Cloud telephony allures businesses with full features, low costs

Ed Tittel

Ever-improving communications, networking and computing technologies are combining to create amazing new markets for ho-hum standard business services. Case in point is the continued move of conventional telephone-based systems and services into the cloud, which replaces telephones' handsets with local VoIP-based handsets, computer-based headsets and/or mobile devices.

For a long time, economies of scale, security, network control and the development of critical in-house skills and expertise drove enterprises to design, deploy and maintain their own complex telephone infrastructures in-house. As complex and demanding as those tasks turned out to be, they've been eclipsed and surpassed in a variety of ways over the past few years, as all the elements involved have moved to the cloud:

  • Unified communications (UC) technology has increased interfaces between voice and other digital forms of communication by adding email and instant messaging technologies to the mix, with video-based capabilities shouldering their way in forcefully, too.
  • Unified Communications as a Service (UCaaS) has become a genuine phenomenon as all aspects of communication have migrated into the cloud.
  • A large number of high-end communications service providers, including major carriers and serious technology players, are offering enterprise-class, cloud-based communications services that embrace telephony, unified communications, interactive media and more.

Key cloud telephony and UC features and functions

Despite UC services moving to the cloud, telephony system users want to keep all of their advanced features and functions. These include such key features as:

  • Hold music
  • Call screening
  • Auto directory
  • Powerful auto-attendant capabilities
  • Voicemail handling options
  • Follow-me functions to forward inbound calls to designated handsets or mobile phones

Caller ID management in such systems will allow outbound calls to use in-house caller ID displays even when made out of house or on a mobile phone. Certain systems work not just with conventional land lines and VoIP systems, but also with Skype, Google Talk or even via users' cellphone connections.

Unified communications comes into the picture with the integration of voicemail and email, where email notifications can be issued for waiting voicemail if desired. Many systems include text-to-speech (to let a user listen to email on a cellphone) and speech-to-text (to enable voicemail messages to be sent as chat or SMS text messages, if preferable).

Enterprise-class cloud telephony and UC services

PBX systems evaporate into the cloud, leaving VoIP handsets behind

To make a converged, cloud-based telephony and UC service enterprise-ready, the usual requirements for scope and scale always apply (i.e., you still need to know how many sites and users you have and how many services you will need). But so do a variety of important linkages to key communications and data acquisition and management systems.

On the email front, most major offerings provide links to Exchange/Outlook, Gmail, Lotus Notes and other high-end email systems; this usually happens in the form of connectors that permit systems to interact with one another and move files and data back and forth between them. Connectors also provide linkages to collaboration and workflow environments such as Microsoft's Lync and SharePoint servers, along with various content management systems. Likewise, enterprises often make link-ups to customer relationship management packages, such as SalesForce.com, Microsoft Dynamics and ACT! by Sage, and to various enterprise resource planning platforms, such as SAP, Sage and QuickBooks.

Ultimately, acquiring and managing voice and message data inside a converged telephony and UC environment add value to your communications products, since they can interact with other systems and applications that enterprises regard as mission-critical.

Cloud telephony pricing and cost structures

Because the types of services and solutions currently under discussion are cloud-based, they generally adhere to a pay-as-you-go financial model. Though some offerings do require the purchase (or rental) of special VoIP handsets for office use, these offerings do not otherwise require investing in (or maintaining) the servers and infrastructure necessary to deliver advanced telephony and unified communications features and functions.

Instead, enterprises who choose to put these solutions to work will usually pay a monthly per-user fee in a range from $25 to $30 for basic no-frills telephony and email coverage, up to $50 to $60 per user for more advanced capabilities and sophisticated features (such as text-to-speed and speech-to-text rendering, advanced caller ID handling and automated directory plus follow-me functions from desktop handset to cellphone). In addition, adding connectors for entry into ERP, collaboration or workflow, and CRM environments also adds to monthly costs (but usually on a per-site or per-company basis rather than per user). By and large, however, the economics of the pay-as-you-go approach are favorable, especially because enterprises who adopt this approach can then forgo CapEx for acquiring systems and infrastructure, and personnel costs for IT staff to install, configure and maintain them.

Stay tuned for my survey of top enterprise-grade cloud-based telephony and UC  service providers.

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