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SIP - Internet's Next Protocol Led by BEA Systems' WLCP

The Internet's next great protocol

This article will demonstrate the value of a communication platform not just for telecoms, but also for any company developing enterprise-wide applications.

BEA has entered the communication platform space in a very big way with its release of the BEA WebLogic Communication Platform (WLCP). BEA's new platform brings capabilities that used to be strictly in the domain of telecom network programmers up to the J2EE developer community. Doing this provides a number of advantages such as drastically lowering the time and cost required to build telephony services and affording the ability to create new types of telephony-related services that were never before possible - all with Java, J2EE, and Web service technology.

It is also important to understand that the user experience from a user interface (UI) standpoint is quickly changing. As Figure 1 shows, UI experience arguably moved backwards from an era of client-server applications with their rich, fat-client, front-end applications to more simplistic HTML pages. HTML-based applications were easier to build and maintain through the model-view-control architecture of servlets and JSPs, but they were fairly flat and did little to integrate the richer collaboration that some Windows-based applications took advantage of (e.g., various VB controls that could integrate with audio- and video-based media applications).

More and more, you can expect Web applications to meld traditional HTML screens with such capabilities as instant messaging, voice (through regular PSTN phones, VoIP, or soft phones), video, etc. SIP (session initiation protocol) is a protocol that lets all this happen. Many people feel that SIP is the next great protocol of the Internet because it brings an entirely new set of media and collaboration capabilities to applications. These new applications are called "converged applications" because they integrate traditional telecom-type capabilities within enterprise applications. They can now include various media (e.g., voice, video and chat) and application logic (e.g., UI logic with JSPs and business logic with EJBs).

Here are some examples of the new types of converged applications that SIP enables (this list is by no means exhaustive):

  • Real-time video sharing
  • Voice instant messaging
  • Voice-video telephony
  • Video conferencing
  • Rich-media enterprise collaboration
  • Click-to-call
  • Autoinitiated conference calls
  • Converged call-center communication
Anyone who has been involved in telephony knows that the field is currently an alphabet soup of acronyms, including IMS, SIP, PARLY, PARLYX, SMS, PSTN, RBOC, VoIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) - and the list goes on. There are also some important elements such as registration and presence servers, which provide for registering users and tracking their availability through various channels that I cannot cover here. This article cannot possibly be a "Telecom 101" review, but I will try to give you a bigger-picture, lay-of-the-land overview so you may better understand how things fit together.

The good news is BEA's WLCP can help you become productive without necessarily knowing all the myriad of terms and technologies. This brings up an important point I would like to make based on a number of discussions I have had with architects and developers. Many people are under the impression that SIP servers only have a place in a telecom and specifically only for VoIP initiatives (see VoIP section below for definition). This is absolutely not the case. SIP is agnostic when it comes to working with the traditional Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN), VoIP, or wireless networks. There are gateways that can take traffic between these various delivery technologies.

Current State of the Telecom Industry
The telecom industry is undergoing a number of radical changes. There are two distinct trends going on. One is the need for carriers to create new revenue opportunities by creating converged video, voice, and data applications - often referred to as a "triple play." Online real-time multimedia and two-way interactive services (such as games) are some examples. The other trend is the continuing effort to lower the cost of running traditional PSTN networks and operations and eventually move to the more cost-effective VoIP networks.

Race to the Home
Fiber optic cable is being run to homes and businesses very rapidly. A few months ago there were guys stringing fiber on the poles outside my house along the road - but not yet directly to my house. Fiber promises to revolutionize telecommunications and networking by bringing unprecedented network speeds both at work and at home. Verizon is, for example, now offering speeds of 15 megabytes per second through their FiOS product. The economies of scale tip dramatically when these types of speeds are available for new types of applications. Indeed, the "race to the home" is on in a big way.

To continue the racing metaphor, the need for telecoms to create new services to drive differentiation is pushing them to embark on strategies to make their services better than their competitors. If they were to continue doing this with the old class 5 switches and other proprietary network elements, it would be like pressing one foot on the accelerator while the other foot mashes on the breaks - not very effective for winning the race. This is where the BEA WLCP comes in. It replaces much of the need for these older technologies and brings the power that was originally only in the domain of telecoms and the highly specialized skills of the "Network Guys" to the J2EE (or JEE) developer.

VoIP
VoIP is hardware and software that allow media calls - voice and otherwise - to be placed over IP-based networks (the Internet) using packet switching instead of the traditional PSTN. The key advantage that VoIP provides is that companies avoid the tolls and tariffs associated with PSTN. Also, the infrastructure required to host VoIP networks is based on commoditized hardware and software, whereas PSTN is built on largely closed hardware and software systems such as the class 5 switches. Generally, telecom will have both PSTN and VoIP networks that can interoperate for the foreseeable future, but will be moving to IP-only networks in the long run.

Why Is a Communication Platform Needed
The world has changed because of the driving need to bring telecom capability out of the hands of the pure network shops and give common developers the power to create new and converged applications. As noted, this is generally termed the convergence between traditional telecom and enterprise application development. The BEA WLCP provides developers with a set of industrial-strength tools that enable them to program in a well-known environment of Java, J2EE, and Web services.

As of this writing, the WLCP has two components: the WebLogic SIP Server, and the WebLogic Network Gatekeeper, as shown in Figure 2. Though this article focuses on the WebLogic SIP Server, its sister WebLogic Network Gatekeeper is an important piece of the puzzle. When you need to provide a layer that protects and arbitrates networks and network traffic, the Network Gatekeeper steps in to provide much lower level network control such as protocol adapters, as well as support for ParlayX, a specification for opening up telecom network capabilities to applications.

More Stories By Pat Shepherd

Pat Shepherd has been an active member of the Java revolution since its inception in 1995. He has written for several magazines and was a technical editor for the Sams book BEA WebLogic Platform 7. He has worked at BEA for more than five years and is currently a global account architect who spreads the Java/SOA message everywhere he goes.

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