Shifting your enterprise unified communications environment to the cloud now seems like a matter of when and not if. UC as a service, a cloud-based offering for delivering UC, has many advantages over on-premises options. UCaaS offers faster turnup times, quicker access to emerging collaboration capabilities and the ability for customers to shift internal IT staff into more strategic roles. As a result, according to Nemertes Research 2019 data, nearly 65% of organizations have adopted, or plan to adopt, cloud-based services for their UC needs.
But not all cloud services are created equal, which makes differentiating among UCaaS providers an essential task for networking pros. To save time, money and labor, organizations should spend time upfront to understand different types of services and their benefits and drawbacks.
This buyer's handbook helps you understand the fundamentals of UCaaS and the different options in the UCaaS market. It provides tips for picking the right product and advice on how to move forward in your evaluation and implementation.
UCaaS offers UC -- such as telephony; team collaboration applications; audio, video and web conferencing; and, often, contact center -- as a cloud service delivered from a service provider's infrastructure. Aside from endpoints -- such as phones, video conferencing systems and headsets -- customers typically have little or no on-premises applications or hardware. Customers pay a fixed, per-person license fee, typically on a monthly or annual basis, with costs based on the number of licenses purchased.
How UCaaS works
UCaaS platforms consist of several components:
- Application servers are run by UCaaS providers in their own data centers; hosted in third-party data centers; or hosted in public cloud services from companies like Amazon, Google and Microsoft. Application servers provide telephony; team collaboration; audio, video and web conferencing; and, in some cases, contact center capabilities. UCaaS is either based on a provider using a third-party software platform from a vendor, such as Alianza, Cisco (BroadSoft), FreeSWITCH or Metaswitch, or on a vendor's own custom-developed UCaaS platform.
- Software clients are either downloaded onto users' devices, like a computer or smartphone, or accessed via a web browser using WebRTC or a plugin.
- Endpoints include phones, video conferencing systems and digital whiteboards that are bundled into the cost of the license or purchased separately by the customer.
- Public switched telephone network (PSTN) access is either delivered by the UCaaS provider or by integrating the customer's own Session Initiation Protocol trunking services with the UCaaS provider's platform -- an approach known as bring your own carrier (BYOC).
Customers connect to their UCaaS provider either over the public internet or by directly connecting their WANs to the provider's data centers. The former is the less expensive option, but performance depends on the quality of available internet services. Direct cloud connections offer more predictable performance but with added cost.
Top UCaaS features to consider
Key features to evaluate when selecting a UCaaS provider include the following:
- Reliability. Ensuring that the provider offers a highly available platform and provides remediation, including credits, for service outages.
- Performance. Ensuring high-quality audio and video over a variety of network access services, including public internet, MPLS, direct connect, software-defined WAN (SD-WAN) and, in the near future, 5G wireless.
- Applications. Ideal providers will offer an integrated set of best-in-class UC applications, including calling, team collaboration, meetings and conferencing.
- Devices. Enabling a wide variety of customer choice in terms of phones, headsets and video conferencing systems.
- Flexibility. Supporting PSTN access options, including unlimited local and long distance from the UCaaS provider or BYOC.
- Cost. Typically billed on a monthly basis with service discounts for longer-term commitments.
- Professional and managed services. Outsourcing implementation and ongoing management of both UCaaS and related network services, as well as training and usage reporting.
- APIs and integrations. Providing the ability to integrate calling and messaging into existing business applications, create new applications and obtain virtual phone numbers in remote markets.
- Enhanced 911 support. Supporting user location tracking and routing of 911 calls to the proper public safety answering point in compliance with federal and local law.
- Security and compliance. Including features like the ability to hold your own encryption keys, end-to-end encryption and support for required security certifications.
Should you move to a UCaaS provider?
Organizations evaluating a move to UCaaS should ask themselves the following questions.
- Will I save money? Not all organizations find UCaaS cheaper than on-premises products, especially those with fully depreciated on-premises platforms. To make an informed decision, organizations should carefully develop a business case that shows before-and-after cost scenarios.
- What are the advantages? UCaaS buying decisions are increasingly driven by a desire to improve agility by shifting UC application provisioning and management to the cloud. Shifting these to the cloud enables faster access to emerging collaboration capabilities, like team collaboration and AI. IT is also freed up to focus less on system administration and more on working with lines of business to ensure workers use the new capabilities to improve business processes.
As part of your evaluation of UCaaS, consider the value of accessing new features today and speeding up the rollout of emerging collaboration tools, such as team collaboration, AI, voice assistance and augmented reality. Consider, too, the value of packaged and custom integrations of UC features and business applications to your organization.
- Which UCaaS platform? Hosted services tend to appeal to large organizations with complex needs that also require their data to run on separate applications from other customer data. Pure-cloud approaches are often more attractive to smaller organizations with less strict data management needs that place premium value on minimizing costs and obtaining access to the latest and greatest features.
- How to connect? Small organizations with good internet connections may find existing internet services are enough for acceptable UC quality. Larger organizations with a few centralized internet access points may need to invest in direct cloud connect or SD-WAN to ensure high-quality UX.
- What are my security requirements? Some organizations, especially those in heavily regulated industries, may not have the option to use UCaaS. Other organizations may find UCaaS providers can ensure better application security than what the organizations can provide on premises.
Top UCaaS providers
Some of the leading UCaaS providers and their products include the following:
- 8x8 Virtual Office
- AT&T Collaborate
- CenturyLink UCaaS
- Cisco Webex
- Dialpad Talk
- Google Hangouts Meet and Phone
- LogMeIn GoToConnect
- Microsoft Teams
- Mitel MiCloud
- RingCentral Office
- Verizon Unified Communications and Collaboration as a Service
- Vonage Business Cloud
- Zoom Meetings and Phone
UCaaS offers the opportunity to reduce costs, improve agility and speed up access to rapidly emerging collaboration capabilities. Successful evaluation and implementation require building a solid business case. Then, align your needs with available UCaaS market options to pick the right platform and connectivity approach.