SD-WAN in the Contact Center: A Mission-Critical Application
With an SD-WAN solution focused on providing reliability, contact center operators benefit from higher quality calls and reduced spend.
Perhaps the hottest topic in networking these days is Software-Defined WAN (SD-WAN), which is most often discussed in terms of connecting enterprise branch offices to headquarters, data centers, and perhaps cloud locations. The capabilities of some SD-WAN solutions to provide added network reliability and non-stop, continuous application uptime even in the face of network problems, however, make them ideally suited for one of the most mission-critical WAN applications: the contact center.
While a single location contact center has no need for SD-WAN technology, most contact centers today are multi-location, and often global, to provide cost efficiency, effectiveness, and 24/7 support capabilities. And even as some larger corporations continue to operate their own individual contact centers, the global contact center industry -- whose raison d'etre is providing high quality, cost effective services to other enterprises -- simply must provide service continuity to remain in business.
In fact, most contact center operators also want the ability to deliver tiered service to different customers, based on the unique needs of their industry and end customers. Whether for customer service, technical support, outgoing call banks, or other uses, the right SD-WAN solution offers contact center operators improved reliability and customer experience while also lowering costs, even as the applications used by call center agents become more centralized and more data intensive.
Contact centers were among the first users of voice over IP (VoIP), and as such have always required at least "four nines" (99.99%) network reliability. This has meant the use of MPLS for their internal private WAN, very often with dual MPLS networks. While expensive, such solutions have been necessary to maintain reliability and call quality.
Contact centers are seeing ever greater data demands on the internal network above and beyond the primary use in supporting high quality voice calls. Whether using private clouds, hybrid clouds, public clouds, or Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), more and more of the applications used by contact center agents are being centralized, rather than distributed to each individual contact center location. Meanwhile, support for things like social media and video chat put further strain on network capabilities and WAN bandwidth.
Telephony Automated Call Distributors (ACDs) distribute calls among agents based on human availability, system capacity, agent skill sets, etc., but they don't take into account how the underlying WAN is performing. A properly designed SD-WAN solution can simultaneously deliver better customer experience, greater reliability, and the ability to offer different service levels, all while reducing network costs.
For such mission-critical use, what's required is an SD-WAN solution that delivers automatic, continuously improved reliability and application performance predictability across a WAN fabric comprising multiple connections at each location, some of which will be private connections like MPLS, while others may be Internet links. The key SD-WAN reliability technology here offers continuous unidirectional monitoring of network conditions across all WAN connections. Note that for VoIP, the typical round-trip measurements of network latency and loss that many SD-WAN solutions use are insufficient to make appropriate forwarding decisions; more than for other applications, one-way measurement of network performance is essential here.
With such precise unidirectional measurement, for real-time applications like VoIP and video conferencing an SD-WAN solution focused on reliability can provide literally sub-second response to network issues, without breaking existing application flows, so VoIP calls are maintained even in the face of link failure or bursts of high loss or jitter. Existing dual-MPLS solutions lacking such technology will almost certainly face dropped calls when a primary MPLS connection goes down.
Where sufficient bandwidth is available, it is even possible to provide still greater voice/video reliability by replicating real-time traffic flows along a second path (while suppressing duplicates at the receiving end). This delivers "perfect" sound and voice quality even given high congestion or outright failure on one of the WAN connections. Some SD-WAN solutions can even be configured to do such flow replication only when sufficient WAN bandwidth is available.
SD-WAN technology designed for mission-critical use can also enable more efficient use of existing WAN links. Given that almost all contact center WANs have a mixture of voice and other real-time traffic, together with interactive and more bulk traffic, the ability to use all WAN links at all times, in addition to the ability to safely use each link at higher sustained network utilization, can result in substantial Opex savings by postponing indefinitely the need to buy expensive bandwidth upgrades.
An SD-WAN offers other Opex savings to the contact center operator as well. The self-correcting nature of a smart SD-WAN solution lowers Opex costs and increases reliability still further, fixing network problems as they occur rather than simply reporting them, allowing WAN managers to spend less time on reactive troubleshooting, and more time on proactive efforts. And configuring an SD-WAN solution via centralized management is much simpler than endlessly fiddling with router settings, or depending on each individual MPLS provider.
Because of the large volume of calls contact centers must support, operators need to ensure that they look for an SD-WAN solution that scales to the number of locations and simultaneous calls they need to support. Some SD-WAN solutions scale well in terms of number of locations, without actually doing much to offer added reliability to real-time traffic like VoIP. Others might have such reliability technology, but not have a proven ability to scale in terms of numbers of locations, multiple links, simultaneous calls (application flows), and mixing and matching MPLS and Internet links. The ability to provide reliability and application predictability typically requires per-packet forwarding decisions as well as the ability to support thousands of flows and several links per location. So it is critical to find an SD-WAN vendor that can handle the load while providing this added level of reliability -- preferably one with multiple customer references to which it can point.
With an SD-WAN solution focused on providing reliability, contact center operators get a number of benefits: They get greater network reliability and uninterrupted, higher quality calls even in the face of circuit failure or degradation due to bursts of network congestion. They can safely sustain higher link utilization from each network connection. They can replace one of multiple MPLS connections with an Internet-based link without compromising on quality -- in fact, providing higher reliability and fewer dropped calls than existing approaches.
And while few contact centers are likely to forgo a private WAN alternative entirely, with the right SD-WAN solution some remote outposts, where MPLS might not be available at all or only at prohibitive cost, can safely use only multiple Internet connections. In any case, the SD-WAN solution can allow the contact center operator to cap their spending on those expensive MPLS connections while augmenting them with lower cost, high bandwidth Internet circuits. Given that the cost per bit of MPLS bandwidth can now be anywhere from eight to over 150 times higher than the cost of Internet bandwidth, the ability to have even part of a global contact center operation's WAN needs met with Internet connectivity can result in significant cost savings.
So while branch offices may get all the attention when it comes to SD-WANs, many contact center operators, for whom continuous uptime, consistent performance and high voice quality are paramount, are the ones already seeing the benefits from SD-WAN technology.