What is SBC (Session Border Controller)?

By Hal Werner

A session border controller (SBC) is a device regularly deployed in VoIP networks to exert control over the signaling and usually also the media streams involved in setting up, conducting, and tearing down telephone calls or other interactive media communications.

The term “session” refers to a communication between two parties – in the context of telephony, this would be a call. Each call consists of one or more call media streams which carry the call’s audio video, or other data along with information of call statistics and quality. Together, these streams make up a session. It is the job of a session border controller to exert influence over the data flows of sessions.

The term “border” refers to a point of demarcation between one part of a network and another. As a simple example, at the edge of a corporate network, a firewall demarcates the local network (inside the corporation) from the rest of the Internet (outside of the corporation). A more complex example is that of a large corporation where different departments have security needs for each location and perhaps for each kind of data. In this case, filtering routers or other network elements are used to control the flow of data streams. It is the job of a session border controller to assist policy administrators in managing the flow of session data across these borders.

The term “controller” refers to the influence that session border controllers have on the data streams that comprise sessions, as they traverse borders between one part of a network and another. Additionally, session border controllers often provide measurement, access control, and data conversion facilities for the calls they control.

SBCs are inserted into the signaling and/or media paths between calling and called parties in a VoIP call, predominantly those using the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), H.323, and MGCP call-signaling protocols.

In many cases, in order to hide the network topology and protect the service provider or enterprise packet network, the session border controller (SBC) will terminate a received call and initiate a second call leg to the destination party. In technical terms, when used within the SIP protocol, this is defined as being a back-to-back user agent (B2BUA). The effect of this behavior is that not only the signaling traffic, but also the media traffic (voice, video) can be controlled by the SBC. In cases where the SBC does not have the capability to provide media services on board, SBCs are also able to redirect media traffic to a different element elsewhere in the network, for recording, generation of music-on-hold, or other media-related purposes. Conversely, without an SBC, the media traffic travels directly between the VoIP phones, without the in-network call signaling elements having control over their path.

In other cases, the SBC simply modifies the stream of call control (signaling) data involved in each call, perhaps limiting the kinds of calls that can be conducted, changing the codec choices, and so on. Ultimately, SBCs allow the network operators to manage the calls that are made on their networks, fix or change protocols and protocol syntax to achieve interoperability, and also overcome some of the problems that firewalls and network address translators (NATs) present for VoIP calls.