Speech on a Network
Though it has become the industry buzzword of late, the concept of a services-oriented architecture (SOA) is not new. In fact, it has been around for almost 40 years. And despite varying definitions among vendors throughout that time, by now its business benefits are widely accepted: reduced application integration costs, a greater ability to reuse assets and information across channels and applications, and the ability to more quickly adapt to changing business needs.
Many larger enterprises have already made moves toward SOA adoption. In its "SOA Spending Report 2007-2008," AMR Research reported that 53 of the companies surveyed are already using it today and another 37 percent said they are planning to start their first SOA project by 2011.
Middle-tier businesses are just now starting down this path. Naturally, many are apprehensive, and they’re not alone. That’s because converting to an SOA is such a wide-ranging process, one that is part systems design, part architectural overhaul, part application development, part business makeover, and part attitude change. "Fundamentally, it’s a radical change that means reengineering an entire IT stack," says Dan Koloski, chief technology officer and director of strategy for the Web business unit at Empirix, a company that markets load testing, monitoring, and performance solutions for Web, contact center, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), and IP storage applications. "It involves a new top-to-bottom approach to managing IT operations."
Among firms that have already dipped their toes in the SOA waters, most have thus far involved only their back-end databases and core business applications. Front-end, customer-facing speech technologies have only recently begun to enter the picture. "We’re just now starting to see increased awareness of SOA within the contact center space, especially in larger companies where the core IT functions are already in an SOA and they are looking to add more and more components," says Steve Cawn, sales team leader for speech solutions at IBM.
According to Cawn, the concept of incorporating speech into an SOA is "in its earliest stages of adoption," but gaining ground quickly, particularly in the financial services, telecommunications, and retail/ commerce industries. Coding and recoding speech applications is among the most expensive and time-consuming parts of any project, so companies in these sectors have the most to gain from sharing data and processes across channels and applications. That’s because many offer multiple modes and channels of interaction—branch offices, call centers, Web sites, kiosks, and more—and many different transaction types that can be performed through these channels.
In an SOA, "applications are not siloed but broken down into a set of components that can be shared across them," explains Steve Cramoysan, research director for enterprise communications applications at Gartner. "In an IVR that’s asking for a customer ID number in one area and a credit card number somewhere else, it’s better to develop it once and reuse it across all other applications."
In bringing their speech applications under the SOA umbrella, companies create a scenario where voice solutions become an extension of other business systems, including the communications networks that supply phone, fax, email, and messaging services, and software applications like customer relationship management (CRM), enterprise resource planning (ERP), and workforce management. It is important, therefore, that prior to bringing their speech systems into their SOA, companies get their other core business processes, databases, servers, networks, and infrastructures ready.
One caveat, though, is that maintaining strong ties between voice solutions and business information systems could mean that the voice solutions will have to be upgraded or modified more quickly and more often than usual to keep pace. Under an SOA, none of these applications exist in isolation; rather, they all become part of a much larger domain where each application depends on the quality, functionality, and availability of all the others. Compatability, therefore, is of paramount importance.