Convergence case in point: SOA approach eases hotel's development of in-room communications/Web portal

Seaportal may well define the next generation of hotel-based communications and information access services. It also helps the hotel monetize its services better (now that making money from phone calls is history). It newly empowers guests and traveling business workers to get what they need quickly and easily in terms of information, access, unified communications and entertainment.

Read a full transcript of the discussion. Sponsor: BlueNote Networks, Inc.

When I first heard of the Seaport Hotel's in-room "Seaportal" application, built using SOA principles to attain a true IP convergence features, I was jazzed and blogged on it. The Boston hotel recently took part in a webinar deep dive on the process and explained the results of the unique project.

I thought the webinar came out really well, a lot of information on the means and methods to pull together VOIP, unified communications, SOA, Web services and external information sources -- all with a slick touch-screen interface for the hotel's guests. BlueNote Networks, the hotel's vendor and partner in the project, pulled the webinar together, and I agreed to extend the reach of the information by presenting it as a sponsored BriefingsDirect podcast.

Seaportal may well define the next generation of hotel-based communications and information access services. It also helps the hotel monetize its services better (now that making money from phone calls is history). It newly empowers guests and traveling business workers to get what they need quickly and easily in terms of information, access, unified communications and entertainment.  

Seaportal offers significant ongoing benefits for the hotel, its suppliers and partners. Because when guests access their needed or desired services from the portal, that use pattern can be tracked and examined. Before such use was scattered amid different communications functions and networks, and hard to capture and measure.

So the integration benefits the portal affords also sets up the power of business intelligence so that a guest's individual preferences can be observed, measured, and therefore enhanced, either on this trip or the next. Users get convenience, efficiency, custom-tailored services, and lowered overall costs — while the providers of products and services get clarity of demand and use from which to improve their offerings while reducing their own costs.

Here are some excerpts from the discussion:

The Seaportal is the next step of innovation. In the hotel room there are actually three devices with which you can communicate with guests: the telephone, the computer, and the entertainment system and television. We envision all three of these technologies merging in the future. This is not going to happen overnight, and it depends in large part on the comfort level the guests will have with this technology. I can’t envision my parents using this device to watch TV, make phone calls or order room service, but I know my kids will.

The Seaportal is the first generation of this technology convergence, where we merged the phone and the computer into a single device. These are some of the requirements we gathered through focus groups with our guests. We had to limit what we built in the first version, so that we could hit the target date. However, the beauty of Web technology allows us to add functionality very easily in the future.

Seaportal is an in-room Web portal that is accessed through a thin client PC running Windows Embedded XP. ... These devices are not susceptible to viruses and can be easily returned to a known good state by rebooting them. ... When a guest checks out, the cache is erased, and the device is rebooted, awaiting the next guest. There are no traces left behind of where the guest may have surfed to, or any information they have left on the device. It is a thin-client with a touch-screen display, and it provides information about the Seaport and the Seaport district. We are offering our guests complimentary Web access. We also offer complimentary long distance and local calling within the continental United States with the Seaportal.

There was one mandatory requirement for the Seaportal, and that was it had to have VOIP. The reason for this is that we were looking for a lower-cost alternative to our legacy PBX. What used to be a profit center, for us is now considered a cost center. This is due to the ubiquitous use of cell phones. A number of hotels claim that they have VOIP technology deployed, and in one sense that’s true. However, in most cases they have installed IP phones and an IP phone switch, and the VOIP calls are going across their internal LAN, not over the Internet. The VOIP capability that we’ve built into the Seaportal routes calls over the Internet using a SIP parent provider.

There are solutions today to embed voice or telephony features into applications, and that typically involves traditional PBXs and computer telephony integration (CTI) interfaces like TAPI and JTAPI, but there are a lot of challenges that organizations face in leveraging that technology. It’s very complex, involving a significant amount of programming by software developers, and an intimate knowledge of the different PBX vendors' implementations.

Because of that, the time to respond and the time to build applications are usually very long. Integration costs are high because of the customization effort involved, and the programming model of CTI interfaces is typically very different from a Web services or Web development programming model. Often, you need specialized telephony expertise to embed telephony or voice in any application, including portal technology. Also, the development effort is typically one-off. So, you’re building an application tied into a PBX as a one-off application. For those of you on the call familiar with Web services and Service Oriented Architectures (SOA), it does not have the same concept of reusability in terms of Web service technology.

In the application leveraging the portal technology in the Web services, all of that was enabled using a product called SessionSuite SOA Edition from BlueNote Networks. SessionSuite SOA Edition provides a very rich set of communication services. We’ve talked about the telephony services, everything from traditional calling features to advanced services. It is based on SIP, includes a full SIP server, SIP registrar, proxy and redirect server. As I mentioned before, users are authenticated, authorized, and given access privileges, no matter where they’re physically located, whether within a company, over the Internet, the public voice network, or an IP network.

SessionSuite also includes a user portal, so that, for example, the [hotel] could set up such specific user preferences such as call blocking, call forwarding, and other features. And there is a management system so that a system administrator can manage all of the different components of SessionSuite SOA Edition. Most importantly, SOA Edition also exposes, through application programming interfaces, a set of Web services that allow developers to embed some of the capabilities that we’ve talked about into business applications.

Leveraging Web service technology shortens project cycles and certainly lowers development risks. You can leverage existing IT developers, so you don’t need an intimate and detailed knowledge of either a vendor specific CTI or even SIP. We allow organizations to actually leverage and modernize their existing PBX infrastructure.

Read a full transcript of the discussion. Sponsor: BlueNote Networks, Inc.

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