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Evaluating UCaaS providers with three key criteria

When evaluating UCaaS providers and cloud-based products, three important criteria to consider include flexibility, stability and the variety of deployment models offered.

UCaaS buying decisions require a different set of considerations than regular UC. Criteria for buying UC products pertain to the solution itself, and these must be carefully assessed on their own merit. The next step considers the deployment model and how UC will be implemented.

The three main UC deployment models are hosted, on premises and hybrid. Various forms of hosted UC have been offered for years, but only recently has UCaaS emerged as a viable option for businesses of all sizes.

On a broader scale, the cloud continues to be a dominant trend, and communications technologies are now following that path. Not only have UC vendors embraced the cloud by offering hosted options but businesses are asking about UCaaS for a variety of reasons.

Criterion #1: Consider the deployment models offered

Two interrelated layers should be considered here. First, determine which of the three deployment models a UC provider supports, and how well it supports each one. Most UCaaS providers support on-premises services, especially since they started out as telecom vendors. However, not all UC vendors have the same level of cloud expertise, and their hosted UC offerings may be less robust than their on-premises service.

Most UC vendors support a hybrid option. They recognize that not all businesses are ready for a full cloud-based UC deployment. Cloud reliability, security and scalability are still valid concerns; so, many businesses opt for a mixed deployment at first.

Businesses need to recognize their UC needs are constantly evolving, and in that context, UCaaS offers a lot of advantages.

Keep in mind that a "hybrid UC" deployment places some services in the cloud and keeps others on premises. Meanwhile, "hybrid cloud" describes a particular type of cloud-based solution.

Hybrid UC gives customers the best of both worlds and provides enough flexibility to gradually migrate fully to the cloud -- or maintain whatever mix they're comfortable with. When considering vendors, determine how extensively they can support hybrid UC and what options or incentives they provide to move businesses to a full UCaaS solution.

The second layer of this criterion pertains to the cloud-based portion of the UC deployment. Whether deploying fully or partially to the cloud, businesses need to understand the different types of cloud-based products. Just as there are three types of UC deployments, there are three types of cloud models: public, private and hybrid. To whatever extent the business is considering hosted UC, these three models must be evaluated.

Unless a business has experience with cloud architectures, this is where IT consultants or system integrators can offer timely expertise. Each type of cloud model has distinct merits, and these need to be understood in the context of what the business wants to achieve with UC.

At a high level, public clouds are scalable and cost-effective, but are not as customizable as private clouds. The latter may also support tighter integration of UC with other software platforms, along with providing a higher level of security.

As with UC deployments, hybrid cloud models are common and satisfy a mix of business objectives. When considering UCaaS providers, cloud capabilities need to be carefully vetted. Since most UC vendors are not cloud providers, they will often partner with service providers or pure-play cloud operators, so those relationships must also be part of the evaluation process.

Criterion #2: Provider stability and expertise

Cloud is still new for communications applications, and UCaaS requires particular expertise that is not well-established. Barriers to entry for the cloud are generally low, but sustained success requires operating at a fairly high scale, as the core infrastructure is costly.

Several small players have entered the UCaaS space, and while UCaaS is their main business, they must aggressively acquire customers to generate enough revenue to carry out operations.

Conversely, UCaaS is a recent add-on for established UC vendors, so they don't face the same challenges around customer acquisition and having the right support infrastructure for customers and channels. Those costs can be spread across their on-premises business, and they have a longer runway to ramp up cloud services. But many of these vendors also have financial challenges when migrating from legacy models, so their stability needs to be evaluated just as closely.

Ultimately, cloud is a scale-based business, and nobody outperforms the pure cloud service providers such as Google and Amazon. Financial stability is not an issue for them, they can afford to be low-cost competitors, and for UC players that partner with them, the offerings will be attractive. However, they will only stay in the UC space as long as it's financially worthwhile, and if these partners do not build up a customer base, that cost advantage will be short-lived.

An emerging class of purpose-built collaboration platforms is solely cloud-based. They don't provide full-scale UC, but for certain forms of collaboration, these UCaaS providers can be a good fit.

Slack is the best-known service, but many others are vying for this market, which is gaining a lot of traction. The popularity is undeniable, but these vendors have very short track records, especially for enterprise customers.

Furthermore, their business model is difficult to monetize, so their long-term stability is questionable. In terms of decision-making criterion, these vendors should be viewed primarily as a bleeding-edge pilot rather than one based on hard financial metrics like return on investment (ROI) or total cost of ownership (TCO).

Criterion #3: The flexibility of offerings

While flexibility must be considered in terms of UC deployment models as well as cloud architectures, the same applies to the UC offerings themselves. UC is constantly evolving, and while this makes the initial value proposition difficult to gauge, it is a key characteristic of its long-term value, especially in terms of TCO. Businesses need to recognize that their UC and collaboration needs are also constantly evolving, and in that context, the UCaaS model offers a lot of advantages.

Unlike the on-premises capital expenditure model where a certain level of investment is needed regardless of how many features are used, UCaaS is on-demand where the business only pays for what is needed. Given the inherent deployment challenges posed by on-premises unified communications, UCaaS is an easier model for consuming services, along with keeping costs under control.

As businesses' UC needs evolve, they can decide which applications to add or drop without worrying about the impact on their network infrastructure. In this regard, decision-makers need to determine the range of options available from UCaaS providers, along with how easily they can be adapted to the UCaaS platform.

Another form of flexibility will be the willingness of UCaaS providers to support changes once the deployment moves ahead. For example, a business may realize the ongoing UCaaS costs are higher than expected, making it an expensive TCO decision. This could be mitigated by providing some on-premises options where customers can rent or buy equipment, thus cutting the UCaaS costs.

Of course, given the pay-as-you-go nature of UCaaS, the business could always walk away and start anew with someone else. But this type of flexibility makes it much easier to stay with one provider for an overall solution that works for both parties.

Factor in qualitative benefits of UCaaS

UCaaS will be a new option for most businesses, as well as many UC vendors. UC's value proposition is difficult to articulate, and the cloud is still not well understood as a deployment model for UC. In time, these issues will be addressed, but for now, businesses can't rely solely on legacy metrics like ROI or TCO for UCaaS.

Decisions must also be based on more qualitative factors such as how UCaaS providers do business and how well their UCaaS offerings align with internal objectives. At this time, there is no hardened decision checklist for UCaaS, but the three criteria addressed here will go a long way to providing a strategic assessment of the right types of vendors a business should be considering for UCaaS.

Some UCaaS providers and their products include: 8x8 Virtual Office, AT&T Collaborate, Fuze, Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams, Mitel MiCloud, RingCentral Office, Verizon Unified Communications and Collaboration as a Service and West VoiceMaxx CE.

Next Steps

Test your knowledge of UCaaS with our quiz.

How to evaluate and choose the right UCaaS provider.

Ensure your public cloud UC deployment is secure.

This ROI template helps calculate UCaaS costs and benefits.

This was last published in January 2016

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If considering cloud-based products, what purchasing criteria does your organization rely on?