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Cloud-based unified communications could reduce costs and hassle

As hosted unified communications offerings develop, businesses large and small can benefit. The future holds even greater promise, however, as developers race to help integrate their offerings with the rest of the business portfolio in an accessible, on-demand fashion.

Emerging cloud-based unified communications services are offering companies an opportunity to cut communications costs while not sacrificing features.

But companies must be willing to give up some control, particularly around security, if they want to try cloud-based unified communications (UC).

"With all the resources needed to manage a UC platform, a hosted option is not too bad a choice," said Vanessa Alvarez, an analyst with Frost & Sullivan. "One of the tradeoffs will be security in the beginning."

Some vendors, such as Cisco, have a astrong security story, Alvarez said, but the industry as a whole still has a ways to go before enterprises can fully trust critical data to be safely stored offsite by a third party.

Despite those concerns, hosted UC is an area of active research and development investment for vendors at a time when the economy has put many projects on hold.

Last week at VoiceCon, for example, Siemens demonstrated a proof-of-concept of its OpenScape UC platform ported to Amazon's S3 cloud service. Siemens showed that UC features could be available on-demand and customized to customer needs, while being almost instantly scalable and configurable.

Although Siemens' demonstration was just a proof-of-concept, the trend is clear: Companies want the full functionality of UC without the management hassle.

That same week, IBM expanded its LotusLive initiative with the launch of its Software as a Service (SaaS) offering LotusLive Engage -- a meeting communications suite with chat, charts and social networking -- while 8x8 upgraded its hosted voice and video UC offerings to take aim at the enterprise market.

From small businesses to enterprises, Alvarez said, a variety of options means that companies of all sizes can see savings if the tools are used strategically.

Small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) could hand over most of their communications needs completely to the right host, she said. With this approach, companies can avoid the staffing, software and hardware costs associated with running communications in-house. Also, the subscription-based model of cloud-based UC allows more flexibility. Companies can add and subtract applications as needed, rather than getting locked into a license for an application that no one uses.

"For the small and medium enterprises, it's the ability to use only resources that you need," Alvarez said, "because at the end of the day, you end up with features and functionality you don't use [but] ultimately pay for in the way of a license."

The complexity involved in UC has many midsized companies working overtime looking for products and technologies that are easier to deploy and maintain.

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As more and more features are added to unified communications, managing them becomes increasingly complex, according to Paul McMillan, Siemens' director of UC technical vision and strategy. "People see the value, but they don't want to run it themselves."

Enterprises are more reluctant to hand over their communications to the cloud, and they have economies of scale to properly support internal UC technology. But Alvarez says they, too, can benefit from cloud-based UC. For example, specific lines of business could tap into hosted tools that the company as a whole might not need.

Despite what was on display at VoiceCon this year, cloud-based UC is still nascent, but the possibilities of hosted UC could take enterprises to places they've never thought of before.

"There's not a whole lot of offerings right now, so we're talking about a lot of theory," said Zeus Kerravala, an analyst with Yankee Group. But leaders like Siemens, Cisco and Avaya could quickly change that. "One of the appeals if you really believe in the software-driven market [is that] the rate of change in software is much faster than hardware."

Companies that go with a hosted option will always get the latest and greatest without having to worry about upgrades or compatibilities, and Kerravala expects one of the major areas of innovation to be integration of these SaaS applications into the rest of the enterprise's business line.

McMillan, who started leading Siemens' cloud computing efforts about 18 months ago, said this aspect is particularly rewarding because of the potential for exciting innovation driven by those outside of Siemens.

"The return on innovation is far higher than anything I could otherwise do organically, for us to expose our offering," McMillan said. "We fully intend to have a version of OpenScape just with developer access in the cloud."

"If you're going to offer cloud-based services, the services must at least be 'mashup-able,' " Kerravala said. "What that means for the enterprise is you can grab components of UC, and grab it and drop it into your application and have it work."

Kerravala suggested, for example, the ability for an employee's presence information -- any time his name appears in a corporate Web application -- to automatically appear as well, giving users a simple way to get in touch. E-mail article author Michael Morisy your thoughts on the emerging UC landscape.

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