Cloud and managed services are driving the growth of multi-tenant platform for PBX and Contact Centers. The heart of such a platform is the underlying telephony engine. Asterisk is one of most versatile and powerful telephony engine available today. In reality it is a complete communications platform packing the functionality of a soft-switch, a protocol gateway, a media server, and a VoIP gateway. Above all, it is a full function PBX with a very large ecosystem supporting application development on it.
Large multi-tenant installations will require to scale to multiple Asterisk servers to deliver the required concurrent call capacity. This is usually provided by an external ACD (automatic call distribution) software that uses Asterisk servers as the underlying media server for voice. Such a call center ACD will manage the call routing and distribution by exercising control over the individual Asterisk servers through the Asterisk Manager Interface (AMI). The aspect of multi-tenancy is a separate matter altogether. This is the function of the call center and PBX management software that handles the setup of the installation. The multi-tenant call center ACD and PBX software allows separation of the tenants without an actual physical separation. Multi-tenant PBX should also allow branding at tenant level, to provide a personalized touch.
Asterisk is a mature new generation hybrid PBX that fulfills all the traditional PBX needs and satisfies all the VoIP requirements. Asterisk’s vast feature set has significant advantages over its peers. The pioneering work by the developer community has introduced Asterisk into all imaginable facets of communications over the last decade. Therefore it is unlikely that Asterisk lacks any significant mainstream feature and is the most dominant telephony platform in the communications domain.
This transformation of a hybrid PBX into a general purpose communications platform in the VoIP realm is nothing but phenomenal. During discussions on the merits of using Asterisk in conjunction with a Call Center ACD, scaling and number of concurrent channels are often mentioned as limiting factors. Asterisk has a powerful interface called the Asterisk Manager Interface (AMI) which offers a global view and control of an entire Asterisk instance. This allows a call center software to exercise control over multiple Asterisk instances and provide the necessary scaling for medium and large contact center installations. It is therefore possible to have extremely large concurrent channels in an Asterisk based setup, to offer multi-tenant hosted services.
Asterisk based contact centers have significant advantages over other platforms: the large install base, the versatility of the the communication platform, constant improvements by the developer community at large, and the significant cost advantage over any other communications platform. The broad acceptance of Asterisk in contact centers makes it a compelling phone platform while building out a contact center solution.
Asterisk, from its humble beginning in 1999, has evolved into a strong telephony platform, due to the contribution from thousands of volunteer software and telecommunication experts worldwide. Today, Asterisk is a proven, open source, next-generation telephone switch, that has been tested and implemented by millions of users. It has been successfully used to migrate out of thousands of legacy proprietary telephone switches.
In contact center technology platform, the underlying telephone switch is usually a large portion of the cost of a packaged proprietary contact center technology solution. The availability of advanced call center software for Asterisk makes is possible to deliver a feature-rich next generation call center solution with immediate cost savings.
There has been a keen interest in scaling Asterisk for deployment in large enterprise call centers. This is possible with the use of a Call Center ACD that can scale and manage multiple Asterisk servers as media servers for voice. In a federated model, the deployment covers locations that are geographically apart. Such a deployment will allow traffic to originate and end in different locations, allow agents to join the same ACD queues from different locations, and provide effective call routing and distribution.
One of the big advantage of a federated deployment is the effective use of skills based routing provided by the Call Center ACD. Providing 24 x 7 service using a geographically dispersed work-force is an effective way to meet customer expectation and provide effective customer service.
Every manufacturer has its own unique mechanism to handle human and outside interactions with the telephone switch. In most legacy systems the options are limited, restrictive and cumbersome. The advent of Asterisk changed all this with its “Dialplan”. It is tool and mechanism within Asterisk with a command language that unleashes unbelievable power and flexibility. Every Dialplan created is a set of instructions to handle inbound calls and outbound dials that come in and go out of this incredible next generation phone switch.
The flexibility and power of Asterisk Dialplan can be well understood when we look at Asterisk deployments. It is widely used as a Communications Server, a Media Gateway, a Conferencing Server, an IP PBX and a Call Center ACD. For call center applications, Asterisk provides for the routing of calls into Queues which can be answered by Members. Dialplan plays a big part in the setup, routing and distribution of calls.
Contact center solutions require power and flexibility to distribute and route calls. There is a constant demand for increased productivity to reduce labor costs. Availability of Skills based Routing, Call Overflow management, Service Level Agreement (SLA) management, Real-time Wallboard and Supervisor Dashboards become important. A mature call center software like Q-Suite offers all these features out of the box along with High Availability and Redundancy, necessary for setting up Enterprise contact centers with Asterisk clusters.
Q-suite ACD provides switching, routing and distribution functions for calls, some of which are triggered through Dialplan programming. Of course, a good call center software will not only enhance the functionality available within the Asterisk Dialplan but also offer call switching especially between servers within an Asterisk cluster. In such a setup, calls land in any one of the Asterisk servers and need to be delivered to phone end points anywhere within or out the Asterisk cluster.
The Visual Call Flow Builder within Q-Suite unleashes all the functionality of the Call Center ACD within Q-Suite and the underlying Asterisk Dialplan functionality. This visual graphical tool allows easy development of IVR applications with the availability of visual icons representing the IVR and call distribution functions. The simple drag and drop interface within the contact center software allows visualization of the call flow. With this tool, Q-Suite ACD consolidates Asterisk as a viable and cost effective telephony platform for medium and large contact centers requiring sophisticated functionality.
In larger installations with high concurrent call volume, the contact center ACD manages and controls multiple Asterisk servers in a cluster. Since call volume at any given instant can exceed the capacity of a single Asterisk server, a SIP proxy will serve to distribute calls evenly with load balancing. The ACD maintains the sequence and order of calls coming to the individual queues, irrespective of the Asterisk servers into which the calls come in. It will route and distribute calls to the available agents based on skills based routing, irrespective of where their phones are registered to. Sophisticated call center solutions offer greater flexibility allowing agents to use any external phone like home land-line phone or a mobile phone or a phone behind another PBX. This is ideal for remote and work-at-home options.
The SIP proxy can also play a part in the High availability setup designed for fail-over to redundant available systems. The same SIP proxy also provides the required load balancing to distribute calls within the Asterisk cluster. A simple round-robin load balancing is often the default option unless there is a clear need for a “weighted” algorithm to dynamically control the call distribution. In a sophisticated High Availability options with Call Survival offered by Q-Suite, there is already a communication channel between the Contact Center ACD and the High Availability SIP proxy. This allows opportunity for the Contact Center ACD to use call statistics and related information to control the load balancing.
Hosted call centers have become mainstream and are flourishing due to many important reasons. From a technology perspective, convergence of voice and data, growth of VoIP and SIP, and the availability of bandwidth have contributed to its wide spread acceptance. From a commercial angle, hosted call center solution as a managed service is attractive due to lower capital cost investment and reduced on-going up keep.
Technology platform for setting up a contact center has many moving parts. Also, modern day call center software is incredibly more complicated than any data system due to the convergence of voice and data. A well developed contact center solution will require Web and Database servers to support its interactive and powerful agent customer interaction scripting. The call flow with skills based routing and customer interaction IVR will also be Web and Database driven. As we all know very well, infrastructure and operating systems are evolving at a fast pace. On top of it, telephony has gone through a paradigm shift in the last decade. Keeping internal technical specialists for these areas is a large on-going expense that makes managed services an attractive proposition.
The contact center software requires a good telephone switch to serve as a media server for handling voice. Generally, telephony platforms are expensive and quite sedate. There is a historical reason for the slow evolution of features in telephone switches. This is due to the low tolerance for bugs and defects that come with software changes. The advent of Asterisk and the dramatic adoption of VoIP has altered all this. Asterisk, being an open-source switch is economically inexpensive to manage, but comes with phenomenal features, way ahead of all its proprietary peers.
Hosted contact center using Asterisk offers the best of both worlds. In a managed services offering, it enables service providers to deliver a tremendous feature-rich platform at a much low cost. Building a hosted contact center platform on Asterisk is simplified considerably by the availability of Q-Suite, a powerful call center software.
Large contact center deployment can start with an install base of few hundred seats, going all the way to thousand plus seats. Using “number of concurrent calls” is a better measure of the capacity of the contact center platform but many legacy manufacturers use agent seat counts for licensing purposes. In inbound call centers with ACD (Automatic Call Distribution) Queues and Skills based Routing, the total number of concurrent calls might be set to some percentage about the available concurrent agents, depending on average call duration and the Service Level Agreement (SLA) mandate. The upper threshold for the maximum number of concurrent calls for a call center setup might be imposed by the limitations of the technology platform due to two main reasons.
At a telecom level, the phone switch (which is the media server for voice traffic) could impose an upper limit. A good contact center software will scale to multiple telephone switches and the workaround this limitation is straightforward. Take the case of Asterisk, the leading open source telephone switch serving both the TDM and the VoIP segments with its hybrid telephone soft switch. Though factors like enabling voice recording and codec compression limit the maximum number, Asterisk can typically process hundreds of concurrent calls. For larger installs, the call center ACD should be capable of scaling to multiple Asterisk servers to provide the required capacity. Many of the higher end contact center solutions will come with a SIP Proxy which will effectively load balance between multiple Asterisk servers.
The Call Center ACD may also have an upper limit. It is absolutely essential that the multi-channel ACD be a separate entity, to manage queuing and routing from the media (Voice, E-Mail, Web, Chat) servers. The ACD is responsible for managing queuing and prioritization with Skills based routing and Queue priority. The upper limit on the processing capability of an ACD may impose restriction on queues and queue length. Given the state of processing power of the modern hardware, a single ACD can serve thousand concurrent calls and more. It is also possible to combine multiple ACD units to function together if the total call count is spread over different queues.
It is time to take advantage of Asterisk by using advanced call center suites to build very large multi-channel contact center operations to take control of the cost.
Virtual call center solutions are direct results of growth in Cloud based services, availability of affordable bandwidth and convergence of voice with data. This makes ‘contact center as a service’, both flexible and affordable. Such services offer feature-rich call center software on a reliable telephony platform without the upfront capital investment. With rich feature set available on demand, companies can focus on improving customer care and plan additional capacity by adding distributed call center workforce anywhere to manage calls effectively. These factors make a compelling case for the use of Virtual call center.
There are advantages and disadvantages of not having full control over the infrastructure and software. Depending on the level of control required, larger organizations tend to go for managed services of virtual contact center setups with right degree of control. It also meaningful to not have to acquire and manage all the various expertise required, in house. In a managed service virtual operation, the service provider will provide the necessary technology and expertise on a shared availability.
The growth, evolution and adaption of Asterisk for business phone systems is well known. It has successfully taken on many well established players in the PBX domain. What may not be very well known is the overabundant prevalence of Asterisk in managed and virtual call center operations. Asterisk is either deployed to fulfill niche requirements that complete the distributed architecture or it is the work horse delivering the bulk of the functionality for the telephony. The availability of sophisticated call center software to build Asterisk based call centers makes it possible to setup distributed and virtual call centers at a fraction of the cost in comparison to other PBX telephony platforms. Asterisk brings incredible flexibility to the contact center operations.
It will be surprising if we do not find too many Cloud and managed service offerings based on Asterisk. The economics makes Asterisk a natural telephony platform for Virtual Call Centers. Whether premise based or Virtual, Asterisk as the underlying PBX platform for contact centers is a no-brainer.
There are a variety of reasons why companies are considering a move to Cloud or SaaS (Software as a Service) based contact center setup. The foremost consideration is the flexibility in terms of capacity and call center location. This has a bearing on the cost of the setup and on-going management. There are other aspects like on-going access to more recent technology, better functional capabilities and reducing internal IT resources for on-going upkeep. Ultimately it is the total cost of ownership and the return on investment that decides if managed services is the right option for a contact center operation.
Infrastructure and connectivity required for running a call center operation using Cloud or SaaS based call center software has two distinct components to it, a managed service that is hosted and provided by the service provider and, the access/connectivity that is required by the call center operation to make use of the service. It is important to have good handle on the bandwidth and connectivity required for carrying VoIP traffic to and from the hosted data center. Voice traffic is sensitive to packet delays and will impact the quality of customer service. The bandwidth for data is dependent of the sophistication of the contact center suite especially if there are additional CRM and web applications that are available to be opened within the call center software Script Building tool.
Since managed services use shared resources, it reduces the cost of running/maintaining such a system. If it is available “on demand”, the capital cost investment is eliminated and replaced by service costs that are spread over the period of the contract. It also minimizes the need to have internal resources to support the call center technology setup. But if your operation is into long term planning, you can take advantage by selectively opting for managed services on areas that you don’t want to control internally. This is especially true for distributed operations with multiple call center locations.
It is important to understand the distinctions between “Managed Service”, “SaaS” and “Cloud” setup, when it comes to planning for the contact center setup. Managed service is like out-sourcing areas that are outside of the core competence of the organization. SaaS implies having access to the use of a software on a payment plan or a monthly fee. Cloud refers to the availability of resources and infrastructure that are accessed through internet. This is definitely the time to intelligently leverage the advantage of all the three options. When it comes to SaaS or Cloud based managed services, Asterisk based call centers like Q-Suite provide a tremendous advantage both in terms of cost and flexibility.
Soft-switches allow service providers to unify voice and data traffic in one network. In an IP network, service providers wanting to roll-out IP-PBX, long distance services or VoIP driven services use either Class 4 or Class 5 softswitch. With the convergence of voice and data and the emerging domination of packet switching over circuit switching, we see a lot of softswitch implementations. They are primarily geared towards offering Hosted IP-PBX solutions and long distance services.
When it comes to offering call center ACD features, it is a tall order for any softswitch to directly fulfill the demanding requirements of Queues, Skills based routing, Real-time monitoring, Supervisor dashboards and the million and one features essential for a modern day contact center. But they do have the ability to handle thousands of calls at any given time. With the growth of managed services, the need to provide ACD capability for contact center type functionality will increase.
When looking at an Asterisk based call center ACD, the first impulse for an existing soft-switch user or maker would be about the necessity to use Asterisk since they have an existing soft-switch. The immense complexity involving ACD implementations requires a PBX like Asterisk. Top of the line multi-tenant call center software for Asterisk still depend on Asterisk for various features that are not commonly included in other softswitch feature-set.
This is a case where the softswitch can co-exist with the ACD system. The agent end points can still be the softswitch phone end points but the contact center solution for Asterisk can provide all the features out of the box. Q-Suite is one such multi-tenant call call center software.