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Cloud telephony: A potential hit or miss for businesses?

Cloud telephony users describe their implantation process, pros associated with moving to the cloud and advice for prospective customers.

Enterprises are beginning to show interest in cloud telephony, or hosted Voice over IP services that use the Internet instead of the traditional public switched telephone network, but many prospective users are intimated at the same time. While different kinds of cloud services are continuously emerging, business customers have to decide what applications are appropriate to move into the cloud, and when to stay on-premises.

A panel of hosted and cloud telephony business customers at Enterprise Connect in Orlando this year spoke out regarding their own cloud implementation processes, and described why a cloud telephony strategy made sense for their particular companies.

Cloud telephony: More features and a backup plan

As their legacy voice hardware ages, many enterprises are looking at cloud telephony as an option, especially with the cloud offering built-in disaster recovery advantages.

It felt like a career-ending event to put phones in the cloud and having it not work -- but it turned out to be a homerun I never planned on hitting.

Jason Kasch,
chief information officer, TSG

Fieldpoint Private Bank and Trust, a five-year-old financial firm based in Greenwich, Conn., competes with larger firms in New York City with extravagant IT budgets. The young financial firm began with Cisco Unified Call Center Express, but would lose its phones three to four times a year when the power went out. Joseph Larizza, chief administrative officer for Fieldpoint Private Bank and Trust, and his small IT team shopped around for a new telephony solution that offered better business continuity, but knew they didn't have the resources for supporting on-premises equipment.

"Our clients are used to working with firms like Morgan Stanley and J.P. Morgan -- I had to be able to put out technology that was just as good, if not better, but we clearly can't make that level of capital investments," Larizza said.

Fieldpoint adopted a cloud telephony service from M5, now branded as Shoretel Sky after Shoretel acquired the provider. The flexible features -- like the ability for users to log into their phones from any locations -- were not only user-friendly, but impressive from an IT security and disaster recovery perspective, Larizza said.

"When Hurricane Sandy hit, we were one of the only banks in the Northeast that remained fully functional, even though none of our branches had power."

Mobility was a big driver for The Structural Group (TSG), a Hanover, Md.-based construction and engineering company with 30 locations in the United States and several sites outside of the U.S. "At any given time, we have around 1,000 jobs going on around the country, and mobility was a big challenge for us -- our employees live and die by their office and mobile phones," said Jason Kasch, chief information officer of TSG.

Although the Unified Communications as a Service (UCaaS) and cloud telephony market is still maturing, Kasch and his team selected cloud telephony services from Thinking Phone Networks because the technology would be flexible enough to evolve as the company grew.

"We had very antiquated equipment at each of our locations, coupled with the fact that we generally move or acquire three to five new offices a year, we knew the ability to pick up, move and turn on [the phones] in new locations was a requirement for us," he said.

Like Fieldpoint Private Bank and Trust, the new cloud-based system enabled TSG to maintain communications services for its six Northeast locations during Hurricane Sandy, even if employees were stranded in their homes. "Clients can't tell if our employees are making phone calls from their homes, like they were doing during the storm or from their offices," Kasch said.

Stepping into the cloud on the right foot

While cloud telephony can empower businesses with an expanded set of features and disaster recovery options, integration with legacy infrastructure is also important for budget-conscious businesses.

D+M Group, a Mahwah, N.J.-based consumer electronics company, is no stranger to cloud applications, and its IT organization knew it wanted a cloud telephony service to integrate with its existing Cisco teleprescene equipment, as well as its CRM and helpdesk applications, said John Jackson, vice president of global infrastructure and vendor management for the D+M Group. Jackson and his team selected West IP Communications for their cloud-based communications needs.

It was important to the D+M Group to select a provider that had reference customers before jumping in with both feet, Jackson said. "We talked to customers and found out their experiences with [West IP], and after that, selected the provider."

More on cloud telephony

Cloud telephony allures business with low cost, full features

Top cloud-based telephony and UC providers

UCaaS primer: Moving UC to the cloud

While getting an outside perspective from other cloud telephony users is helpful, Jackson and others said companies should start out small with cloud telephony early on, deploying it as a pilot program within the company to obtain feedback from users. A pilot program can help iron out issues early on before they affect all employees, while giving the business the ability to compare cloud telephony with the current delivery model or provider.

"Whether you have several users or thousands, I highly recommend a pilot program at first to test the waters," said TSG's Kasch. "It felt like a career-ending event to put phones in the cloud and having it not work -- but it turned out to be a homerun I never planned on hitting."

Having a cross-section of users involved in the pilot is also important, with assistance available if needed, noted Fieldpoint's Larizza. "Users don't know what the users need, so it's definitely very much like a shepherding process," he said.

The cloud won't always be the easiest or cheapest option for all businesses. Along with a pilot program for users, a return on investment analysis is also critical before making the move to the cloud. "At the end of the day, decision makers have to do their analysis on hardware and service costs with on-premises compared to the cloud," the Structural Group's Kasch said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Gina Narcisi, news writer, and follow @GeeNarcisi on Twitter.

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