Will enterprises ever warm up to Skype for business communications?

Skype is courting enterprises, but UC pros still regard it as a consumer service and hesitate to depend entirely on Skype for business communications.

Unified communications (UC) pros generally regard Skype as a consumer service that can supplement enterprise UC tools, but they hesitate to depend entirely on Skype for business communications. Skype is obviously courting enterprises by partnering with companies like Avaya, but it remains unclear if the Internet telephony giant can convince enterprises that it has the control, reliability, features and security that UC pros expect of their primary voice, video and collaboration platforms.

"Right now I think they're just for the SMB. That's as far as they could go," said Ed Garcia, IT director at Horn Group, a small San Francisco-based public relations agency. "They have a good chance of being a true enterprise player, but of course they have to change their image because Skype is definitely [seen as a] consumer [tool]."

Skype Manager was a huge step in the right direction and helps a lot with being able to administer users in the system, but there are elements that are still distinctly consumer.

David Wagner
Infrastructure Manager, ePromos.com

After months of testing Skype-Business Version -- the Web-based VoIP provider's business-class product, formerly called Skype for Business -- Garcia has standardized on Skype as his primary video conferencing platform. Employees in his California and New York offices use it regularly to hold meetings with each other. Skype-Business Version has been integrated into the firm's video conferencing room equipment for single-click access.

Garcia's users also favor Skype's screen-sharing tools for presentations during video conferences in lieu of other collaboration tools, such as Cisco Systems WebEx and Citrix GoToMeeting.

But video conferencing is not a mission-critical communications application for the firm, and Garcia said he would not feel comfortable relying on Skype for business IP telephony.  He is troubled by the platform's susceptibility to spam and adware, occasional outages and its lack of Microsoft Active Directory integration. Another sore point: limited administrative tools.  

"Recently, one of the office's video [streams] keeps cutting out during the meetings," Garcia said. "I tried every control and every parameter, and nothing seems to help. If [Skype] want[s] to play enterprise, they need to offer more control."

Skype's plan for going after the enterprise

Over the past few months, Skype has made a number of moves that signal its seriousness about going after the enterprise market. At the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) last week, Skype announced a multipoint video conferencing feature to accommodate up to 10 participants in Skype-Business Version at $8.99 per user per month. Late last year, it launched a channel program, entered into a strategic alliance with Avaya and hired away high-ranking Cisco executive Tony Bates to be its new CEO.

At the same time, Skype's enterprise credibility took a blow when its service suffered from a widespread 24-hour outage between Dec. 22 and 23. In a blog post, Skype CIO Lars Rabbe explained how Skype's peer-to-peer (P2P) architecture "became unstable and suffered a critical failure."

Executives at Skype Enterprise, the provider's enterprise arm, shake off the notion that the outage is illustrative of Skype's ability to support business customers. About one third of Skype's registered user base uses Skype for business communications, according to David Gurlé, vice president and general manager of Skype Enterprise. 

"From an enterprise perspective, we are looking into providing greater reliability for our customers and ensuring their mission-critical needs are met against the service we can provide," he said. "Voice over IP gets more and more reliable every day … so we feel that on a best effort network, it gets better and better."

Skype isn't in the market to replace an enterprise's legacy UC infrastructure and doesn't see itself competing against incumbent UC vendors such as Cisco and Avaya, Gurlé said.

"We are not in the substitution market. We are in the complementary market," he said. "It's kind of an overlay across other communications infrastructure and application that people have deployed."

Skype for business communications: Tolerated but not encouraged

Most large organizations in the United States condone but don't officially encourage or support employees using Skype for business, according to Irwin Lazar, vice president at Nemertes Research. Formal adoption appears more rampant in Europe, he said.

"In the last two years, I've come across one organization that actively relies on Skype and its official policy is that you'll get a Skype account," Lazar said. "It was a nonprofit that was looking for the cheapest possible [UC platform]."

Enterprises no longer cite security as a main concern but feel Skype is simply not enterprise-ready, he said. Skype-Business Version as it stands today lacks the technical support, feature set, reliability and integration with legacy systems that enterprises have come to expect from traditional UC vendors, Lazar said. Making those changes would likely require Skype to raise its rates, however, and lose much of its appeal, he said.

Skype-Business Version 'complementary' today, replacing PBX tomorrow?

For ePromos.com, an online retailer, Skype-Business Version has become one of the most reliable IT services it supports. David Wagner, infrastructure manager at ePromos, said he deployed Skype after remote employees continued to be plagued by poor call quality and dropped calls with his existing VoIP infrastructure. He also purchased VoSKY, a gateway to connect legacy phone systems to Skype. Other products would have required ePromos to rip and replace its telephony systems, Wagner said.

The use of Skype for business communications spread virally at ePromos. More users wanted to switch to Skype and soon requests flooded in for IT to support Skype plug-ins for Web browsers, IM, video conferencing and mobile clients.

Remote employees receive inbound calls via ePromos'  general toll-free number or directly through a Skype number. They use the client for both Skype-to-Skype and traditional outbound calling; most in-office users use Skype only for Skype-to-Skype calls, Wagner said.

"Right now it's complementary [to our legacy systems], but as time goes on and we find more and more uses for, it I would not be surprised if there comes a day [when] we say, 'How can we completely replace our PBX?'" he said.

Wagner supports Skype with two standard broadband connections -- one wired and one WiMAX. Users have had few complaints about quality and reliability with Skype-Business Version, he said, describing call quality as "incredible."

"I have more outages on our own network with little odds and ends here than I've had with Skype," Wagner said. "Something like [Skype's recent outage] doesn’t faze me. [It would] if this was recurring and happened a lot and was impacting our ability to do business, but [the late December outage] is the first [we experienced] since we implemented it."

Like other IT managers, Wagner said he would like to see Skype improve its administrative and management capabilities and enable Active Directory syncing.

"Skype Manager was a huge step in the right direction and helps a lot with being able to administer users in the system, but there are elements that are still distinctly consumer," he said. "That part as an administrator does bother me. I can't say they don't. I really want Skype in 2011 to really, really focus on the business aspect of their products."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer.

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