- When it comes to running UC (unified communications) in the cloud, company leaders cite flexibility as a key driver.
- Cloud-based UC lets you mix and match the features and tools users receive based on their individual needs.
- Before implementation, determine how long the provider expects the process to take and how it will help with the migration and onboarding process.
Migrating applications and services to the cloud these days has far more to do with acquiring agility in a business and IT sense than it does with saving money, something that was a primary driver for early cloud adopters. In fact, when it specifically comes to running UC (unified communications) applications in the cloud, flexibility was the key driver cited in a survey that Infonetics Research conducted of more than 160 North American companies.
Infonetics found that, by this year, more than 50% of companies it surveyed will run some UC applications in either private or public cloud services. The ability to offload on-premises UC responsibilities from IT and onto providers is a key reason. Still, there are numerous other factors causing companies to eye UC in the cloud, many of which concern the demands that mobile employees are increasingly placing on companies in terms of voice, email, IM, collaboration, conferencing, and other capabilities. We’ll explore these drivers and look at the considerations and evaluations companies should weigh and perform before committing to putting UC functionality in the cloud.
The Driving Forces
More companies are at least contemplating adopting elements of UC, if not entire solutions, in the cloud because of the agility it affords. Beyond the ability to bring a hosted solution online in essentially a matter of hours, UC in the cloud enables companies to easily add or remove users as needed. A company, for example, might need to scale from 200 employees one month to 300 the next because business intensifies during a particular season, says Diane Myers, senior research director, VoIP, UC, and IMS, at IHS. Cloud-based UC, Myers says, enables easily matching expenses and requirements to that workforce because UC-based services are typically made available via an on-demand model.
More broadly, a cloud-based UC approach lets a company acquire a wide range of communication tools in one shot. Anything available in an on-premises UC solution is generally available from a cloud-based provider, including VoIP (covering IP phones and soft clients for smartphones, tablets, and PCs); audio, Web, and videoconferencing; collaboration; email; IM; calendaring; unified messaging; and more. Cloud-based UC, however, also lets companies choose to not deploy (and pay for) all tools for every user. As Myers says, generally employees “don’t all need the same things” in terms of bells and whistles. Instead, companies can mix and match what a user receives based on needs.
Myers says a company buying an on-premises UC system today is likely acquiring features with perhaps a one- or two-year service and support contract. If a new release with additional features and capabilities comes out in the meantime, however, going through a whole new upgrade cycle will cost the company money, she says. Conversely, a hosted or cloud-based UC provider is always enhancing its capabilities and features, and customers are “just going to get those,” Myers says. “That’s really appealing to companies that have always bought things in the traditional on-premises manner. Some smaller and midsized companies don’t feel like they can afford a UC system. Now, this starts to open up their possibilities.”
Other flexibility-minded drivers of cloud-based UC relate to systems management and increasing IT’s productivity. Specifically, Tim Banting, principal analyst, collaboration and communications at Current Analysis, says migrating to UC in the cloud means IT isn’t spending valuable time managing and updating UC software and hardware. Thus, a company can devote those IT resources to higher-priority strategic areas. “Furthermore, most UCaaS [UC as a service] services are upgraded without any customer intervention, which ensures you’re up-to-date with all the latest features, functions, and bug fixes,” Banting says.
Such traits can particularly benefit highly distributed companies, Myers says. For example, a retailer might have 1,000 locations but only a handful of employees at each and possibly with little or no IT expertise onsite. Cloud-based UC, however, would enable the company’s centralized IT department roll out services across locations. “It starts to lend itself to being able to say, ‘Yeah, I can have a true common set of services and capabilities across the organization regardless of location and regardless of capabilities at those sites in terms of IT management,’” she says.
Disaster recovery and business continuity is yet another agility-minded driver leading more companies to consider UC in the cloud. Although an on-premises UC system might go down because of a natural disaster, for example, causing employees to lose communication capabilities, a cloud-based system would enable employees to keep on working. Many on-premises UC solutions allow for building redundancy into the architecture, Banting says, but it can be expensive. “UCaaS can offer a more cost-effective way to deliver redundancy, as its architecture is cloud-based,” he says. In other words, employees can access communication features regardless of physical location. “Wherever there’s an Internet connection—coffee shop, hotel, or home—your employees can be as productive as they would be in the office,” he says.
Evaluate The Possibilities
Despite the potential benefits, UC in the cloud doesn’t make the best sense for every company. One reason is that budgetary considerations, which Myers says are a top factor when evaluating cloud UC moves, don’t always make sense. “Often, what it comes down to is asking, ‘Do I have a CAPEX budget?’,” Myers says. “Is my business operating in a way that doesn’t really allow me to go to the cloud because we’re not running in more of an expense-based model?”
Companies looking to cloud-based UC specifically to save significant sums of money will typically find this isn’t the case. That said, Banting says while ripping and replacing a legacy UC system may be a costly and risky process, UCaaS does offer a lower upfront investment, and companies can utilize the gains they see in productivity instantaneously. “This minimizes the capital expenditure and improves financial budgeting, as businesses know what the cost per user will be,” he says. Thus, costs generally become more predictable and in many cases a lower total cost of ownership is possible, Banting says. “There are some cases where conferencing, for example, may be more expensive,” he says.
Outside of budget considerations, companies should put heavy emphasis on evaluating reliability requirements. As Banting notes, a UCaaS provider is “only as good as the connection you have to the cloud.” Solid, dependable, and reliable connectivity should be the lowest common denominator, he says. Companies should also seek assurances from a service provider regarding the availability of its service, with a focus on finding out how often the provider shuts the service down for maintenance and if there’s a planned maintenance schedule. Further, determine what the provider does to minimize service outages, whether it provides financially backed SLAs, and what type of global footprint it has in terms of data centers.
When it comes to service and support, Banting advises ensuring that a provider’s service can offer the right level of support to suit your company’s unique needs. For example, can it provide 24/7 technical support, and if so does it cost extra and what response times can you expect? Similarly, Myers notes companies should evaluate quality-of-service issues. With an on-premises UC system, for example, the company is in charge of the network handling internal and external connections. “If that goes down, it’s up to me, so I’m going to have a level I’m comfortable with,” she says. “When this sits in the cloud, it’s up to the cloud provider. So, you have to know what their uptime is. Do they have redundancy built into their network? What happens if they get hit by a disaster?”
Security is arguably the most important criteria when considering cloud-based UC, particularly when it comes to collaboration, email, sharing video sessions, and more. Ultimately, while it’s possible to find hosted providers that do a good job with security, Myers says, companies must determine their comfort level and security risks.
Banting notes enterprise leaders have been slow to adopt UCaaS essentially because keeping data on-premises feels more secure business-wise. “However, in order to stay in business, UCaaS vendors are well aware that security is usually the uppermost concern of every prospect and customer,” he says. “There are plenty of standards to look for to help assuage security concerns.” These include SSAE 16, SOC 2, and SOC 3, which entail physical access to data centers, confidentiality, and privacy.
Banting also recommends ensuring traffic to and from the service provider is encrypted for both real-time communications and call-signaling information to protect from security breaches and possible eavesdropping. “Additionally, many organizations are subject to compliance audits for regulations ranging from Sarbanes-Oxley, HIPAA, FISMA, Safe Harbor regulations, and other requirements,” he says. “While security may not be mandated by these regulations, satisfying auditors often includes security measures to protect regulated communications.”
How To Proceed
Many companies dip their toes into cloud-based UC initially by adopting, say, email or Web conferencing rather than jumping all in from the outset with every UC component. Myers says that unless a company is a single-site location, it shouldn’t view UC as having to be all or nothing. “You can test and check it out,” she says. For example, a company with multiple locations might test the waters in a few locations first with a few UC components.
Banting concurs, adding that companies should definitely “try before you buy” by taking advantage of pilots and trials providers offer to test how easy it is to add users, generate reports, change configurations, and generally meet business needs. Additionally, audit employees in terms of determining the features and functionality they need to ensure you’re not overpaying for optional features employes don’t require. “Often, it helps to group users into segments, such as office workers, mobile workers, contact center, etc., and buy the licensing or service plans that apply to those segments,” he says.
In terms of actual deployment, Myers notes there are various hybrid types of deployments now available that are well-suited for companies that recently upgraded their UC or PBX systems. “Your ability to find something that works with your present system is good today,” she says. “You probably can find a solution that’s very close to apples to apples from vendors or vendor partners that’s going to give you the same look and feel and capabilities.”
Where implementation is concerned, companies should determine how long the implementation process is expected to take and how the service provider will help with the migration and onboarding process. “Make sure that your existing telephone numbers can be ported over onto your new service provider’s platform and if there are any early termination fees to pay,” Banting says. “Additionally, post-implementation support might be needed, including management and administration training.”