Provider Profile: Smoothstone IP Communications

Provider of converged voice/video/data over IP sees profound change in how comm services are delivered.

By Ted Stevenson | Posted May 2, 2007
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Louisville, Kentucky-based Smoothstone IP Communications is predicting a "perfect storm" in its line of business—which, as the name suggests, is business communications. As we know, perfect storms result from a convergence of not-necessarily-related contributing forces.

As Smoothstone sees it, the forces calling up this particular tempest are the convergence of all the principal communications applications—voice, video, and data –onto a single IP-based network, and the ascendance of the software-as-a-service delivery model (aka SaaS). Melding the two contepts, Smoothstone is predicting a future in which businesses naturally turn to CCaaS: Converged Communications as a Service.

While network convergence is a fundamental topic covered by this website, SaaS may not be such familiar territory, despite the widespread success of examples such as Salesforce.com and, in the communications domain, Sylantro Systems.

Okay, quick course: SaaS—one evolutionary line within the so-called ASP, or Application Service Provider, model—offers application software and associated services on a per-user subscription basis, with most or all of the application infrastructure housed on the provider's network, as opposed to on the customer premises. In other words, outsourced, distributed, centrally managed software/services.

There are several basic rationales for this approach to business tools.

First, the customer is spared most, if not all, of the cost of purchasing, deploying, and maintaining the applications, and, to some degree, the infrastructure on which it runs. Second, all maintenance, management, and upgrading are handled by the provider. Finally, outsourced services often come cheaper than owning/managing, and you buy only what you need. Extra capacity is just a phone call away.

Smoothstone has been practicing what it preaches since the turn of the century, when the ASP or SaaS idea first broke upon the technology scene (before the tech bubble pulled the rug out from under it, to mix a metaphor). It has built a nationwide private IP network for delivering voice, data, and video, and now offers local dialtone in roughly 6,200 local calling areas, serving businesses in the 50 to 5,000 extension range.

We spoke last week with the company's vice president of marketing, Russ Maney. He was at pains to stress the importance of that fortuitous confluence of independent forces.

"We've taken advantage of [communications technology] convergence by being able to do everything IP," he said . . . "and then added that to a managed service—or software as a service—delivery model. It's really the intersection of those two worlds where we are, and where we think we're in virgin territory."

"We are not "Internet telephony." Maney stressed. "Our calls never touch the Internet—although we do offer our clients Internet access over the same circuit. It's all over a nationwide IP-over-MPLS backbone that we manage end to end."

The Smoothstone platform as a whole has a distributed architecture, with different features or functionalities being served from various facilities.

"We've got what we call 'feature controllers' that deliver features directly to the phones": Maney explained—"on-demand conference calling, call hold, caller ID, etc., served over network by a feature controller. Then there's the call processing/call routing layer. We also have an application layer where we serve various applications—for example network-based automated call distribution."

The solution works particularly well for distributed business organizations, he pointed out.

"We've got one client that is about a 40-location travel agency," Maney told VoIPplanet.com. "We've got all their locations on our network. And now that travel agency and all of their locations operate as one virtual call center. They can move people in and out of queues, direct calls to any location they want—even people working at home."

Clients also have the use of a web-based management portal where they can tweak their call routing, pick up call detail records, and the like.

Another management amenity is Smoothstone's WAN infrastructure management system, based on the application the company developed so it could monitor its customers' networks. "We realized this was something our clients would love to use as well—so we developed a client version of it called NetStalk," Maney said. It comes as an integral part of the offering.

But for all the "how it works" and "what you get" details, Maney was careful to stress what it is that the company considers most important: service. "We really have a service we try to use to have communications excellence improve the way the [client's] company does business—as opposed to just being a kind of off the shelf dialtone provider." Maney explained

Despite the various terms used to describe the mode of doing business, Smoothstone sees itself far more as a provider of services than of application functionality—one that takes pains to be responsive to customer interaction.

"We don't want our clients calling anybody else about anything that might have anything to do with communication. You need video conferencing? Call us. You have a problem with your voicemail? Call us. You see a new toy out there? Let us know; we'll probably add it to our platform and provide it to you."

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