Guide to Unified Communications as a Service: Making sense of it all
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For IT professionals who accept that cloud changes everything, it's also going to be true that the cloud changes...
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unified communications (UC). Technology and business drivers are combining to redirect UC focus to the cloud, so users will have to decide when and how they'll evolve their UC approaches to meet their evolving cloud commitments. They can view this unified communications cloud evolution three ways: as an evolution of applications, as an evolution of communications services and as an evolution of hosting technology. Cloud UC will likely implicate all three of these evolutions, but IT departments in most cases can decide where it's best to start.
Unified communications cloud evolution of applications
Many companies build collaborative relationships around their applications. Workers communicate with other workers and supervisors to resolve issues that come to light while processing a transaction or reviewing an account. For these collaborative relationships, the key step is duplicating the application context for the others involved in the collaboration. If this isn't done, embarrassing and costly errors are certain to follow.
Modern thin-client orchestrated applications make it easy to customize worker screens; in many cases, these applications allow a worker to create a URL that represents the specific thing they're looking at to share with collaborating partners. The evolutionary goal here would be to ensure that an email or instant messaging or text messaging (IM/SMS) sent to convey this application context offers the option to reply in the same form or to escalate the conversation to voice or even video. In these latter cases, providing a link for that collaborative session is more than a little helpful, particularly for mobile workers who would face considerable navigating to set up functions. To make this work, the UC/UCC systems must expose calling interfaces as APIs and provide a means of sending someone an invite to join.
Unified communications cloud evolution of communications
Some businesses frame their evolution to UC as an evolution from TDM or traditional voice to VoIP. VoIP services are often cheaper than traditional voice and more easily integrated with applications, particularly when mobile devices become a big part of collaboration applications. A voice-centric evolution is likely to involve equipment changes, though.
Companies can make current phone systems compatible with VoIP services through simple gateway functions, but this won't address the question of how to create IP voice calls to and from data devices like tablets. Some UC vendors that also offer TDM voice or that have TDM voice incumbency offer tools to create a kind of uniform calling plan that allows users to call IP and TDM voice extensions and extend attendant services across both voice forms. This approach has the advantage of allowing a company to evolve from a pure TDM to a pure VoIP service while letting workers transition from current phones or stay with them, at least for a time.
Unified communications cloud evolution of hosting technology
The final evolutionary option for UC is one driven by changes in hosting UC elements. Many UC systems today are server-hosted and run on-premises, but a growing number of vendors (or vendor partners) offer UC as a Service hosted in the cloud. For SMBs in particular, this can be a cost-saving tool because it eliminates local capital equipment and software support.
The major question for UCaaS evolution is the reliability of the cloud service on which UC is based. While the general expectation in the marketplace is that cloud is more reliable, many users of cloud UC services have reported more problems with availability than they experienced with in-house application hosting. To be sure your UC evolution doesn't join that group, first validate the long-term reliability of your current communications system and determine whether it's sufficiently robust. From this interview process, you can set a goal on availability -- a goal that can then be used to set up an SLA and service plan with a hosted UCaaS provider.
Cloud UC = greater dependence on broadband
Any evolutionary path leading users to cloud UC will create a greater dependence on broadband connections. Internet connectivity will mostly likely be an issue when cloud UC is used to support mobile devices or teleworkers.
It's easy to underestimate the impact of unified communications on broadband connections and costs, so an audit of the specific UC applications is essential to determine whether a given broadband plan will work and be cost-effective.
Video is the most expensive of all communications forms in terms of consumed bandwidth, and some companies have elected to restrict video use in UC applications to control the load on the networks -- especially to conserve mobile bandwidth. Since more than 70% of UC exchanges now occur within company facilities, it's possible to control mobile costs by adopting Wi-Fi as the primary connection tool and using Wi-Fi-capable appliances. However, Wi-Fi may not support workers roaming between hotspots, and most large facilities can't be covered with a single Wi-Fi base station.
Early adopters of unified communications cloud report that their greatest problems come early on; the problems create a negative momentum for cloud UC adoption that becomes increasingly difficult to overcome. Trial programs help ensure that major issues in an early rollout are avoided, particularly if a single small facility is used and tested thoroughly as a pilot site before main locations with larger worker populations are empowered. As in all projects, a cloud UC evolution project is most likely to succeed if it's well planned and well tested.