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CaaS: Communications-as-a-Service

Charles Studt is vice president of product management for IntelePeer and Joseph Hofstader is a senior architect in Microsoft Communications Sector.

What do Web 2.0 social networks, Web conferencing services, and enterprise applications have in common? All three applications are being revolutionized and transformed by adding next-generation voice and rich-media features through CaaS, short for "Communications-as-a-Service," a hosted on-demand model for adding communications capabilities to applications and services without upfront capital costs.

CaaS brings social networking, cloud computing, and smartphones together, providing cloud-technologies that let users communicate via voice, text, and rich media on whatever device they prefer to use. To compete in this marketplace, software vendors, enterprises, and service providers must introduce communications-enhanced services that meet a surging need for value, efficiency, cost reduction, and convenience.

To meet these needs, CaaS providers offer cloud-based telecommunications services that can be integrated into software applications and Web services. The idea is new: Vendors can take advantage of this approach -- adding voice services to applications -- by using a standards-based API. CaaS capabilities can include voice-over-IP (VoIP), instant messaging, conferencing, collaboration, and videoconference applications using fixed and mobile devices. The end result of this CaaS-driven process is most commonly referred to as "communications enabled business processes."

The business applications that are seeing the most growth using CaaS include CRM, Call Center Services, Customer Support Centers, Telecom Carriers, and Web 2.0 applications with social grid requirements. Several companies currently offer different CaaS applications and platforms. The number of voice-enabled applications is multiplying as these technologies and platforms become more prevalent and business users and consumers become accustomed to applications that incorporate advanced voice features.

Most businesses depend on a distributed and mobile workforce. Today, companies struggle to deploy unified communications that provide remote employees with the business-critical applications, workflow, and information they need to be productive. CaaS offers the most cost-effective way to resolve this issue. Using a CaaS platform, developers can embed communications features into CRM and ERP systems, enabling sales personnel, field service technicians, distributed call center agents, and other remote employees to remain productive and connected with advanced communications functionality. CaaS-based communications features can include call recording and transcription, consolidated inbox messaging, voice or SMS dispatch requests and caller ID enhanced by data accessed through other sources, similar to a Web 2.0 mashup.

By providing these communications capabilities to mobile devices and home offices outside of the traditional enterprise boundaries, employees can elevate customer service to new, personalized levels. Customer service professionals can solve problems faster and sales representatives can connect with prospects in powerful and personal ways.

An open CaaS platform can also redefine emergency and crisis communications and planning for businesses. By creating definitions for crisis scenarios, communications can be triggered by predefined events, such as natural disaster or another type of crisis. For example, an equipment failure at a power plant could initiate SMS or voice notifications to all relevant maintenance managers and engineers. If needed, it can initiate a conference call to a pre-defined emergency response group to assess the emergency and implement a crisis plan.

CaaS for Social Networks

A key advantage of CaaS applications is the ability to allow people to communicate with each other without requiring the person initiating the communication to know all of the recipient's contact details, such as their preferred device and related phone numbers. For consumers, CaaS can allow individuals and groups of individuals to communicate without giving out any personal information. This can drive additional traffic to social networking sites, increasing the advertising revenue for the web property and enabling business models such as the tiered subscription, in which users pay a premium for an account with voice communications capabilities.

For example, a social networking site can unite groups of people with common interests, such as a fan club devoted to a musician. Members can connect in conference calls without forcing participants to reveal personal information. More important for the social network and the musician, CaaS introduces new ways to reach fan club members with compelling new media or exclusive merchandize offers.

People in the software platform industry understand that platform adoption comes from the innovative applications written on the platform. As Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer says, "its developers, its developers, its developers." And as an executive of the largest software platform company, Ballmer understands that open platforms drive innovation. A recent example of an innovative CaaS application was created for a demonstration at an industry conference in which the creator took a streaming video and integrated on-line advertising. When the video reached a point at which a product could be advertised, the user was able to select the link and receive a voice call from the company running the advertisement.

Imagine watching a large sporting event with a pizza commercial playing. By clicking an "order now" selection on the screen, you are immediately contacted by a customer service representative who takes your order information without you needing to look up the store, dial the number, and possibly wait on hold. Taking this one step further, when the representative calls you, they can add location information for the wired telephone or GPS information from a wireless phone and cut down the amount of time it takes to deliver your order.

The costs of accessing telephone networks can often be prohibitive for application developers. Communications equipment is required in order to provide interoperability between the IP network and the PSTN or mobile network. This equipment, at a minimum, requires an investment in hardware and software -- not to mention the expense of time to get the equipment configured correctly. CaaS platforms allow a developer to consume services written in standards-based languages using common development environments. By lowering the costs for developers to create applications that provide communications services, the number of applications exposing these services will increase.

How CaaS Works

Through the hosted model, the CaaS provider manages everything, from the telecommunications infrastructure to the software integration platform for delivering communications offered at a guaranteed Quality of Service (QoS). As a result, businesses can selectively deploy communications features, applications, and devices on a pay-as-you-go, as-needed basis, reducing risks while eliminating capital costs associated with new services.

When offered on an open standards-based platform, CaaS services can simplify the integration of voice and other enhanced communications capabilities into applications and Web services. For example, some CaaS platforms offer open REST-based APIs that eliminate the need for developers to have deep telecommunications knowledge to integrate CaaS features into their applications. By making it simple to add communications services to applications, open CaaS platforms create endless potential for new communications service applications. The ease of use, speed to market, and lowered delivery costs enable CaaS platforms to offer real advantages under current economic conditions. REST also provides a web-based interface that can be used in common web design environments to implement this functionality without writing code.

CaaS in the Mobile World

Today, CaaS applications tend to provide connections through two methods:

  • The CaaS application is used to initiate calls between two telephones that are on a traditional PSTN or wireless telephone network.
  • Proprietary "soft phone" applications are installed on personal computers when users sign up for a service. Users of the application can place calls between each other over the IP network.

As high-speed wireless networks become more commonplace, CaaS applications will evolve to embrace the increased flexibility and performance that emerges. These emerging high-speed wireless networks and the mobile devices that use them dramatically increase the potential for CaaS applications created specifically for mobile broadband users.

The pace of mobile adoption will continue to drive new mobile CaaS applications to take advantage of higher network speeds and increasingly powerful smart phones and other mobile devices. In this promising future, the potential for CaaS applications is defined entirely by the creativity of innovators who understand its promise.

Vendors and service providers are already taking advantage of CaaS platforms to roll out advanced services, such as embedding click-to-call, voice blast, and SMS features to add value to business applications and Web services. As CaaS matures and evolves, it will surely unleash a wave of innovation within telecommunications companies, Web and software service providers, social networks, and businesses.

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