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Making sense of unified communications cloud services

Unified communications cloud services have the opportunity to fundamentally change how an enterprise delivers unified communications. With broad definitions and plenty of marketing spin, it is difficult to separate the real from the hyped. Understanding how new cloud approaches differ from traditional hosted and managed services is key to pushing unified communications into the cloud.

The hype cycle of cloud computing has grabbed hold of the unified communications (UC) market. For technology vendors, attaching "cloud" to any service that resides outside of the corporate firewall has become the norm. The trick for telecom administrators is cutting through the hype to determine what unified communications cloud services have to offer and how they differ from more traditional hosted and managed unified communications services.

"In many ways, referring to unified communications as being in the cloud is just a sexier way to describe the hosted PBX and managed services solutions that have been available for some time from the carriers," said Brian Riggs, research director for enterprise communications at Current Analysis.

Unified communications cloud services offer something that hosted and managed services never have. Cloud-based UC offers enterprises elasticity and agility. Companies can scale their deployments up and down and add new features and functionality as needed.

With traditional hosted PBX offerings, service providers build the required networking and computing infrastructure within their own data centers and sell access to this infrastructure to their customers. The carrier owns both the software and hardware and is ultimately responsible for the maintenance and support of these systems. Typically the carrier has sole discretion over whether it applies software updates and new features to the hosted service.

Managed service providers usually manage unified communications infrastructure installed within an enterprise, providing remote or on-site support.

Unified communications cloud services offer agility

While both hosted and managed solutions technically exist “in the cloud,” offering resources that extend beyond the enterprise firewall, they lack the on-demand agility that characterizes cloud computing. Hosted and managed services are fixed, contracted solutions that an enterprise customer is committed to whether the need for such services shrinks or expands. In contrast, unified communications cloud services offer enterprises the ability to scale services up and down as demand changes.

Unified communications software vendors, such as Microsoft and IBM, have launched unified communications cloud services on their own infrastructures. Rather than rely on telecom service providers to deliver their software to enterprises as hosted or managed solutions, these vendors have started selling their communications and collaboration products directly to the enterprise customer via cloud services.

“Moving telephony solutions into the cloud gives the communications software vendors themselves direct access to their customers, rather than partnering with carriers and relying on them to build and maintain the infrastructure to support it”, Riggs said.

Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) providers also have potential as a model for delivering true unified communications cloud services. Siemens Enterprise Communications has been demonstrating an implementation of its OpenScape unified communications software deployed on Amazon's EC2 IaaS platform. In this particular use case, while the software is owned and supported by Siemens, the infrastructure it runs on isn’t. By using third-party public cloud services, Siemens could offer its UC platform to enterprises without the high deployment costs associated with either a customer premise or hosted PBX solution. While Siemens has not made these cloud services commercially available, the idea of a completely cloud-based UC platform running on a third-party public cloud service offers some advantages. Amazon’s IaaS offering has an abundant supply of additional compute and storage capacity at its disposal, enabling Siemens to quickly scale its product to meet the needs of customers of any size. Likewise, because each instance of OpenScape would be segregated from the others, the opportunities to customize the product would be simpler. 

Unified communications and the private cloud

Unified communications virtualization has significantly changed how enterprises deploy IP telephony solutions. Virtualization and private cloud services eliminate much of the capital expenditures traditionally required by a unified communications platform, replaced by the operating expense associated with the overall resources of a data center within a private cloud. Enterprises can deploy private unified communications cloud services by replicating the approach of hosted or public cloud offerings. IT can adopt a similar per-user cost structure and bill back UC services to enterprise business units in much the same way that a public cloud provider would. IT can also streamline operations even further by incorporating a self-provisioning option, enabling line-of-business managers to allocate additional telephony resources and choose features and functionality a la carte.

Dig Deeper on Unified Communications Architecture and Service Models