WebRTC: A Business Communications Game-Changer
You’re using WebRTC (“Real Time Communications”) every day, on your laptop and on your smartphone – it’s what makes voice and video available through your browser. In this podcast, Christian Stredicke, CEO of Vodia, a cloud phone system company, talks about how Vodia is working to use WebRTC to create new communications environments for PBX users. WebRTC eliminates the interoperability issues that have long plagued the VoIP industry, and it’s based on HTTP, which means best network protection currently available, particularly in light of the DDoS attacks during the last quarter of 2021.
“Over the ten, even twenty years, I cannot imagine anything replacing WebRTC,” Christian says. The podcast also discusses the relevance of desktop phones and SIP trunks, how the team at Vodia has found a way to route calls from WebRTC into mailboxes or an IVR, enabling communications between browsers and servers, between browsers and desktop phones, and between browsers and SIP trunks. “I think we’ve achieved ‘choice of device,’” Christian says, “which offers so many possibilities to businesses. This is something unique in the industry, and I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished.”
Doug Green, Publisher of Telecom Reseller (DG): Christian, thank you for joining me today.
Christian Stredicke, CEO of Vodia (CS): No problem, thank you.
DG: Well, this is an exciting podcast. We’re going to get caught up with Vodia, see what’s going on at Vodia, but we’re going to dive deeply into how Vodia is using many of the tools available in the telecommunications market to deliver a rich set of solution to users that are really changing the way people work, and operate, and have their businesses communicate with the outside world. We’re going to be diving into that in just a minute, but first of all, Christian, what is Vodia?
CS: At Vodia we’re making software, phone systems, for business communications, and the apps that make using them easy and effective, and today more than that.
DG: We talk about phone systems in the historical context of having some sort of set up that allows people to make phone calls and to receive phone calls. But let’s focus a little bit on the ‘more than that.’ What do you mean when you say there’s more to it than that?
CS: The core is that A can talk to B, but there’s a lot more. At the end of the day we want to enable companies to interact with customers. This doesn’t mean a specific person, we want groups to answer calls; when you don’t want to talk to a specific person, you want to talk to a function, this means calls need to be routed to the right person. And we need to have accountability, we need to know who worked, for how long, what time, reporting about it...But there’s a lot of stuff around this data which has tremendous value – it’s kind of a necessity for a company to have this kind of information. There’s a lot more than just the basic call.
DG: Early on Vodia saw the benefit of a major technological breakthrough known as WebRTC.
CS: The browser has already killed a lot of applications. In the ‘90s we probably had CRM systems writing specifically for operating systems, but over the years it’s all changed because of the browser. A lot of business software has been made available exclusively in the browser, and real-time communications were kind of lagging behind. WebRTC is a game-changer because it makes voice and video available through the browser on practically every platform that runs a browser. So yes, it’s a total game-changer compared to what we had before. At Vodia we’re trying to use this and essentially translate the technology we’ve had so far into a new environment and make this available to our end users.
DG: WebRTC stands for “Web Real Time Communications,” but what does this actually mean?
CS: “Real Time” means that delay is critical, so when two people are talking the roundtrip time for a voice packet is very important for the user experience. If you’re using other technologies, there’s a one or two second delay for conversation. WebRTC makes it so this delay is as short as possible, so the user experience is really good. This is the main purpose of that API.
DG: WebRTC is probably over a decade old. Why is it so relevant, and why does it remain relevant?
CS: First of all, browsers are everywhere – anybody who’s logged into a browser can potentially use WebRTC, and there are more and more applications coming up. Not only telephone systems, it’s social networks – they have started heavily using WebRTC, so my kids are talking over WebRTC and they don’t even know it. They don’t care how it works, it just works! It’s just like a huge community, there’s a huge amount of users who are in front of the screen, in front of the browser, and this just opens up the possibility for people to talk to each other, and this is something we’ve never seen before – it’s going to have a massive impact on the way we communicate. And it’s a great thing that we only have one standard, right? It’s fantastic that all of the browser manufacturers really agree to that standard. If you’re using browser type A and browser type B they really work well together, so we don’t have to worry about interoperability, which was always something that haunted us in the VoIP industry, that device A didn’t really work with device B. But with the browsers, what’s happening now is, no question it’s going to work. There are no problems like, ‘this manufacturer doesn’t work with that manufacturer,’ that’s all gone now, that’s the beauty of it. It’s a really solid standard, and this problem has really, really been solved.
DG: I have to ask – I’m going to channel our younger readers for a moment – why not just use our smartphones?
CS: At the end of the day every smartphone has a mobile browser that supports WebRTC. And the way you make apps today is largely that you write the web page, then you publish that page in the form of an app, so the app is, essentially, a website running inside the app. There are a lot of apps right now being shipped with WebRTC inside them. Users have no idea, but they don’t have to care because it just works and everybody’s happy. And the developers are happy as well because they can save a lot of work and a lot of time for developing that kind of stuff over and over again, they can just use it.
DG: So, with this shift and, essentially, like you said…a lot of people through this pandemic and in other situations have been using WebRTC without even knowing they’re using it. One of the impacts is, people are saying, ‘now it seems like I’m available for work around the clock’ – there’s no delineation between ‘work’ and ‘not-work.’
DG: What about VoIP phones? Do they still have relevance?
CS: The problem with the VoIP phones is just about none of them support WebRTC, they’re still on the SIP protocol. So it’s great to be a technology visionary and say, ‘hey, let’s throw all that stuff away, we’ve got new stuff,’ but practically this does not work. There is a massive number of devices out there, and they need to be integrated into the WebRTC environment. And now we’re talking about gateway, so we need a gateway from the old technology to the new technology; this is another must-have for any business communications system, that we can integrate desktop phones and other devices and other services. For example, ATAs are still around, they’re like door phones, analog lines for this and that purpose, and don’t forget SIP trunks – we still need SIP trunks, and you need to convert WebRTC to SIP and RTP for the SIP trunk, which needs to be done through a gateway.
DG: Let’s talk about gateways. I understand you have actually implemented a gateway that connects a VoIP phone to WebRTC.
CS: Yes. The browser obviously includes software that implements the WebRTC API, but the server doesn’t. So we had to go ahead and implement that part of the WebRTC API inside the server, so it can call from WebRTC into the mailbox or into an IVR; the communication then is between browser and server. We can also use this to convert the traffic between the browser and the desktop phone and the browser and the SIP trunk. It was kind of a crazy project, a lot of work, obviously, but in hindsight we’re definitely very happy because now we have these possibilities to connect a lot of this existing equipment with all of these cool new browsers and apps, and I think what we’ve achieved is a level of choice of device, which is tremendous – it presents so many possibilities to businesses. This is something really outstanding, unique in the industry, and I’m proud of this.
DG: Can’t the same thing be achieved with desktop apps?
CS: Yes. Some people are using softphones, using the protocols from the desktop, so you can still do some of this sort of old school stuff. On the other hand, the desktop is usually very powerful, it can easily run a browser inside an app. This is why we prefer, with our Vodia apps, to use our own WebRTC-based implementation. The SIP protocol has limits when it comes to additional features. For example, if you want to set redirection targets, or if you want to set your presence, status, name, or if you want to upload your profile photo, right? These are all things that can’t be done over the SIP protocol, and this is where the SIP phones are struggling. The SIP softphones on a desktop don’t let you upload a profile picture, but we can do that if we’re using our own app because we’re tightly integrated with the backend. This is why I think using the integrated apps is more valuable than using a generic SIP softphone on the desktop.
DG: What about SIP trunks?
CS: There are so many SIP trunks out there, which is a great thing to have, and we can’t just toss them and replace them – with what? We are actually thinking about doing WebRTC trunks. I haven’t seen anything out there, so maybe this is an opportunity, but it’s really hard to have a protocol for that, so if you want to do termination today into the PSTN, you must use a SIP trunk, that’s how it is. Again, we’re able to convert the WebRTC to SIP trunks, so for us it's no problem, but maybe there’s something coming out that does native WebRTC in the future, and we’d definitely be happy to take a look at that, but right now it doesn’t exist.
DG: Now, with the onset of the Ukraine-Russia conflict, security is top of mind. Is WebRTC secure? After all, it’s open source software.
CS: Open source isn’t bad for security, it’s good for security, because a lot of people can review what’s been done, which is a good thing. There’s the encryption part of it: WebRTC is a relatively new standard and was developed with a lot of issues in mind; underneath they’re using DTLS, essentially a UDP-based version of TLS, which means it’s a very proven technology. They’re not reinventing the wheel, they’re just using something that’s been out there a long, long time and has been deployed in so many places, and they’re using it for negotiating the SRTP keys and the endpoints. From a privacy point of view, this is definitely top notch, the way to go. I know some apps call it end-to-end encryption, and WebRTC is by definition end-to-end encrypted, by the protocol standard, and this is a fantastic thing. The other big topic is DDoS. We saw a couple of DDoS attacks last year, and they were so deleterious because SIP, from a global point of view, isn’t a mainstream technology, especially the firewalls, which mostly deal with HTTP; they protect HTTP servers and traffic, but for SIP this is small, small part of the whole industry, which means there’s less choice, in terms of products, and in this respect the UDP protocol is more difficult to protect. This is largely why we’ve seen these problems with SIP. The good news about WebRTC is it’s essentially based on HTTP – this means everything that was built for HTTP can now be used, and that’s definitely the best protection you can get today. If you can go to your cloud service provider and they can offer some kind of firewall that can deal with a ridiculous amount of traffic, like number of packets and gigabits per second, they can all deal with that, you can basically run a WebRTC-based server on the Internet that’s protected by these services. This is the best possible scenario right now, and I think these are great, great reasons to use WebRTC technology.
DG: What do you think will come after WebRTC?
CS: I really don’t know! What comes after the Internet? WebRTC properly addresses everything we were hoping for ten, twenty years ago. Over the next few years we’re going to see a lot more products based on WebRTC and also products handling WebRTC, in terms of firewalls and DDoS protection. One topic which hasn’t yet been resolved is quality of service, QOS, wherein the ISPs give priority to WebRTC traffic, so you don’t have to be afraid that you’ll have audio problems. This may take place within a few years, that maybe firewalls are equipped to detect, ‘here’s a WebRTC call going on,’ and the firewall prioritizes the packets automatically, so all these services using WebRTC sound great. Apart from that, I would say over the next ten, twenty years I can’t imagine anything replacing WebRTC. It’s a pretty safe investment, and we are happily investing more.
DG: I want to thank you for giving us this overview of WebRTC – millions of people are using it and they don’t even know it, and Vodia was an early innovator here. I think you’ve really connected the dots today in explaining to us how WebRTC retains currency, why it’s important, and how it works with the other extant technology. Where can we learn more about WebRTC and VoIP and about the Vodia phone system?
CS: If you’re really interested in the technical details, you can always visit WebRTC.org, it’s a very good site. And though Vodia.com isn’t necessarily a reference site for WebRTC, you’ll find some helpful information there. This kind of conversation, where we go under the hood, it’s not necessarily for end users, it’s a great starting point to learn more about WebRTC – hopefully more people will jump on the train, join the conversation and use this beautiful technology. It’s the way to go. Thanks for having me on your podcast.