How to evaluate cloud unified communications services

This guide will help you choose cloud unified communication services that best equip employees to work from wherever they are, and on whatever device they have.

Enterprises need to extend the reach of their communications and collaboration applications and services to allow employees to be productive wherever they're located and whatever devices they're using. Cloud unified communications (UC) applications are an efficient means to deliver this capability; vendors, recognizing this, now offer an array of options. In this guide, we will review which UC applications are best for the cloud and outline the issues that can arise during a move to the cloud, including integration, security and enterprise support. After reading this, you'll be in a better position to evaluate the providers of cloud unified communications products and to determine which products and services should be on your short list.

What is cloud-based UC and how does it work?

Cloud UC, also called hosted UC or UC as a service (UCaaS), is looking increasingly attractive to organizations that rely on voice, messaging, presence and collaboration to make their businesses tick.

Cloud UC offers several benefits, such as minimal acquisition costs (low capital expenditure), fast implementation and low total cost of ownership. Organizations that don't have a healthy budget for capital investments can streamline their UC services affordably by looking to hosted UC. The flexibility and scalability to add or remove users as needed, reduced administrative effort and guaranteed service-level agreements (SLAs) all help make a move to the cloud even more attractive. A hosted UC provider also offers a level of expertise that's difficult for smaller organizations to acquire on their own. Any good provider has valuable knowledge after dealing with many customers, with assorted situations and challenges, and can apply that knowledge to new customers to make their cloud transitions more fluid and efficient.

A UC service provider owns or leases a data center that houses the infrastructure for UC hosting. The cloud provider maintains that hardware and software, ensuring updates and patches are completed and that necessary upgrades are performed in a timely fashion. The provider also guarantees uptime through an SLA.

Customers choose one or more UC applications and pay a monthly per-user fee. The beauty of cloud-based unified communications is scalability -- customers can change which applications they want to access, as well as the number of users who receive access -- as business needs change. Users access cloud-based services over an Internet Protocol (IP) connection, such as the Internet, via a Web browser, and can do so from mobile devices as well as conventional notebooks or desktop computers.

What features should you look for in cloud unified communications?

Hosted UC applications include voice/telephony; unified messaging (which includes email), voice mail and faxing; presence; instant messaging (IM); conferencing (audio, video and Web); and content sharing and social tools. All of these are accessible from a single user interface, whether on the desktop or a mobile device. A provider might offer all these applications or just a subset, and allow you to choose applications or offer just a single UC package.

From a technical perspective, there's not much of a difference in capabilities between in-house versus cloud-based UC applications, so it depends on each organization's unique situation.

The Cloud Elevates Communications Applications white paper found that companies most often deploy email, Web conferencing and voice from the cloud, followed by presence, IM and video.

Organizations that have on-premises UC can avoid rip-and-replace migrations by setting up a hybrid UC architecture, in which the organization provides some services in-house and subscribes to others. For example, voice and messaging could remain on-premises, with video and other collaborative tools used via the cloud.

UC applications, especially video and Web conferencing, consume a lot of bandwidth, and voice and video need low latency for the best quality. Organizations with wireless LANs may have to invest in more bandwidth and better coverage to support cloud-based UC. Other considerations include integration, security and enterprise support.

Cloud unified communications offers several integration options. Many UC providers enable integration of their UC system directories by implementing a customer's Microsoft Lync, Microsoft Active Directory, IBM Sametime, or with a customer relationship management application. In this way, the organization can manage all business communications from a single interface. Some companies may want to integrate their cloud-based voice system with their accounting software to track and bill for phone calls. The ability to federate integrated applications through single sign-on is also important.

When it comes to security, cloud-based UC providers typically use a single-instance (also called private cloud) or multi-tenant architecture. In a single-instance setup, each customer has its own virtual instance, which they can integrate with on-premises applications or customize any way they like. In a multi-tenant architecture, several customers share a virtual instance of the UC software. A single-instance architecture is considered more secure and private, although multi-tenant architecture includes security measures to prevent one customer from accessing another customer's data. Organizations that are bound to regulatory compliance or a stringent corporate security policy most likely require the single-instance option to minimize risk. In addition, because hosted UC requires connections made over IP, authentication is required and should be a standard part of every service, as well as VoIP and media encryption.

On the support front, most cloud-based UC providers are user friendly, offer 24/7/365 support, continuously monitor systems and guarantee uptime. Some providers have flexible SLA terms that support an organization's needs during a growth stretch. For organizations that expect to grow rapidly after implementing cloud-based UC, be sure to check the SLA closely.

Bottomline considerations

When comparing UC cloud-based providers, look at the list of UC applications they offer, subscription costs, SLA terms and network access requirements, at a minimum.

Find out if the provider uses multi-tenant or private cloud to deliver UC services, which is important from a customization standpoint and, to some, a security perspective as well.

Organizations that have fully functional, on-premises UC should look for a UC partner that offers both on-premises and hosted UC, with ample integration experience to make the transition as seamless as possible.

For larger organizations that can't find an appropriate UC application package from a single provider, choose a primary vendor, then let that company handle multiple cloud-based UC providers on your behalf and guide you through whatever interoperability issues may need to be.

For regulatory-bound companies, ensure that the cloud unified communications provider complies with applicable laws and regulations, such as GLBA, PCI DSS, HIPAA or whatever other regulatory frameworks may apply.

Finally, check out each provider's track record. Survivability is important. How long have they been in business? What is their financial situation? Will they give you a list of references of organizations that are similar to yours?

Knowing your needs (first) and conducting thorough research (second) will give you a good sense of the best decision to make regarding cloud-based UC applications. Be aware that the market is diverse, and one provider's offerings can differ greatly from another's.

Next Steps

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