UC as a Service: When is it right for you?

Tom Nolle

More companies are adopting cloud computing now, but it's clear that the cloud is far from the universal solution some expect it to be. Users are particularly concerned about applying the cloud to applications they depend on for doing business. These include the core mission-critical vertical-industry tasks like banking or insurance, but they also include universally popular horizontal applications such as unified communications (UC).

When is UC as a Service the right answer?

Companies report that cloud computing offers the following critical benefits:

  • Better cash management. By converting capital costs for telecom equipment to expenses for UC services, companies can match their cash outlays with the write-off they can expect, which significantly improves cash management. For companies with limited credit or cash flow issues, this is critical.
  • More flexibility in expanding and contracting the scope of an application to match changes in worker complement or usage. This is valuable to companies that experience large seasonal variations in employee count.
  • Reduced technical support. UC as a Service for key applications can reduce in-house support needs, and in areas where labor markets for skilled technical resources are tight, this may be the only way to get effective support at all.

While these are good general principles of UC as a Service, they may fall short in guiding businesses in deciding on UCaaS specifically. And issues that are somewhat unique to UC may either accelerate or interfere with some of the benefits.

What UC as a Service issues might you run into?

Probably the largest specific UCaaS issue is the greenfield/brownfield question. Communications systems often have a large sunk cost, particularly in handsets. If a UCaaS strategy isn't compatible with existing per-worker equipment, the additional cost of installing new equipment can erase years of savings in other areas. Changing worker equipment also raises the risk of creating acceptance and support problems that are also likely to erode the benefit case for UCaaS. This means that UCaaS is most readily adopted when there is no prior communications service in place (a new facility) or when it's been accepted that a complete change in worker equipment is needed. Where this isn't true, UCaaS may be practical only if the vendor who supplied the current equipment offers it as an option.

The second UCaaS issue is changes in worker activity created by changes in technologies and services. A major change in software used by workers could change how they operate and communicate, which changes the demand on their communications system. It's easier to use UCaaS in pilot or trial mode, which means that it may be possible to test several service options before making a final selection.

If a traditional UC option is purchased, it's much more difficult to "kick the tires" and evaluate how well the system will perform in the company's day-to-day operations. In some cases, it may be possible to run tests using the UCaaS version of a system and still purchase the components for in-house installation and support. That gives companies a way of shifting out of UCaaS if the financial case can't be made in the long term.

A third area where UCaaS may require special consideration is when merger and acquisition (M&A) changes the size of an organization radically. It may be that such a change offers an opportunity to change handsets or other worker devices, reducing the impact of stranded capital equipment on adoption and widening the choice of UC/UCaaS suppliers. M&A also often has a special budget for consolidation that can help bear these costs if necessary, and it may even include a budget for retraining personnel on a new system.

The final UCaaS concern is application integration with the UC tools. In many cases, applications use UC application program interfaces (APIs) to make calls, route calls, match numbers with databases and so on. These APIs may not be supported for some UCaaS services, and even where they are supported, performance issues may need to be addressed. The largest problem reported in this area is associated with number lookup for customer record retrieval; in many cases, hosting the customer database in the cloud is too expensive or poses security concerns, and if that database remains on premises, it may be harder to access it from the UC processes without custom software modifications.

Deciding when UC as a Service is right for you

Whatever UCaaS strategy prospective buyers consider, they must also consider the stability of the business model. Software-based UC has considerably lower profit margin than large hardware systems, and so vendors transitioning to UCaaS offerings may be facing internal restructuring and even a threat to their business. It's wise to consider the financial industry's view on the viability of all the UCaaS providers under consideration, particularly if you have special issues of sunk costs or special enhancements needed to support a specific system. Cloud is in its infancy, and so finding a UCaaS provider with long-term credibility may be so difficult under some conditions that a more traditional in-house approach would be a better bet.

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