VAI to Deliver Flexible Computer-Telephone Integration, Thanks to iMS
October 23, 2007 Alex Woodie
VAI is close to starting beta tests on a new offering that allows its customers to integrate their phone systems with their i5/OS ERP applications. The integration is the result of VAI’s partnership with iMessaging Systems, experts in i5/OS computer telephony integration (CTI), and will give their System i customers the flexibility to move from traditional PBX phone systems to newer voice over IP (VoIP) systems at their own pace, without making any changes to their ERP system.
CTI is not a new technology. For decades, large corporations have been computerizing their call centers and hooking their back-office applications up to their telephone systems to allow customer service representatives (CSRs), salespeople, and other workers to get more work done in a shorter amount of time. Even IBM got into the CTI act with its AS/400 server during the 1990s with a (now defunct) product called Call Pass.
While CTI itself is not new, the whole discipline of computer telephony is currently undergoing massive changes. This is predominantly the result of VoIP and related technologies, and the big impact these new technologies are having on the cost of corporate telephony and how people collaborate. Just last week, Microsoft made headlines around the world with the introduction of its Office Communications Server (OCS) 2007 product, which turns a Windows server into a unified hub for communicating via voice, e-mail, instant messaging (IM), and video Web conferencing.
IBM has also realized the benefits of VoIP, and has two so-called “unified communication” (UC) products for the System i platform: the enterprise-strength System i IP Telephony offering that it co-developed with 3com, which shipped 12 months ago, and an as-yet unnamed small and midsize business (SMB) offering that it’s co-developing with Nortel, which was announced in June, and was due to start beta testing during the third quarter.
In most cases, these UC-VoIP products are designed to replace the legacy PBX phone system. Instead of using the traditional office phone, workers use a phone that’s compatible with VoIP, or a “soft-phone” headset that plugs directly into their desktop PC. Typically, users will also be presented with a Web- or Windows-based application, such as IBM’s Lotus Sametime or Microsoft Office Communicator, that allows them to manage their calls, access their voice mail, view “presence information” about their colleagues (via session initiation protocol, or SIP), and engage in IM chat sessions or participate in Web conferences.
But increasingly, technology vendors are realizing there’s a need for workers to utilize the benefits of VoIP and CTI directly through the ERP applications they use on a daily basis, not through a stand-alone communications program. Both Microsoft and IBM understand this, and are working to integrate VoIP with their respective i5/OS and Windows ERP solutions.
In the case of IBM, which got out of the ERP application business years ago, it needs to work with partners, and that’s what it has done. Earlier this year, Big Blue and 3com unveiled the System i Integrated Collaboration solution, which provides a way for ISVs to hook their applications into the VoIP system.
That’s what VAI (previously called Vormittag Associates) is doing with its i5/OS ERP program, S2K. But instead of developing VoIP support for the 3com or Nortel phone systems into S2K, VAI is tapping the expertise of iMessaging Systems, which develops the iNspire line of voice-enabling middleware and call center software that runs on the i5/OS server.
When CTI is fully integrated into the S2K system, which is expected to occur by the first quarter of 2008, it will bring all sorts of new capabilities to S2K users, says Kevin Beasley, VAI’s chief information officer.
The most obvious benefits of CTI will come in the form of features like click-to-call, which will allow S2K users to make a call by simply pressing a mouse button; automated outbound dialing, which makes running a call center more efficient; “screen pops,” which are windows that pop up on the screen with information about the caller when a call is routed to a particular worker; customer self service, which allows customers or partners to get information such as order status or account balances over the phone; and text-to-speech, the computerized voice that serves up dynamic data from DB2/400 inquiries.
Workers in the order entry department are obvious targets of CTI. So are salespeople working remotely from the field, and drivers who may need to be re-routed. “There are a variety of other things,” Beasley says. “Anything that you need to be able to enter data into the system, you can do through voice based systems.”
VAI is letting iMessaging Systems provide the CTI middleware instead of building the connections itself, largely as the result of its experience with the old IBM Call Pass product, Beasley says. “There was some investment involved,” he says. “It was a one-off every time.”
Instead of building support in S2K for the 3com product–which is the only VoIP product currently available for the System i–VAI realized that they could allow their customers to integrate just about any type of phone system, including legacy PBX systems, by letting iMessaging Systems handle the phone interface.
“So if our customer uses iMS, and they interface it to their current phone system, there are no software changes on our end if they switch to 3com,” Beasley says. “That was the big advantage of using the iMS as our interface–in essence, the middleware–to connecting to any phone system.”
The fact that the 3com offering is not a good fit for organizations with fewer than 100 users was also a factor in VAI’s decision to go with iMS, Beasley says. Tapping iMS allows organizations to integrate their existing PBX systems with S2K to get CTI bennies like call pop-ups, automated outbound dialing, and click-to-call. Organizations can even hook other VoIP systems into S2K via iMS. And when the SMB-focused Nortel VoIP offering for the System i becomes available in 2008, VAI customers will be able to adopt it without making costly programming changes to their S2K implementations.
VAI is currently working on hooking several components of its S2K ERP suite to the APIs used by iMS. These changes will be delivered as part of S2K version 5.0, which VAI is planning to announce at its annual user conference next week, and which is due to start shipping in the first quarter of 2008. At the same time, VAI is planning to offer the iMS integration to users of S2K version 3.7.6 via a PTF, Beasley says. The company has not yet decided whether to deliver support for version 3.7.5, he says. Beta tests of the integration with iMS are slated to begin this quarter.