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How to select a unified communications platform as a service

Identifying the best unified communications platform service for your company is a complex task. This guide shows you how to evaluate vendors and buy the right CPaaS.

A unified communications platform that's delivered as a service offers the ability to embed communications into any application or create custom applications while paying for access to text messaging, telephony and video services on an as-needed basis. As such, CPaaS lowers the price point to add real-time communications into digital transformation initiatives, both customer-facing and internal.

CPaaS is a cloud-based service that enables developers to embed messaging, voice and video into their applications via APIs. Billing models are typically based on buying bulk minutes or blocks of messages on a monthly basis for a fixed fee, plus additional costs for added minutes or messages. Alternatively, some providers offer a pay-per-call, per-message or per-video-chat billing model.

Currently, CPaaS is used mostly for customer-facing applications. Some common uses include the following:

  • Sending notifications to customers via text messaging. For example, sending appointment reminders, shipping notifications, alerts, account access attempts and sales offers to mobile phones.
  • Enabling multifactor authentication. Typically, this involves texting customers with a one-time passcode to enable them to log into their accounts, either at initial setup or if they try to log in from a new device.
  • Creating custom phone numbers associated with marketing campaigns, enabling tracking of specific responses to ads or billboards.
  • Enabling voice, video and text messaging within mobile applications and websites. Examples include show-me-what-you-see video customer support; adding click-to-call or click-to-video-chat features; and exchanging messages with field personnel, such as real estate agents, insurance adjusters and car service drivers.
  • Building customer-facing kiosks, enabling customers to engage with customer support agents from branch locations.

By using CPaaS, app developers don't have to build platforms for handling real-time communications. They can scale up or down as needed and only pay for what they need. CPaaS providers typically offer high availability, geographic reach and service-level agreements that would be prohibitively expensive for companies to build themselves.

How CPaaS works

CPaaS providers typically offer a unified communications platform via cloud-based services using APIs that app developers can build into existing applications. Most providers support common programming languages and environments, including Objective C for iOS and Mac OS X apps, JavaScript and PHP for web apps, Java for Android, and C# or C++ for Windows. Some CPaaS providers offer sample code or sample apps to speed development and delivery of new capabilities.

The CPaaS market has expanded greatly in recent years as startups launch, more traditional communication vendors acquire CPaaS providers and telcos add CPaaS offerings. Examples include the following:

  • pure CPaaS providers: Agora.io, Flowroute, Plivo, Sinch, Temasys, TokBox and Twilio;
  • UC vendor-owned: ShoreTel's Corvisa, Genband's Kandy.io, Vonage's Nexmo, Cisco's Tropo, Vidyo's Vidyo.io and Avaya's Zang.io; and
  • telcos or CLECs: Bandwidth.com and Voxbone.

CPaaS features to consider

The key challenges in developing a CPaaS strategy are building the business case, selecting the provider of the unified communications platform and establishing governance.

The business case is the first leg of the stool. Most initial interest in CPaaS is part of a digital transformation or customer engagement strategy. Organizations establish a set of goals to deliver new services to customers or improve customer engagement and then seek partners to fulfill business requirements.

There's now a range of CPaaS providers; learn what criteria should guide your choice.

IT leaders must engage with line-of-business or companywide digital transformation efforts and build awareness for the potential of CPaaS to deliver improved customer engagement.

Before moving to a CPaaS evaluation, IT leaders should assess their current UC providers' capabilities. Many on-premises and cloud UC providers offer a rich set of APIs and WebRTC support. These offerings let enterprises build features -- such as click to call or video chat -- into customer-facing websites, eliminating the need for a CPaaS provider.

Alternatively, vendors such as CaféX and SightCall can provide customized services optimized for customer-facing scenarios.

Assuming those options are not viable, once the project is approved, the next step is picking the "right" CPaaS provider. With such a large and growing array of CPaaS providers, evaluations should be based on the kinds of services required. Some enterprises, for instance, might just need messaging, while others will need messaging, voice and video.

Businesses should consider these additional questions:

  • What level of geographic coverage is required?
  • What level of availability and resiliency is needed?
  • What are the costs, given expected traffic volumes?
  • What is available from current unified communications partners?
  • What level of performance is desired?

Answering these questions should help buyers differentiate vendors, pinpoint potential providers and eventually find the ideal provider.

Governing and securing CPaaS

After deployment, the primary challenge is establishing governance. Governance factors typically include addressing performance management, establishing billing procedures, delivering application support, establishing security monitoring and broadening awareness of newly procured capabilities.

For larger companies, governance presents some additional challenges, since different application development groups could engage with several CPaaS providers, making billing and security management more difficult.

Best practices for securing unified communications platforms that are delivered as a service are largely not yet defined. Look for session border controllers from companies such as AudioCodes, Oracle and Sonus to help monitor and secure against potential threats between enterprise apps and CPaaS providers.

The bottom line

CPaaS allows organizations to add messaging, voice and video to internal and externally facing applications without making a large, upfront investment in back-end infrastructure. CPaaS is becoming a core part of digital transformation efforts to improve and expand customer engagement.

IT leaders should do each of the following:

  • Become aware of CPaaS offerings from incumbent UC providers, telcos and independent providers.
  • Evangelize CPaaS capabilities to internal application development teams, digital transformation leaders and partners.
  • Evaluate various offerings for their ability to meet scalability and performance needs.
  • Establish governance policies to address performance management, billing and security.
  • Establish core partnerships to maximize economies of scale so each business unit or app project team is not using different CPaaS providers.

The true secret to success to choosing a unified communications platform delivered as a service is a proactive strategy that allows organizations to use CPaaS to advance digital transformation and customer engagement initiatives.

Next Steps

See what's coming for CPaaS in 2017

Learn more about CPaaS, UC's "next wave"

Wondering if your current UC platform needs an upgrade?

This was last published in February 2017

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