension.

The iPhone and Android apps also allow a business owner to view call logs from various extensions at any time on their smartphone as well as update user profiles within the hosted office phone system. The app will even ring multiple numbers at one time, ensuring absolute coverage in the office.

Several enhancements are being made to our systems this year to ensure Vocalocity remains the most innovative and cost effective solution for small businesses that need next generation communications services to stay competitive. This includes the regional network expansion discussed above, as well as many new capabilities in our Cloud-based software.

One of those enhancements includes the introduction of Virtual Trunks. With this new capability, our customers will be able to connect the Vocalocity business communications system to their preferred call minutes (SIP Trunk) provider, giving the ability to shop around and move their phone service without having to reconfigure the system. Virtual Trunks will also allow minutes providers to bundle the Vocalocity system with their own services for customers.

Today, all customer configuration data and media files, such as voicemails and receptionist or extension greetings, are stored in a Vocalocity system with live dual data redundancy. To improve our service this year, Vocalocity will be providing an extra layer of live data redundancy. Customer data and media files will be striped across storage systems so that three copies will always be available and distributed across multiple locales. This means that if one data server fails, a second server is invoked. Then the data and media files will be accessed immediately from the third server in a separate location. The enhanced storage mechanism that Vocalocity is implementing mirrors those used by the most advanced Cloud-service providers, such as Google, to ensure availability, reliability, and speed of access.

All of this is to say that, for any company that is still relying on an aging PBX box to handle their mission critical communications, there is another viable and more advantageous option. In many cases it’s less than half the costs associated with that box and its subsequent service provider. As Malcolm Gladwell might say, we’ve reached a tipping point at the convergence of VoIP and Cloud Computing technology. This new generation of hosted communications is reliable and scalable also new levels of mobility and integration.

In other words, it might be time to wheel your PBX box out of the closet and back to the 80’s where it belongs.

About the Author

Jonathan Alexander – Vice President – Engineering at Vocalocity

Jonathan leads the Vocalocity development and testing teams, and brings over 25 years of experience delivering superior software products. He most recently authored Codermetrics (O’Reilly Media, 2011), a text that examines clear and objective ways of identifying and analyzing how to make engineering teams more cohesive and productive. He also maintains the Codermetrics community, a forum for collaborative communications about software engineering metrics. Prior to joining Vocalocity, he was co-founder and president of vmSight (acquired by Liquidware Labs in 2009) a pioneer in virtual data center planning and monitoring, where he led operations and product development. Jonathan previously served as VP of products at CRM and marketing analytics leader Epiphany (acquired by Infor in 2006) and was VP and CTO of venture-backed Radnet which built a web business-to-business platform that was acquired by Epiphany in 2001. Raised in Los Angeles, a long-time resident of Boston and now residing in Atlanta, Jonathan was educated in computer science at UCLA, developed software for Lotus Development Corp. and began his career writing software for author/director Michael Crichton.

 

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