This content is part of the Essential Guide: Guide to Unified Communications as a Service: Making sense of it all

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Unified Communications as a Service primer: Moving UC to the cloud

This UCaaS primer explores why you might consider Unified Communications as a Service, what kind of services are available, who's using it and how.

Unified Communications as a service (UCaaS) is an increasingly popular way for businesses to outsource communications and collaboration technologies.

Here are the basics:

Many companies offer UCaaS

As the industry matures, more companies -- ranging from Cisco to IBM, and Microsoft to AT&T and Verizon, to namedrop only a handful out there -- are now providing UCaaS services.

Different classes of vendors provide UCaaS services. Unified communications (UC) vendors Cisco, IBM and Microsoft sell their own products in the cloud. AT&T and Verizon are building UCaaS by using UC technology from leading UC vendors. Small vendors are also setting up shop.

These companies are all offering UCaaS services because the market's burgeoning growth represents a major business opportunity for them or because customers are requesting these services. For some, it's a natural extension of their existing businesses.

Many buyers are searching for UCaaS solutions that closely align with their own strategic plans -- everything from codecs such as H.264 SVC to APIs such as OpenSocial -- to ensure they don't end up "painting themselves into a corner with their solution," according to Henry Dewing, principal analyst at Forrester Research Inc.

What sorts of services are involved?

UCaaS includes a wide variety of applications and services delivered over an IP network, usually the public Internet. The services available include enterprise instant messaging and presence, online meetings, telephony, video conferencing and more.

"The way different solution components fit together depends on the service provider and the underlying technology," explains Dewing. "Implementing a Lync-based UCaaS service based on Microsoft's Office 365 is very different [from] buying Lync-based UCaaS service from Orange."

UCaaS services can use technology from multiple UC vendors, but maintaining interoperability is difficult for providers. Enterprises that choose UCaaS solutions with a primary or lead vendor can ease the integration and operational tasks, he adds.

What are the key benefits of UCaaS?

With UCaaS, buyers can wash their hands of the technology, capital and capacity issues associated with deployment of UC, says Dewing. "The service provider is entrusted to make technology decisions and can be held to a strict business service-level agreement -- not just up-time or network delay, but real availability, call completions or user-experience measures."

What exactly does this mean for buyers? "It frees the buyer from having to worry about selecting a vendor, a standard or an architecture to deploy," Dewing explains. "By insisting on open connectivity to other firms within the ecosystem, the buyer pushes the service provider to adopt and support broadly adopted standards and capabilities -- without having to make decisions or investments themselves."

There are at least four different integration points where the selection of technology and insistence on reliable open standard interconnects are important to understand.

"The first point is between different original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) within a company. The second is between cloud and hosted solutions within the same company. The third is when federating presence or communications capabilities with ecosystem partners. And the fourth is when extending UCaaS capabilities into business processes or applications. All of these can be provided by the same vendor or multiple vendors," notes Dewing.

Why should you consider your UCaaS options?

UCaaS can sharpen a company's competitive edge by reducing costs, increasing flexibility, and boosting efficiency and productivity.

"The key benefits include flexibility to add or subtract users as needed, minimal up-front capital investment and the outsourcing of system administration -- no training needed. This frees up IT groups to focus on more strategic projects," says Irwin Lazar, vice president and services director at Nemertes Research.

But keep in mind that not all UCaaS offerings are the same. When considering your UCaaS options, explore the service provider's reliability by talking to its customers or asking to trial it. Also, look closely at their scope of coverage, support for E911, extensibility, flexibility, cost, performance management capabilities and network access requirements.

Who's using UCaaS and how?

Many companies -- around 60% -- are already embracing some form of hosted UC, but they use some UC applications more than others, Lazar says. "These companies are using it mainly for Web conferencing; a mere 7% are currently using hosted voice. But interestingly, the clear majority of companies using hosted UC right now are small businesses," he adds.

Since hosted voice is a relatively new technology, even with overwhelming interest, it will take time to migrate to the entire market. "There are some aspects of UCaaS -- such as identity, security, or sensitive corporate intellectual property that might be shared in collaboration or on team sites -- that firms are extremely wary of moving into the cloud, and this is slowing decision making," Dewing says.

UCaaS appeals to businesses that are seasonally cyclical -- think tax preparers or retail at Christmas -- or expense-driven organizations like the government and technologically savvy industries like high-tech, Dewing notes. But the ability of UCaaS to offer cost savings and improved flexibility will appeal to businesses large and small alike. More than half of companies will deploy some form of UCaaS, he adds.

Flavors of UCaaS

There are a couple of different flavors of UCaaS available, as Irwin Lazar explains. "You can choose either single-instance or multi-tenant. For the single-instance option, the provider creates a specific software image for each customer, which enables customization and integration of on-premise applications. For the multi-tenant option, each customer shares a single software platform."

The cloud isn't an all-or-nothing proposition, according to Lazar. Many companies take a hybrid approach with a portion of their UC applications in the cloud, and others on-premises. "Products are now emerging to enable integration of on-prem and cloud," he says.

Enterprises can also integrate UCaaS with other cloud-based services. It isn't simple, but it can deliver real benefits by giving workers new capabilities rapidly. Integrating UCaaS with other cloud capabilities (such as enterprise apps from drives user productivity for firms by reducing the friction between business applications and business processes, according to Dewing.

"Moving forward, UCaaS-specific standards will be critically important for connecting public and private clouds, on-prem and in-network or intercompany and internetwork capabilities that can't be done in one-off or a pair-by-pair basis," Dewing says. "Standards move slowly, but the slow-and-steady progress is what enables UCaaS to really deliver business value rapidly."

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