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Comparing the top UC cloud products and providers

Before you buy UC cloud-based products, consider these four key criteria: your business size, provider tech support, third-party app integration and contact center capabilities.

Simply put, UCaaS is an evolution of UC where your telecom infrastructure is placed in the cloud and turbocharged with several collaboration and telecom features. UCaaS is still relatively new, and businesses are just starting to grasp it, which means they're pretty skeptical about jumping on the bandwagon.

A key starting point to consider is the size of your business and the number of users you'd like to accommodate. While most UCaaS providers can service organizations of all sizes, different-sized businesses have different communication needs.

To help businesses decipher this emerging market, let's examine the top UCaaS providers, their cloud products and how they might meet your business needs.

Varied licenses for small and medium-sized businesses

Mitel's MiCloud Business and MiCloud Office are suited for SMBs. The business service is offered in three licensing plans: Professional, Business and Contact Center.

The Professional license is designed for small companies with up to 10 extensions and provides basic voice over IP (VoIP) functionality, with the ability to make and receive calls through the PSTN. No softphone support is provided, so companies must use Mitel IP phones to connect.

UCaaS is here to stay and going to dominate the UC market as soon as businesses understand just how much they can benefit from it.

The Business license breaks into four additional plans, with varying features, including Extension Only, Extension Only with Voice Mail, Lite and Advanced. From the four plans, only the Lite and Advanced plans offer more advanced outbound-calling capabilities, while the first two are very limited.

The Contact Center license breaks into two plans -- Agent and Supervisor -- and targets businesses focusing on contact-center services. Collaboration services, such as presence and instant messaging (IM), require a collaboration upgrade license as an additional purchase.

Interactive Intelligence PureCloud is offered in three versions, two of which are appropriate for SMBs. The PureCloud Collaborate license is free, offering unlimited user support, 1 TB storage and some neat UC services, but no outgoing or incoming PSTN calls. PureCloud Communicate offers IP PBX capabilities, which means businesses can start making and receiving calls via the PSTN.

Avaya IP Office and OnAvaya target SMBs and large organizations with five to 3,000 users, and they provide full UC services with outbound and incoming PSTN calling. Avaya's mobile and desktop applications offer advanced features, so companies don't have to invest in IP phone devices.

Microsoft's Skype for Business is based on the well-known Skype application. Two versions are offered: Plan 1 and Plan 2 at $2.00 and $5.50, respectively, per user, per month. While both plans support any number of users, Plan 2 offers additional UC services and can be upgraded with Microsoft's cloud PBX service, which enables businesses to make and receive phone calls.

Toshiba VIPedge, based on the IPedge VoIP PBX, extends functionality and portability to deliver a fully managed cloud-based service to businesses. Hardware devices, such as IP phones, are not required, thanks to the smart softphone and UC applications offered, which help businesses curb startup costs. VIPedge also integrates with Toshiba's IPedge or Strata CIX system, which enables a hybrid setup.

Unify Circuit offers four packages, three of which cover SMBs. The Circuit Free package supports up to 100 users, with limited storage space and UC capabilities. The free package does not provide incoming and outgoing calls to PSTNs. The Team package provides additional storage space -- 5 GB total -- more call capabilities and service-level agreement (SLA) help desk support, but no incoming and outgoing calls to PSTNs. The Professional package is the entry-level service for companies that require PSTN access, plus 10 GB of storage space and other features. Unify's Enterprise package is similar to the Professional package, but with 20 GB of storage space.

Cloud products targeting larger enterprises

ShoreTel Connect Cloud includes full VoIP and UC capabilities, as well as support for all types of mobile client devices. Smart telephony functions, such as Shared Line, help users in the same group respond to calls on each other's behalf.

NEC's Univerge Blue is a highly scalable cloud-based UC service that can cover an enterprise of pretty much any size. Apart from the basic telephony features most UCaaS providers offer, NEC also includes contact-center capabilities, as well as a find me/follow me feature that lets users configure where their incoming calls will ring based on who is calling. NEC's mobility application provides full UC capabilities, ensuring productivity even on the road.

Avaya's UCaaS offering is an enterprise-class product powered by the Aura platform. It provides an extensive range of telephony and UC features delivered over IP phones or a softphone application available for desktops and mobile devices.

Mitel's MiCloud Enterprise is designed for companies with 100 to 10,000 users and features full telephony services, strong UC and mobility applications.

Cisco's CallManager is one of the most popular services on a worldwide scale. CallManager offers extensive telephony capabilities and UC features, such as presence and IM. Because Cisco doesn't sell or provide the service directly, customers will have to search for a Cisco partner, making the process a bit more difficult and less practical for businesses.

Microsoft's Office 365 Enterprise plans offer advanced presence and IM capabilities, as well as HD video conferencing capable of handling hundreds of users. Office 365 offers three enterprise plans: E1, E3 and E5. PSTN conferencing and cloud PBX are included in the E5 plan and available as add-on services in the other enterprise plans.

The Interactive Intelligence PureCloud platform is also a strong option for large enterprises. With a presence in more than 35 countries, it offers its services from 12 global data centers.

High availability and technical support

No matter how great some cloud products are, if they lack the necessary support and SLAs, customers will think twice before signing up. While all UCaaS providers offer some type of support and SLA, only a few have gone the extra mile.

NEC's Univerge Blue is hosted in NEC's fault-tolerant data centers and is backed up with multilevel redundancy, which allows NEC to offer uninterruptable services to its customers. NEC's certified data centers are secured using the latest technologies, with 24/7 monitoring, alerting and support services.

Enterprises considering UCaaS should carefully weigh every vendor's offerings and put them against their own business requirements.

ShoreTel lets users contact its support staff directly with the click of a button. If users are experiencing problems, they can tap the "Help" softkey on their phones and confirm the support request by selecting "Yes." This will then automatically place a call to ShoreTel's 24/7 support. This feature helps IT departments deal with other pressing problems, and users get the support they need quickly.

Toshiba proactively conducts a full-network assessment before installing its VIPedge. This extensive work covers four areas: LAN requirements, VoIP requirements for remote users, VoIP requirements for Wi-Fi users and customer WAN requirements. This process helps Toshiba ensure the correct and stable delivery of services.

Mitel offers its services through its MPLS network, which allows branches to connect via a private cloud using multiple paths that ensure service availability. All lines and services offered are monitored 24/7 with safeguard mechanisms to ensure quick response and service restoration in case of a problem.

CRM and third-party application integration

Integrating UCaaS with a customer relationship management (CRM) system or third-party applications is a useful feature -- and, in many cases, it's mandatory. Most UCaaS providers offer integration with CRM systems via an API, or they have special plug-ins that allow connectivity with various applications.

Avaya, for example, makes use of open standards that enable customers to develop custom applications or integrate their UC and contact-center services with existing applications, such as Salesforce. Businesses with an internal development team can customize many features to suit their needs.

ShoreTel also provides extensive API integration with leading brand names, such as Salesforce, Microsoft Dynamics and NetSuite. Mitel's MiCloud follows a similar trend with Salesforce CRM and Microsoft Office support.

Toshiba's VIPedge supports integrations with Salesforce and possibly other CRM services. Interactive Intelligence offers CRM integration in its PureCloud Engage package, but doesn't provide details as to which CRMs are supported.

Calling on advanced contact-center capabilities

Many businesses house their own contact centers, or call centers, to provide customer support services, while other businesses provide dedicated call-center services to other companies. No matter what category a company might fall into, most UCaaS providers have contact-center capabilities that are powered by extensive UC services that help deliver support to their customers and businesses.

For example, Interactive Intelligence's PureCloud Engage mainly targets contact centers. The features include advanced auto attendant, speech-enabled Interactive Voice Response, outbound calling campaigns, detailed reporting and CRM integration.

Mitel's MiContact Center provides businesses with a complete service that covers inbound and outbound calling and campaigns, as well as advanced call routing, with extended UC capabilities that allow agents to contact customers in various ways, including phone, chat, email and social media.

NEC also promises a complete contact-center service tightly integrated with its Univerge Blue. The contact center includes Automatic Call Distributor (ACD), with skill-based routing to help customers connect with the right person. Features such as voice self-service allow customers to obtain the information they need without speaking to an agent, freeing up valuable resources for the business.

ShoreTel Connect Cloud Contact Center provides several features, including ACD, CRM integration, prioritization of queues, call recording, remote and local agent support, queue metrics and much more.

Find the service and vendor that fits your business

The UCaaS market is surely gaining momentum, and most businesses could benefit from cloud products. Undoubtedly, UCaaS is here to stay and going to dominate the UC and telecom market as soon as businesses understand just how much they can benefit from it.

UCaaS providers are racing against each other to introduce their services. Though most vendors offer cloud products catering to both large and small businesses, organizations with specific requirements -- such as high availability, CRM or contact-center integration -- would be better off with larger providers, like Avaya or NEC. Enterprises considering UCaaS should carefully weigh every vendor's offerings and put them against their own business requirements.

Next Steps

Find out why enterprises are choosing cloud-based UC over premises-based UC

Learn why cost is the leading driver -- and inhibitor -- of cloud-based UC

Which UC apps should be in the cloud?

This was last published in October 2016

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Clarity Connect is another cloud-managed contact center option. It is is native to Skype for Business.
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