Voice over SOA sounds promising -- will vendors deliver?

Digital communications, enhanced by SOA

Can SOA add automation and intelligence to the way calls and other communications are routed throughout the enterprise? This may be the next great frontier for SOA -- and, at long last, a tangible benefit of architecture for the business.

Digital communications, enhanced by SOA

Last month, fellow ZDNet blogger David Greenfield posted some insightful commentary on the growing convergence between SOA and what is now called unified communications, or UC (bringing together various digitized communications channels, including PBX, voice over IP, video, email, and instant messaging). David spoke with Microsoft's Eric Swift about the possibilities such a mashup will bring, and what Microsoft may offer in this space.

Microsoft has been treating SOA (via Oslo) and Office Communications Server (OCS) as separate initiatives, but they'll need to be brought together somewhere along the line. (Information on Microsoft's UC strategy here.) David said Swift "pointed to the numerous APIs that developers already have into OCS and how they can build on those interfaces to create speech-enabled applications, for example. But that’s not the same as providing a SOA interface and Swift knows it." As David noted, developers "just can’t be expected to learn the intricacies of establishing a voice connection. Microsoft needs to offer them a high-level interface if OCS is going to extend into business process."

David has just followed up on these observations in a new report, published in InformationWeek, in which Microsoft's Swift confirmed that Microsoft is indeed planning to offer a desktop-based product that blends SOA and UC. In fact, Microsoft is one of a number of vendors who are increasingly melding voice communications capabilities with business processes, and doing so via SOA.

Why the sudden interest? Where and how can SOA-enabled telephony make a difference? Via SOA, business processes could be configured to automatically launch communications with relevant players across the enterprise. David cites a survey of 447 IW readers which finds that contact centers are the natural venue for such capabilities -- such as "helping resolve customer complaints by automatically notifying principal parties." Other examples include automatically initiating conference calls to address a change in a business metric, or in the event of a system failure.

David detailed how SOA-enabled communications would deliver value:

"There’s a growing trend amongst enterprise communications vendors to enable their communications servers to be controlled through a Web Service architecture. This would allow a [Microsoft's mashup tool] PopFly-like product, for example, to mashup stock alert and a voice response system so in the event that company’s stock fell beneath a predefined threshold, an executive attending the 3GSM conference could receive an SMS on the phone and then be brought into a conference call right form his/her mobile. Alternatively, a laptop user at the same 3GSM conference could receive an IM and click on an embedded link to be brought into a conference call."

IW's survey also found that 13% currently have integrated communications into their business processes, and another 20% plan to do so within the next two years. So about a third have an active interest in the approach.

This emerging space and the possibilities are not lost on telecommunications vendors. For example, Avaya offers "communications-enabled business process," or CEBP, and Cisco builds communication capabilities within its "service-oriented network architecture" (SONA) offerings. IBM is partnering with Nortel in this area.

However, vendors may have issues with the proprietary nature of their offerings. David notes that "all require IT to use their underlying telephony servers and messaging servers... Avaya goes so far as to build its own ESB to communicate with other messaging services." Only Nortel offers interoperability with third-party hardware, he says.

The ability to provide a common interface to the same applications from across all channels -- whether its via interactive voice response, Website, or via internal interfaces to call centers -- has been a key goal and benefit of Web services of SOA. Linking these and other communications with business processes makes it a really compelling advantage.