Voice Conferencing: Joining the IP Family

Ever wonder about that sea change in phone conferencing that began three or four years ago? Suddenly you didn’t have to reserve a conference bridge, or have operators supervising the calls.

All that was replaced by an account number and a PIN, and you could conference to your heart’s content. Not only that, if you were the person signing off on the bills, you’d have seen costs drop dramatically.

Behind the scenes, pulling the levers, so to speak, was a new generation of software-driven infrastructure that, like so many technological developments of the last decade, completely re-wrote the voice-conferencing equation.

We recently spoke with Mike Wixon, vice president for business development at Massachusetts-based ThinkEngine Networks, a pioneering developer of high-volume, low-cost audio conferencing equipment—that runs on an IP architecture.
The ThinkEngine product that has helped transform the conferencing market is the VSR (as in Voice Services Router) 1000, which Wixon described to VoIPplanet.com as a “968-port, IP-centric media server with an embedded reservation-less conferencing engine.”

“Because it is fundamentally a media server,” Wixon explained, “it expects instructions from somewhere else—expects an application to drive it: ‘Answer the phone; collect these digits, play these prompts, do this recording.’ To that end, we have created a conferencing application for our media server.”

While the VSR 1000 can handle other tasks (Wixon mentioned calling card and “reverse 911” systems), ThinkEngine mostly sells the server-plus-application package as a turnkey conferencing bridge—primarily to tier one conferencing service providers: “people in the business of providing conference calls for a fee—or for some advertising, or whatever their model is.”

There are hundreds of such providers—possibly as many as a thousand—and, according to Wixon, until very recently, virtually all of them were using TDM-based technology. ThinkEngine’s IP-based units have begun to make substantial—and disruptive—headway in that market.

Now, despite some clear technical advantages that IP architectures offer (such as more sophisticated call routing and server failover capability), conferencing service providers nonetheless cannot function without TDM connectivity today. It’s the way many of their customers connect—and will continue to connect for years to come. But the ThinkEngine solution has a wrinkle that gets past this problem.

Service provider customers “can actually hook T-1s to our platform to get PSTN access,” Wixon told VoIPplanet. Which is to say, ThinkEngine has built gateway functionality right into the media server architecture. “Our platform can mix TDM and IP callers seamlessly—which is unique in our world. I don’t think anyone else is doing that right now,” he said.

So, service providers can have the best of both worlds. But does voice conferencing infrastructure have a place in the enterprise? Wixon says Yes. “As enterprise migration to IP continues, each one of those enterprises becomes a candidate for this kind of technology as well.”

“As they move to VoIP phones and IP PBX infrastructures, enterprises are looking to cut costs and bring other types of equipment in house. Having a conference bridge that seamlessly integrates to the environment—without having to go back to TDM or those costs—is obviously advantageous,” Wixon said.

In addition to the fundamental cost-saving potential of IP-based phone systems, which is pretty widely recognized today, enterprises can also save on the core cost of conferencing. “Rather than paying a conferencing service provider X cents per minute, they say, ‘We’ll have our own bridge, and we won’t pay the X cents a minute—and we also won’t pay the telco charges to get to the bridge.’ ”

Of course, corporate conferencing also typically involves callers outside the organization, so ThinkEngine’s ability to mix IP and TDM calls bears fruit in this context as well.

And to help both its institutional and its enterprise customers to more fully exploit the inherent potential of the software engine, ThinkEngine includes as part of the VSR 1000 package a graphical, drag-and-drop software development toolkit, Call Flow Designer.

“It’s a palette you can draw pictures on,” Wixon told VoIPplanet.com—”a picture of a call flow.” Once you’ve assembled the call flow you want, you “publish” it to the VSR, which executes it.

“You could do very sophisticated things around call queuing, around database [lookups] on the caller’s number, all that kind of stuff,” Wixon said. He went on to describe one user-built application in which a service-provider customer specializing in providing conference services to religious affinity groups created a “heckler blocker”—a “user agent” that identified and blocked hecklers that intruded on legitimate use of the bridge.

Not that such tools are unavailable in the TDM world. Consultants and custom development shops can provide them. But, “A, it’s expensive,” Wixon said, “and B, it’s not very custom. It’s not exactly what you want. With our product, you can build exactly what you want. It’s as simple as dragging and dropping the picture.”

Call Flow Designer doesn’t exhaust the list of features and benefits ThinkEngine provides, but by this time, you have the idea. The family of IP-based communications technologies—technologies deployed and operated by enterprise IT personnel—has not only expanded, it’s growing richer and more responsive to real-world communications needs.

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