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The Webification of Communications

Not that long ago, there was a clear separation between an enterprise's Web and telephony infrastructures. They ran on separate servers, utilized a different wiring system, lived in their own physical spaces, and were managed by separate groups of people. The skills to configure, maintain, and troubleshoot one were not the skills required by the other, and for all practical purposes, they were two distinct islands floating in the same corporate sea.

However, beginning around the late 1990s, things started to change. PBXs became IP-enabled, and the move away from that monolithic row of refrigerator cabinets began.

Management was one of the first aspects of old school telephony to move to Web technology. Communications systems began hosting their own Web servers, and green-screen consoles were replaced by Web pages. Not only did this simplify the task of developing new management tools, but it gave administrators the freedom to access those tools from wherever they were, on whatever device they happened to be using.

Web servers also found their way onto communications endpoints. For example, telephones from both Avaya and Cisco contain Web servers that are used for configuration and management.

Of course, along with this openness came the need for security, but that's a blog article for another day.

User Applications
Once communications vendors put Web servers in place for management, they quickly began to expand their use into new and creative directions. I was working for Nortel in the early 2000s, and my first exposure to this was the browser-based interface to CallPilot voice mail that we called My CallPilot. All those hard-to-remember touch-tone commands were now replaced with buttons and links on a visual mailbox.

Next, we took this to telephone calls themselves. A user was able to bring up a Web page that presented a telephone-style interface. This was long before HTML-5 and WebRTC, so a browser plug-in was required, but once that plug-in was installed, making and receiving calls was as easy as pointing and clicking.

New Signaling Protocols
IP telephony was first introduced to the world in proprietary or nearly proprietary ways. Nortel had UNIStim, Cisco had Skinny, and even though Avaya used H.323, their implementation was so enhanced that it may as well have been their own creation.

Thankfully, openness and adherence to standards became more important than being different, and SIP is now the protocol of choice for all new unified communications development. Since SIP is based on the protocol that makes the Internet work--HTML--it's hard for it to get more Web-like.

SIP offers a degree of mobility that was never achieved with these previous IP protocols. Users became untethered from traditional desk phones and moved their enterprise telephony to PCs, tablets, and smart phones.

Open Interfaces
Computer telephony integration began with call control links exposed by a PBX's call processing engine. These were very proprietary in nature, with command and status messages that closely mimicked a PBX's call flows and features. Who remembers Meridian Link or CompuCALL? For better or worse, I do.

Application Programming Interfaces such as TAPI and TSAPI came along to partially tame those links, but implementations still tended to be vendor specific.

Communications systems are now moving away from those proprietary links and APIs, and towards the openness of Web services. Methodologies such as REST and SOAP allow external applications and services to become peer players with a communications system over HTTP (i.e. Web) connections.

It's impossible to write about the webification of communications without mentioning WebRTC. WebRTC turns a Web browser into a communications endpoint without the need for plugins or specialized software. While this doesn't necessarily sound the death knell for the desk telephone, it's a knock at the door that cannot be ignored.

As communications systems jettison legacy telephony interfaces and devices such as analog and digital telephones and trunks, the need for gateways and other such specialized equipment is eliminated. In other words, when everything becomes IP, communications becomes software on standard servers running on standard networks.

Virtualization takes it one step further by putting that software on virtual slices inside shared servers. This allows communications equipment to escape the confines of the "telephone room" and take its place alongside the rest of an enterprise's applications. Call processing and its adjunct applications become shared services available on an enterprise's internal cloud. So, like that HR vacation tracking system on your company's intranet, communications becomes just another corporate tool.

The Drive to the Cloud
Now that we've taken communications servers off proprietary hardware; telephones off legacy form factors, interfaces and wiring; maintenance off green-screen consoles; and have transformed call control links--why not push everything into the cloud and be done with ownership altogether? Well, that's exactly the direction that many enterprises are headed. When all you need to do is point your Web browser or smart phone to an IP address, you have truly turned your communications system into just another service on the World Wide Web.

Bringing it all back home
It sometimes feels as if everything in technology is cyclical. Wasn't it just yesterday when a computer was an IBM 360 mainframe somewhere "in the cloud" and we accessed it with clunky terminal emulators? Okay, perhaps not for you youngsters out there, but that's the way it was when I was starting my professional life.

The introduction of the PC retired those big iron computers, but lo and behold, the Internet and Web browsers have practically brought us right back to where we started from. Except it's much better now. We have multimedia, a world of distributed services, mobility, platform independence, ease of use, and open interfaces.

Wait! Didn't I just describe the goals of the modern day communications system? Isn't that the outcome of converting proprietary hardware and closed applications to an open, Web-based system that runs virtually on premise or in the cloud? Don't we reap the exact same benefits?

Has everyone caught up to this webification of communications? No, but the direction has been set and the big players like Avaya, Cisco, and Microsoft are working fast and furious to turn their products into loosely-connected services that exist within a Web-style framework.

Point. Click. Communicate. What could be more natural?

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