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Evolution Of Emergency Notification — Part 1: Enterprise SMS, VoIP & Onsite Systems

Here is a look at some of the major trends in deployment options and the expanding uses of notification software.

Here is a look at some of the major trends in deployment options and the expanding uses of notification software.

It’s not easy to build a business case for spending money in the current economy. It’s harder still to justify annual subscriptions for services that are either under-used or perceived as single-purpose applications for one department. Incident notification software often falls under this category.

Many business continuity (BC) and disaster recovery (DR) departments have received new mandates from management demanding their software applications and services provide operational value. Under this directive, applications and services need to either contribute to operational cost reductions or increased productivity for the organization as a whole.

To add further complication, notification solutions must now be ready to reach voice (land lines) and send text messages to cell phones, pagers, smartphones and tablets, along with appropriate connections to social media outlets.

A complex and detailed study is required to address all the factors that drive up costs and find the best possible solution for your organization. While we can’t address every variable in the space of this article, we will take a look at some of the major trends in deployment options and the expanding uses of notification software. We will explore advances in carrier offerings, expanded device platforms, hardware evolution, advantages of onsite systems and universal integration, along with how VoIP can play a role and the implications of social media.

Where Are We Today?

Historically, fully hosted notification solutions have been used by many BC/DR departments as a turn-key solution because there are no internal infrastructure or maintenance requirements. Hosted systems have also been positioned for comprehensive coverage in the event of a catastrophic failure within an organization’s own network or local geography and have been considered an acceptable cost of doing business.

The field of vendors for hosted solutions is diverse and capabilities vary widely. There are few, if any, standards for measuring true capacity and the availability of systems. Factors can vary based on the number of other clients they are servicing in a given geography as well as the overall number of active events at any time. In addition, one has to be sure the vendor has adequate BC/DR planning for their own systems and supply chain with multiple locations, real-time backups and seamless failover.

When an organization does a full usage review of a hosted system, many times they are startled at the true cost of their messaging. Fortunately, systems don’t have to be used every day, but when the cost is divided by the number of notifications sent in a year, it can be a hard number to justify. In addition to cost, there are typically a number of high profile failures each year for any number of reasons, which further places pressure on cost justification. For these reasons, many executives are demanding alternatives.

Carrier Advancements For Notification Delivery

Today’s notification environment is more complicated than ever before. Competing device platforms of different capabilities and high expectations of 100 percent success for message delivery have become the norm. There are a number of issues related to successful message delivery, be it voice or text, that contribute to the ultimate success rate.  

Message delivery via voice can fail for many well-known reasons including network congestion or equipment damage. The good news is its success or failure can be easily determined through standard IVR (interactive voice response) technology. IVR is a standard feature of most notification solutions and is coupled with real-time results reporting. A good vendor will offer technology to successfully detect voice mail at 95 percent of the time or higher to ensure appropriate messages are left.

Text message delivery is not as easy as voice to detect and isolate potential problems. While cellular carriers have all successfully launched enterprise SMS delivery products that ensure higher reliability and full tracking with two-way responses, the use of these protocols is not universal.

The consumer-grade process of sending a message via email to the phone number, while being highly unreliable, is still commonly used by many organizations for everything from home-grown system alerts to notifications from major third-party applications — and even by some notification vendors.  

With the use of full enterprise SMS delivery, dramatic improvements can be seen with increased success rates and clear visibility of call-out campaigns. With full audit trail of the message pathway, an organization knows if their message delivery failed or if it succeeded. Many times it is more important to know about failures than successes. If your response teams aren’t activated, you need to know to go to plan B.

In the case of a major incident, SMS gateways are immediately inundated with messages. Messages delivered via email to the carrier are subject to extreme delay and may never reach their destination through the network congestion. Through enterprise messaging, a dedicated enterprise-class gateway is made available to receive traffic, bypassing this consumer congestion. In addition, this traffic is easier for the carrier to handle with higher priority routing than email traffic inside the carrier’s network.

Is An Onsite System Technically Feasible & Defensible?

The question of feasibility for an onsite, premise-based system is a reasonable one. And with recent changes in technology, it is one that can now be truly explored as a viable option. Onsite solutions have historically been regarded as highly secure and flexible. While it’s true they carry infrastructure maintenance requirements, careful solution architecture, along with proper choices in hardware and software options, can result in a highly reliable, easy-to-maintain system.

There are several major technology changes in recent years that have contributed to the feasibility and attractiveness of an onsite system. First, the cost of hardware has plummeted. Enterprise-class servers that at one time commanded price tags in the tens of thousands of dollars can now be purchased for less than two thousand dollars. According to studies by IDC and Gartner, server sales in 2009 contracted nearly 31 percent, with revenue down 30.1 percent with the median price of servers averaging only $3323.

These declines can be directly attributed to the second factor in our discussion; servers no longer serve a single purpose. Through the use of virtualization, a single server can now host dozens of server images. The high density per unit of rack space in the data center allows for each rack to manage hundreds of systems instead of a dozen or so. With this steep decline in hardware requirements, other costs are reduced as power usage declines between eighty and ninety percent per image hosted.

VMWare's studies peg the savings at $3000 per year per server virtualized. This has led to a trend of repurposing existing servers as VMWare VSphere platforms without additional costs. When a new enterprise application is deployed, additional hardware resources are no longer necessary.

A third advancement has been the radical decline in costs for internet connectivity at high speeds. Circuits that were once hundreds of dollars per month for 1.54 megabits of speed have now been replaced with 20 megabyte connections and beyond for under a hundred dollars per month.

As a result of the hardware and connectivity advances, any enterprise onsite solution can now be easily architected using a cost-effective backup system with automatic failover in the event there is a catastrophic failure in one site. A geographically separated server is standard for applications with mission-critical functionality and with periodic database synchronization — the risk for data loss is almost non-existent.

Many organizations also opt to run their notifications systems in an active-active mode between two servers, thus adding to capacity while protecting from possible outages.

The Voice Challenge Solved With VoIP

One of the other factors in an organization’s choice to go with a hosted environment has been the need to be prepared to quickly send a large number of voice calls using text-to-speech technology or recorded voice. Doing this onsite meant you had to buy additional servers, expensive voice boards and have a potentially large number of dedicated phone lines, along with the in-house expertise and expense of maintenance for this infrastructure.

The advancement of voice-over-internet-protocol (VoIP) technology and the earlier discussed changes in virtualization and Internet connectivity options have made onsite systems easy from both a deployment as well as capacity perspective. “Burstable” Internet connection technology can give organizations high capacity for voice call distribution without the complications or cost of phone lines. An organization can effectively pay for the standard bandwidth that covers the usual messaging traffic, while having burstable capacity in reserve for emergencies and incident management. You only pay for emergency capacity if you use it.

The beauty of VoIP as a voice solution is when usage begins to exceed existing capacity, additional VoIP nodes can be easily added to build a VoIP array with as much dialing power as required. This allows customers to scale their voice solution’s capacity as its use builds.

Stay tuned for Part 2: Integration, Social Media & Mobile.

 

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