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Buyer's Handbook:

A detailed guide to unified communications platforms

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This article is part of our Buyer's Guide: UC products: A comprehensive buyer's guide

Choose a unified communications system with these criteria

Navigate the growing unified communications systems market and choose the best-suited product for your enterprise with these important considerations.

The unified communications market offers a variety of products and services that target organizations of all sizes, from small businesses to large enterprises. Thanks to the continuously growing and demanding telecommunications market, the unified communications adoption rate has increased dramatically over the last five years, opening new opportunities for existing and new UC vendors.

With so many vendors, options and features, choosing the right unified communications system for an enterprise can be difficult. This article will compare the top vendors in the UC market based on four important purchasing criteria.

Evaluating end-to-end services

Only a few vendors actually offer end-to-end unified communications services, and yet those vendors that don't should still be considered in companies' buying decisions depending on their needs. An end-to-end platform usually consists of the following three elements:

  • IP phones;
  • UC server platform or SaaS license; and
  • applications or services, such as a softphone, call manager, instant messaging, presence and contact centers.

End-to-end services can offer organizations significant savings in upfront costs since they are able to negotiate greater discounts for hardware, software, services and support. End-to-end services can also speed up the time it takes to identify and resolve an issue when external support is required.

Because a single vendor owns the entire communications platform, it cannot point to another vendor as the cause of an issue. On the other hand, some organizations feel an end-to-end vendor will lead to vendor lock-in, leaving little or no space for alternative services, phone or video endpoint options and upgrade paths in the future.

These concerns, to an extent, might be valid. However, an end-to-end vendor product does not always stop the organization from seeking alternative vendor platforms for future upgrades or expandability needs. If an organization is considering an end-to-end product, vendors such as Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise (ALE), Avaya, Cisco and Mitel offer end-to-end UC and infrastructure services.

Cisco's enterprise UC service includes its flagship call-control platform, Cisco CallManager accompanied by Unity Connection for messaging and voicemail, IM and presence service, and Expressway server for video conferencing capabilities.

Cisco also offers a range of IP phones and conference and personal video devices to cover all UC services for the intranet and extranet or mobile users.

Mitel Networks Corp. offers a cloud-managed service that provides an end-to-end product called MiTel MiCloud. Mitel acquired this technology through its acquisition of ShoreTel in 2018 -- and continues to refine the product to this day.

MiCloud includes services such as a primary call management, web conferencing, IM and presence. The platform utilizes both a mobile and desktop app for all services including calling. From an administration perspective, MiCloud offers a complete configuration and management platform for both on-premises users as well as remote and mobile workforces. 

Mitel's key ingredient for the platform is simplicity, making it easy to configure and maintain the whole UC infrastructure.

ALE International's unified communications system consists of the OmniPCX Enterprise Communication Server, the main call-control server that offers numerous features. Additional services include OpenTouch Multimedia Services -- which include presence, IM and video conferencing -- and OpenTouch Session Border Controller, used to connect remote clients and terminate session initiation protocol (SIP) trunks.

ALE also offers OpenTouch Business Edition, a UC platform that targets enterprises with up to 1,500 users and 3,000 devices.

Organization size is a key consideration

An organization's size is an important factor to select the right UC product. Each vendor's UC platform offers support for a specific amount of users and is usually designed around these limitations, which makes it very important to decide on a UC service that offers the right capacity for an organization.

SMBs have an advantage as they have the flexibility to select pretty much any UC platform. That said, the company's small size usually comes with a lack of technical knowledge required to run more advanced UC platforms. Thus, a trade-off is necessary. Here are some unified communications systems targeted toward small to medium-sized organizations.

Atos Unify's OpenScape Business is an all-in-one hardware and software product designed for organizations up to 1,500 phones. The OpenScape Enterprise Express is geared toward midsize businesses and bumps maximum phone support up to 5,000 with a call center hosting 250 agents. Both products are highly capable of providing full UC services, including voicemail, IM, presence and mobility.

As mentioned previously, ALE has its OpenTouch Business Edition platform -- a multimedia collaboration product for organizations with up to 1,500 users. Alcatel-Lucent is also one of the few vendors with end-to-end product coverage that includes the network infrastructure.

Mitel's MiCloud is a cloud-based unified communications system that offers simple deployment and ongoing administration. Technically speaking, MiCloud user support is unlimited. However, because of constraints on internet bandwidth, this platform is largely targeted toward SMBs.

Another popular cloud-based UC choice for SMBs is Microsoft Teams. Many Office 365 licensing models include Teams, whether an organization uses it or not. Thus, many organizations have a very low entry point when it comes to using Teams as a fully functional phone, video conference, instant messaging and file sharing platform.

UC services for big businesses

Larger organizations are a bit more restricted in their choices, but still can select between vendors such as Cisco, Avaya and Microsoft.

Cisco's Unified Communications Manager (CUCM) can support more than 100,000 users, while its Unity Connection messaging platform supports up to 20,000 users. Cisco's IM and presence service can scale up to 45,000 users in a CUCM deployment or 75,000 users in a non-CUCM design.

Avaya's Aura Communication Manager can initially support 36,000 SIP endpoints, but depending on the deployment design, this figure can jump to 250,000 users or 350,000 SIP endpoints, making it an interesting product for large multinational organizations seeking a single UC product.

Similarly, Avaya's Aura Presence server begins its support with 16,000 users and is expandable to 250,000 SIP users; however, the Avaya Aura Messaging server can support up to 20,000 users.

NEC Corp.'s Univerge 3C can easily cover SMBs as well as larger companies, thanks to its 30,000-user support. Univerge 3C is a complete UC product suitable for organizations that are experiencing continuous growth. UC services such as voicemail, IM, presence, video conferencing and mobility are tightly integrated into the product and its Univerge 3C UC Client. The UC Client interface and functions are almost identical across all platforms, making it easy for users to work on laptops and mobile devices.

That said, this is one of those products that may be overly complex for some smaller businesses that don't have a deep level of ongoing UC administration support. Thus, this is a product that more mid-to-large sized organizations will be interested in.

Other platforms geared toward large organizations include Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise's OmniPCX Enterprise Communication Server, which can support up to 250,000 users. And Unify's OpenScape Enterprise Voice platform scales to support up to 500,000 users, making it one of the largest deployments.

Last, on par with most of the competition, Mitel's MiVoice MX-ONE UC product can support up to 100,000 or more users. Mitel's UC suite includes MiCollab, responsible for presence, messaging and mobility; the MX-ONE Media Server, a software media gateway; and hardware media gateway units.

Virtualization platform flexibility, cloud-managed services and high availability

Unlike VoIP PBXs, which historically relied on proprietary hardware appliances, UC products primarily run on open server-based hardware, which means redundancy and high availability are key factors for minimizing service downtime.

Alternatively, cloud-based UC services require no thought or consideration as the service provider handles the underlying hardware and software running the in-house services. Thus, high availability revolves around the service provider's ability to keep services running while the organization worries about reliable access to public cloud resources over the internet.

For on-premises architectures, vendors offer support for virtualization environments such as Hyper-V and VMware, as well as multiserver deployment models that provide load balancing and an increase of capacity across large geographic distances. While all on-premises vendors were looking at supporting multiserver deployment models, it's a different story when it comes to virtualization.

If an organization works with both Hyper-V and VMware virtualization platforms, then selecting the right UC product might be easier. On the other hand, some enterprises have strict policies that force the use of a specific virtualization platform.

NEC's Univerge 3C system runs under the Windows server operating system, supporting Hyper-V and VMware virtualization platforms. However, other Linux-based operating systems include Unify's OpenScape Enterprise and Cisco's CallManager. Both of these support the VMware virtualization platform.

Finally, Mitel's MX-ONE UC platform uses standard hardware servers running the Linux SUSE operating system, but also supports VMware virtualization. Avaya's Aura Communication Manager runs on Red Hat Enterprise Linux and supports the VMware virtualization platform.

Choosing the right unified communications system is becoming more complex as UC vendors are continuously enhancing their products and deployment architectures -- while continuously introducing new and differentiating features. Be sure to make the right decision based on which criteria are important for your organization.

Andrew Froehlich contributed to this report

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