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Hosted options for unified communications 'evolving'

Hosted unified communications options can save the enterprise money, but expect limited feature sets.

For those looking to avoid some of the hassle and expense of rolling out their own unified communications infrastructure, hosted options are becoming increasingly available, albeit that they are still untested.

Many of the same problems that plague unified communications (UC) in general – managing bandwidth, maintaining uptime with increasingly complex dependencies, a nebular definition of what exactly UC includes – persist with hosted options, but cost savings or specialized features might make them worth a look, particularly for small and medium-sized businesses willing to part with the responsibility – and accountability – that comes with managing communications in-house.

Amy Larsen DeCarlo, principal analyst with Current Analysis, said that she hesitated to call many of these offerings, particularly from established players, full-blown unified communications, instead preferring the term unified collaboration, which she said might be a bit more encompassing.

"People have been talking about unified communications for a long time, but there [are] so many missing pieces," she said. "I would say that they're in an evolutionary state."

For those looking for an established name, DeCarlo said that most of the major providers, including AT&T and Verizon, had services well-geared for the small business, but don't expect the full UC experience. Email and voice is in the package, but many Tier-1 vendors are waiting for demand before deploying IM and other, more frilly features.

Jeff Cayer, group manager for voice at Verizon Business, heads up the company's UC offering, called Integrated Communications Package, which is based on top of its IP Centrex service.

"ICP is a flashy front end that delivers a common user interface across multiple products," Cayer said, touting the service's portability of features from location to location, including localizations for various languages.

"Really, what the goal is, is to provide a ubiquitous service regardless of geography or location type," he said. "It doesn't matter if I'm in the HQ or not, it's the exact same communication experience." That makes the service ideal for those companies with a high percentage of employees on the move – or working from home offices.

"This isn't much for the standard cubicle environment," Cayer said.

For the typical enterprise, cost savings might be the deciding factor in favor of going with, or against, a hosted route.

"Most IT organizations are stretched thin, and they're expected to do more with less," DeCarlo said. "I think companies are feeling that they at least have to look at it."

With some hosted deployments costing only a few dollars a day while allowing a smaller staff to do more, hosted UC gains some of the appeal of telecom's traditional double- or triple-play offerings, bundling email service with voice while saving the most-hailed UC features, like presence, for the future.

Cayer also noted that, with a service like Verizon's, provisioning requirements and hardware investments were greatly reduced.

"If you're [purchasing] one customer premise equipment solution, you're placing a bet," he said. "They are all closed and proprietary solutions. Our view is more expansive; you're going to have all sorts of sites … and we'll work with you." He said that if standards or business needs change, hosted solutions could easily roll them into a portfolio, while an enterprise fresh off a round of investments might be wary of throwing those purchases out in favor of better technology.

DeCarlo said that the market was not reserved for the big players alone, and that smaller, more specialized vendors might be able to make compelling offerings. "If a company is very focused, they might not be trying to tackle the highest end, but there are lower-end customers who might have a need for this," she said, while cautioning that it is unlikely that any of these smaller companies has found a UC "silver bullet" that has eluded more entrenched players.

One of these ambitious companies is PanTerra Networks, which offers various UC tools, with a focus on specialized calling features, as a Web-based service.

"We believe our sweet spot is companies with 20 to 50 users, but we can serve from 10 employees up to 250 employees, or distributed enterprises can use our services," said Ming Shao, director of marketing with PanTerra. Shao said various packages were available to suit different needs, including allowing for encrypted instant messaging and Web-based conference call setup.

"If you wanted to have 20 people on a conference call or to join your Web conference, you can just click their names in the client and everyone will join," Shao said. "It's very simple to use."

Right now, DeCarlo said, most enterprises could probably get by with a more stripped-down service, as long as it was reliable. She said services that promised more run the risk of under-delivering and leaving customers with a less-than-ideal experience.

"I think we will start to see things come together a little bit more as time progresses," she said.

News Editor Shamus McGillicuddy contributed to the reporting for this article.

Related links:
Blog: Outsourcing unified communications (UC)

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