Why is VDI such a hot topic in the Contact Center?

Today I have the privilege of introducing to you our newest guest blogger: Mike Harwell. Mike began his career as a contact center agent working in a variety of sales roles. He has 17 years of product management experience and earned his MBA in Management of Technology from New Jersey Institute of Technology in 2006. Mike has spent the last 7 years in Contact Center Product Management and Solution Consulting with Avaya with a focus on Agent Desktops. Today, as Sr. Product Manager, Avaya Contact Center Client Applications, Mike is responsible for defining and executing on Avaya’s Contact Center Client Applications strategy.

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As promised to those of you who attended our session on this topic at IAUG CONVERGE2013 last week (and thank you for coming!), we are happy to be providing more details via this blog.

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I’m contacted everyday with questions about Avaya’s VDI strategy. These are important questions as VDI, and virtualization as a whole, are huge concerns for every enterprise. With analysts like Gartner projecting that VDI will be used to deliver client computing capabilities to greater than 77M users by 2016, up from 18M users in 2012, the topic deserves some attention. One of the biggest challenges in having this conversation is that everyone has a different idea of what VDI is. If you are like me your first stop will be to Wikipedia so I won’t attempt to delineate VDI from related technologies here, instead I’ll address Desktop Virtualization and why the enterprise, and specifically the Contact Center, should care.

Part of the confusion, or at least ambiguity, around this topic comes from the term “desktop”. Are we talking about the full desktop environment we’re all familiar with from a Windows PC, or are we talking about a specific application that the contact center agent uses to handle work? The truth of the matter is that it can be either or both. The virtualization platform providers like Citrix and VMWare provide a whole portfolio of desktop virtualization, remote desktop services and application virtualization technologies. With desktop virtualization the user typically has a dedicated desktop operating system running their applications just as they would on a physical desktop; the only difference being the operating system is running in the data center. With remote desktop services the application can be run on a server operating system in the data center, and the UI can be delivered to the endpoint through the use of virtualization technology. IT typically bundles all the necessary applications together to create a virtual desktop. An estimated 15-20% of Avaya’s contact center customers use some flavor of desktop virtualization today. While the technologies are continually evolving, the foundational elements have been around for many years. So why is this such a hot topic today?

The answer is voice and video; the termination of RTP streams. The simplicity and cost reduction promised in a fully virtualized deployment is obviously very attractive but there are some real technology challenges. Real-time Transport Protocol or RTP is used in both SIP and H.323 and combines a control protocol (RTCP). RTCP provides Quality of Service (QOS) feedback which is what enables high quality voice even in geographically dispersed environments. Desktop Virtualization technologies work very well for transmitting monitor, keyboard and mouse signals, which is good enough for 99% of the applications out there. However, virtual machines executing applications are not optimized to relay real time media and the virtualization protocols don’t observe QoS. The virtualization platform vendors are continually looking for ways to improve on this process, but if the media is passed through the virtual machine there will be delay and voice quality will be degraded. Additionally the resource intensive processes required to terminate RTP streams are perfect for a distributed environment where we can take advantage of the processing power of the PC, but they are not well suited for virtualized environments resulting in scale concerns. Coupling the variable quality with a lack of scale and performance is not a recipe for success especially in the quality-demanding, cost-conscious contact center.

The solution to this Desktop Virtualization challenge is three-fold:

First, as I mentioned, many customers virtualize their client applications today. The flexibility of Communication Manager (CM) in combination with the Contact Center desktop applications allow a single client to register in any of three connection modes. Both the Shared Control and Telecommuter connection modes enable the RTP stream to be terminated on a phone. In Shared Control the phone would be an Avaya phone registered to CM. In Telecommuter mode CM can redirect the RTP stream to any addressable endpoint over the LAN/WAN or PSTN providing toll-quality voice. While there is some additional costs associated with these connection modes, they can usually be justified as part of a Virtualization, Remote Agent or Outsourced Agent business case.

The second phase will be characterized by a lightweight “media player” that will run local to the endpoint while the majority of the signaling will be transmitted over the virtualization “pipe”. H.323 versions of this media player, often referred to as VDI-Agent, will be available for Linux and Windows later this year.

The third phase will utilize WebRTC to enable termination of voice and video on a much wider set of operating systems and devices. Avaya is heavily involved in the maturation process of this emerging technology and is investing to ensure its applicability in the contact center.

Regardless of the phase, in each of these options the media bypasses the virtual machine removing a step that can only degrade and delay the media. Contact center and IT Management should take comfort in the fact that these Desktop Virtualization phases are mutually exclusive. They are additive and will allow the enterprise to start to take advantage of the value virtualization offers today while enabling a technology moving forward without negatively impacting the contact center agent’s experience.

Stay tuned!! Be sure to continue to visit this blog for more on this topic in the future! And we would love to hear your perspectives/ideas on the subject!

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