This content is part of the Buyer's Guide: UC products: A comprehensive buyer's guide

Three buying principles for unified communications products

After exploring possible use cases for unified communications systems, examine the value proposition, deployment models and vendor-partner relationship.

When deciding on a UC service, you'll need a clear understanding of which unified communications products are critical to your organization. Every business needs more effective communication, but making decisions around UC is challenging for two reasons.

First, UC does not solve an immediate problem, so businesses need to think differently compared with conventional communication applications. Secondly, most unified communications products do not completely replace existing technology, so businesses are getting a fresh start with a relatively new type of solution.

Making a purchasing decision requires careful consideration, and this article distills that process into three core buying principles that all businesses can use.

Defining the value proposition

The range of UC offerings is broad and constantly evolving, making the value proposition a moving target. This is why defining the business use cases for UC is so important. Without a clear sense of purpose, the value proposition will be vague, and management will have a hard time justifying the investment.

Unlike telephony, which has a well-established return on investment, the broader scope of communications is harder to tie to tangible business outcomes. Some vendors focus on a narrow range of UC applications -- such as telephony, presence, instant messaging and basic conferencing -- while others are full-scale services, encompassing video, call recording, file sharing and more. Many vendors also offer a range of UC services, enabling businesses to start small and add elements later.

When deciding on a UC service, the key point is to evaluate the value proposition of each vendor.

These distinctions matter because they will dictate the type of UC vendors that a business may consider.

Since the definition of UC is not standardized, almost any vendor -- including those rooted in voice over IP (VoIP) or telephony -- can offer UC. At the same time, unified communications products with a heavy emphasis on Internet applications with Web Real-Time Communications are starting to figure prominently.

When deciding on unified communications systems, the key point is to evaluate the value proposition of each vendor that's being considered. Some vendors will be telephony-based, while others will be geared toward mobility with an emphasis on collaboration.

Making true comparisons among the vendors will be difficult. Each vendor needs to be weighed on how well its value proposition addresses your UC use case.

Consider the deployment models

The deployment mode is probably the most important technology-based criterion in the decision-making process for unified communications products. Briefly, the three available options are:

  1. Based on-premises: This conventional and predominant mode extends from the telephony world, which is where many leading UC vendors are based. Businesses that have sufficient IT resources will likely prefer to stay in this mode with UC, as it provides the highest degree of control.
  2. Cloud-based: As with VoIP, many vendors have adopted the hosted model where the solution resides in their data center, making it easy for businesses to deploy UC. This option is popular among small and medium businesses (SMBs) as they tend to have limited IT capabilities. Cloud economics is also appealing, making UC an operational expenditure, which businesses of all sizes would welcome.
  3. Hybrid UC: Cloud-based services are gaining traction among both SMBs and larger enterprises, and the broad momentum is undeniable. However, not all businesses are ready for an all-cloud deployment, so a hybrid service could be ideal. This involves having some unified communications products remain on-site and under the IT department's control, while other services can be safely outsourced to the cloud.

To varying degrees, UC vendors and providers offer these options, and businesses need to understand what combination best aligns with their needs. Not every vendor supports both on-premises and cloud-based UC equally well -- so if hybrid is your focus, both capabilities must be evaluated carefully. Some vendor offerings are purely cloud-based, and these will appeal to businesses most comfortable with hosted solutions.

Not only is it important to understand the deployment models currently supported, but also what the vendor's roadmap looks like. Many are moving to the cloud as fast as possible, and these won't be good choices for businesses that will need support on premises for the foreseeable future.

Inspect the strength of the partner ecosystem

As with the above criteria, determining the strength of vendors' partner networks will require more extensive research as you examine their customers and channels.

The most important reality to understand about UC is its fluid nature, which makes it very different from phone systems in terms of making buying decisions. When developing specifications for vendor proposals, the partner ecosystem will be a key indicator of how well a vendor's offerings can meet the needs of your business going forward.

Again, this decision-making relies heavily on identifying clear use cases for UC. Initially, businesses will use UC to integrate various real-time and near-real-time applications; but to get full value, new capabilities will need to be added.

Video, for example, presents many technological challenges, and if it's going to be a core application, the vendor needs to show the appropriate competence. Some vendors have solid video DNA, but many others need partners to deliver video services.

Similarly, unified communications products will increasingly need to incorporate other features such as mobility, social media and customer relationship management. These also present new challenges for which vendors often must have partners.

The main implication here is no UC vendor has a complete in-house solution, especially when considering future needs. All vendors have a partner ecosystem to support their offering, and along the way, many will simply acquire companies and integrate them into their platform.

The extent to which UC vendors rely on partners varies greatly. Understanding this partnership dynamic can help you determine the vendor's ability to meet your business needs and its vision for UC.

These criteria are just starting points in understanding how to choose the right unified communications products and vendors. Beyond these guidelines are a bevy of technological issues to ensure network interoperability, but before that, the basic value proposition needs to match the unified communications products that the business needs.

Many vendors can provide a UC service, but with a clear set of criteria, the task of narrowing down that decision process becomes much easier.

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