While desktop virtualization may never achieve the desktop dominance that was foretold by many analysts, new technologies continue to appear that both reduce costs and increase deployment opportunities. This week, Unified Communications (UC) vendor Mitel Networks announced its first foray into the virtual workspace market by announcing support for the VMware View UC APIs within its Contact Center Solution to offer contact center employees access to cloud-based unified desktop and communications services wherever they may be.

Contact center (inbound and outbound telemarketing services, help desk services, and other structured communication operations) environments typically require a small number of applications to be deployed to a large number of identically configured devices in an environment offering both high availability and rapid recovery in the event of component failure. At the same time, contact center environments typically have little or no need for personalization of individual desktops. These requirements make contact center environments ideal candidates for desktop virtualization, delivering a single standard golden image to all users regardless of their location, and using high reliability low-cost thin client devices alongside a phone deskset to provide voice services.

Hairpinning of Real-Time Protocol (RTP) media, bandwidth constraints, and the lack of Quality of Service (QoS) support for traffic priority were key indicators for VoIP to function properly in VDI environments

VDI for Contact Centers

The one real challenge that VDI has when it comes to contact center environments is the difficulty in integrating Voice over IP (VoIP) with VDI. VoIP services offer two significant benefits in contact center environments firstly, the ability to eliminate  a physical deskset in favor of a USB headset connected directly to a thin client can result in significant capital expense reduction eliminating both the PBX and deskset, as well as reducing operating expenses and increasing contact center agents productivity by better leveraging call management software. The challenge here is that while it is perfectly feasible to tunnel a voice stream inside the remote display protocol from endpoint to data center server and back (a process usually referred to as “hairpinning”) it can result in a significant reduction in overall service performance, reducing the number of virtual desktops that can be hosted on a single physical server platform. It also causes problems in distributed contact center environments and where employees work from home, with all VoIP traffic being routed from endpoint across the network back to a central data center and out again, latency and packet loss can combine to degrade call quality, something that every contact center operator is keen to avoid.

What is needed is a means to separate call setup communications from RTP traffic. Call setup can be performed using applications hosted within the VDI environment, then once inroute RTP traffic through either a conventional or virtual PBX, or directly from one endpoint to another (e.g., from one desk to another in a branch office) bypassing the data center altogether once call setup is complete.

The system operates at two levels, in the data center Mitel’s contact center and communications applications can take advantage of VMware View UC APIs to detect when they are running on a  VMware View virtual desktop which allows Mitel’s applications to hand off  VoIP communications to Mitel’s Unified Communicator Advanced (UCA) soft phone which runs on the endpoint.  Mitel’s UCA soft phone is currently available for Windows XP and newer, as well as Windows Embedded for use on thin clients. Mitel is also considering a Linux implementation to provide broader thin client compatibility.

This approach isn’t entirely new, Citrix tried it previously with its now-defunct EasyCall system, and Cisco provides a broadly similar capability as part of its VXI desktop virtualization service. Where Mitel’s offering differs from Cisco’s is that Mitel provides it not as part a VDI solution per se, but as an extension of its current contact center solution, giving customers the option to retire physical phone deskset in favor of integrated thin clients providing both VoIP and VDI services, without compromising call quality all decreasing the number of virtual desktops a single server can host.

Although Mitel has its roots in the digital PBX market, it is today first and foremost a software company, providing advanced communications software for deployment either on dedicated hardware or as virtual appliances. Now, by offering both soft phone and virtual appliance-based PBX solutions, Mitel can support customers looking to deliver contact center services at a significantly lower cost than was previously possible. The additional flexibility offered by virtual desktops can allow contact center managers the inflexibility than was previously possible. Allowing them to bring on additional agents during time of peak daily or seasonal demand, either locally or from home offices with minimal lead time. Contact center managers can also leverage cloud services to augment existing physical infrastructure during times of peak demand, significantly reducing capital expenditure that would otherwise have to be allocated to additional hardware that might only be used for short periods of time. While the current implementation is focused exclusively towards voice services, in the future as video services increase Mitel is considering options for extending its services in this direction.

The Bottom Line

Integrating communications and contact center capabilities into the virtual desktop is the natural next step for companies that want the flexibility, continuity and productivity benefits of a virtualized desktop environment. Contact centers, in particular, are an area of strong growth for desktop virtualization, since with workstations supporting multiple shifts of agents the need for high uptime, strong control and administrative flexibility is paramount. The joint solution from Mitel and VMware can help solve this issue and should go a long way in advancing this market.

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Simon Bramfitt (135 Posts)

Simon is an independent industry analyst covering enterprise desktop, mobile and application virtualization, delivery and management technologies.

He is an experienced solutions architect with unmatched insight into the challenges of designing large (200,000 seat plus) high availability presentation and desktop virtualization systems.

Simon was invited to join the Citrix Technology Professionals (CTP) group in May 2010 and joined the Virtualization Practice in September 2010

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