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March 23, 2007

BlueNote Networks: An Open, Sofware-based Approach to Communications Convergence

By Mae Kowalke, TMCnet Associate Editor

In recent months and years, companies that produce traditional public branch exchange (PBX) phone systems—such as Avaya, Siemens, and Nortel (News - Alert)—have expanded their product portfolios to include products falling broadly under the “unified communications” and “communications convergence” umbrellas. These new products can be described as tools that connect the PBX (News - Alert) into a company’s broader information technology (IT) and communications system, using the power of Internet Protocol (IP) networks.

These changes are, of course, very necessary for PBX makers to stay competitive in an increasingly competitive marketplace, where many new companies selling “unified communications” solutions are founded each year.
Introducing BlueNote Networks (News - Alert)
From the perspective of one such player, BlueNote Networks, the changes traditional PBX makers have made are not enough to keep up with broad trends in the communications industry, which represent a paradigm shift in the way communications solutions are designed, selected, delivered, and maintained.
BlueNote Networks is a relatively recent entrant to the communications market. The company was founded in 2005 with a fairly straightforward mission: to deliver an extensible, IP telephony solution that is cost-efficient, able to support global voice services deployments, and enables telephony services to be easily integrated into existing business applications.
Easier said than done. Yet today has achieved it mission, which out of necessity continues to evolve as communications technology changes.
BlueNote’s flagship line of business communications platforms, SessionSuite, tie together the power of IP and Web Services with the flexibility of service oriented architectures (SOAs) to deliver interactive, real-time communications services capable of being quickly and easily embedded into commercial or custom software applications, Web sites, and internal business processes—using industry-standard interfaces and technology.
The underlying emphasis of BlueNote’s platform is flexibility, an attribute that requires a open-systems, software-based approach to communications systems broadly, and PBXs in particular, rather than a proprietary, hardware-based approach.
TMCnet recently spoke with Sally Bament, Vice President of Marketing at BlueNote, to learn more about BlueNote’s approach to communications, and why the company feels traditional PBX makers are missing the boat when it comes to adapting to changes in the communications technology landscape.
An Open Approach
To start off with, TMCnet asked Bament how an open-systems, software-based PBX differs from a proprietary, hardware-based one. Her answer was that standards-based, software solutions like those delivered by BlueNote provide the same basic feature sets found in traditional PBXs, but add onto that new and compelling functionalities which are difficult or impossible to deploy using proprietary hardware.
“We’re striving to not just replicate a PBX but to do things even better and more innovatively,” Bament told TMCnet.
From BlueNote’s perspective, a key value in building standards-based, software communications systems is that, in doing so, it becomes possible to take the functionalities of those systems and embed them into other business applications. This is really what unified communications is all about—not only delivering multiple services and applications on the same IP network, but tying those systems together to streamline and enhance business processes.
Throughout the conversation with TMCnet, Bament stressed the importance for flexibility in communications systems. This can be applied to various layers of the topic, from how a communications system functions to how much it costs to upgrade, modify and maintain.
By taking a software-based approach to communications, leveraging industry-standard hardware and protocols for the underlying infrastructure, BlueNote makes upgrading and maintaining communications systems much more affordable, Bament said. That’s because, unlike with the traditional method of companies being locked into the hardware offered by the PBX vendor, BlueNote’s solutions free clients to choose whichever hardware best suits their needs.
This open systems approach is becoming increasingly relevant as the cost of processing power and performance drops, she added. Not only that, but if a company already has a relationship in place with a particular hardware vendor, there's no need for rip-and-replace: BlueNote's software runs on Linux-based servers and interoperates with most of the major PBX solutions available in the marketplace (using PRI/Q.931 or SIP)—such as products from Nortel, Avaya (News - Alert), and Intertel.
Additionally, BlueNote has resale arrangements with IBM (News - Alert), Dell and HP, so clients interested in servers from those companies can purchase them directly from BlueNote.
Old vs. New: Voice as an Application
If the open-systems, software-based solution is so much better than the traditional approach, why would any company choose to go the old route? Bament said that in many cases, such a decision is based on misinformation regarding interoperability. Company XYZ, for example, may have already purchased an Avaya PBX, and decide to go with that vendor’s Web Services product to introduce unified communications functionality, based on the false understanding that this is the only way to protect its existing investments.
In fact, Bament said, that simply is not true. If the PBX provider's Web Services solution doesn't meet the company's needs, it could go with BlueNote instead—without having to do a rip-and-replace.
“We’re not a single vendor solution,” she stressed. “We can inter-operate with all of the major PBX vendors.”
A key function of BlueNote’s SessionSuite platform is that it turns voice into an application that can be leveraged by other applications and business processes throughout a company. This means that leveraging existing investments no longer means being stuck with solutions for a single vendor.
One recent example of a company that took advantage of SessionSuite’s capabilities is Seaport Hotel in Boston. The resort hotel already had a Nortel PBX installed, and was seeking ways to enhance the communications services offered to guests. The hotel considered an add-on solution from Nortel, but decided that BlueNote’s offering better suited its needs.
BlueNote was able, through the power of Web Services interfaces, to modernize the hotel's communications services by, for example, creating a voice-enabled customer portal—without requiring Seaport to replace its existing telephony equipment. This meant that Seaport could protect its investment while at the same time obtaining the benefits of an SOA-based solution.
The Power of SOA and Web Services
Bament told TMCnet that there are three main benefits to combining SOA and Web Services in open, converged communications solutions.
a. Using a SOA enables the building of Web Services that are reusable. Services can be created once, and then reused in a variety of other applications. This is opposed to the old way in which services had to be reinvented for each application.
b. Using an SOA, coupled with Web Services, means that IT staff (without any special telephony knowledge) can add voice services into applications. “You don't need to be a telephony expert,” Bament said.
c. Leveraging the reusability of SOA-based services helps companies achieve business agility. Reusing assets and quickly turning around new applications are obvious components of this. Shortened development time = reduced development costs. The result can be improved customer reach, and enhanced employee collaboration/productivity.
In addition, Bament said, there are two key reasons why BlueNote’s approach is in line with the converged communications trend toward open solutions, as opposed to strategy of traditional PBX makers.
a. BlueNote's approach is to make its solutions compatible with standard, data center servers. This loose coupling between software and servers means that the customer can protect their infrastructure investments, staying flexible and leveraging economies of scale. BlueNote's solutions leverage both the existing application infrastructure and the directory service that's already in use. This is in contrast to PBXs that require usage of proprietary provisioning systems and directories.
b. BlueNote take the approach that voice should function as just another application, and uses Web Services APIs to embed voice into other applications. This is really at the heart of what BlueNote does: make it possible to easily embed voice into everyday business processes and applications. BlueNote's approach is one more step toward convergence of the data and application worlds, moving away from hardware-based PBXs that operate as islands.
A Contrasting Approach
BlueNote’s approach to converged communications, Bament told TMCnet, is in direct contrast to that of companies like Avaya, Siements and Nortel.
To illustrate why this is so, Bament used the example of Avaya’s recently announced Communications Process Manager, which she described as an enterprise service bus (ESB); an orchestration engine allowing applications to communication with each other.
Avaya’s approach, Bament said, is to supply an ESB that functions with an Avaya PBX. But you still have to use Avaya’s PBX, and that limits the choices companies can make.
“What Avaya got wrong is that most large companies have already chosen their ESB,” Bament said. “If a company has already implemented a service oriented architecture, they've already decided which vendors will provider their infrastructure.”
To further elaborate on this point, Bament explained that, in the past, tying voice into applications involved a technique known as Computer Telephony Integration or CTI. Many of the traditional PBX vendors implemented their own CTI interfaces. Companies purchasing these systems had to maintain IT staff knowledgeable about these systems in order to integration apps with the PBX.
This integration, Bament further explained, was performed one application at a time—there was no notion of building a service once and reusing it. The problem with this approach is that it had negative effects on time, asset reuse, and cost
“With the embracing of SOAs, there’s been a whole movement toward Web Services,” Bament said.
In response to this trend, she said, traditional PBX makers generally have responded by wrapping Web Services around their products, which remain propriety and hardware-based. Meanwhile, BlueNote decided to view voice as just another application, and enable that application to be a reusable asset.
“I think we're very unique in that approach,” she said.
Summing it up, Bament stressed her belief that that, in the foreseeable future, traditional PBXs will die off.
“All voice will be delivered using the approach BlueNote takes,” she predicted.
To learn more about BlueNote’s solutions, please visit the company’s channel, SOA.
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Mae Kowalke previously wrote for Cleveland Magazine in Ohio and The Burlington Free Press in Vermont. To see more of her articles, please visit Mae Kowalke’s columnist page. Also check out her Wireless Mobility blog.


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