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Cloud UC strategies: Hosted unified communication service models diverge

The way workers are collaborating is changing the way unified communications is delivered. See which cloud UC strategies vendors are providing.

Given that everything these days seems to be about the cloud, it's not surprising that you hear a lot about cloud UC. Cloud UC refers to the union of unified communications (UC) and cloud computing and focuses on hosting UC applications on the cloud. If we believe the cloud is the future, moving UC applications to the cloud is hardly a technical challenge. And, this move has brought about new cloud UC strategies and architectures that may not address real telecom issues.

Cloud computing is the new architecture that binds IT and networking into a single system, and its primary value isn't cost management or opening IT to public hosting. The value is the flexibility that cloud will bring to the way we empower workers, particularly via a spectrum of mobile devices. In this cloud era, workers will work differently, consume information differently and collaborate differently. It follows then that they will communicate differently, and it's that basic change that will drive the cloud UC vision.

Cloud UC is different mainly because of what is being unified. The past UC focus has been on unifying the tools of communication -- getting voice, video, email and IM into one common, usable format. That issue has been resolved in the mobile space through applications. Workers who can tap the email, IM, call or video icon on their mobile devices don't need further unification of functionality.

Today's UC vision is the unification of communications tools, where cooperation among workers occurs around a tool set or UC platform. The UC platform is essentially a workflow manager -- a system that manages document flows, approvals, reviews and so on. This vision is easily applied for document creation, but less easily applied to work activities built on applications for order entry, order management, etc.

Cloud UC unifies applications and communication so that workers can share information while they are communicating. Surveys say that the No. 1 collaborative application is the "review-information" application, where a worker contacts a support specialist or supervisor to help them through a question about their job. Such questions are almost always accompanied by viewing information, so while the first step in the collaboration is to set up the review via some person-to-person message, the second is to share the application context with the originating worker.

This is a profound change in focus for UC because it means that instead of combining UC features into a single client, they should be componentized and integrated with the applications themselves. Since most unified communication services are already available through application program interfaces (APIs) or URLs, vendors have approached UC using two different models: application-centric and process-centric.

Vendor-proposed cloud UC strategies

Microsoft is an example of an application-centric UC provider. As the company became more focused on its Azure cloud platform, its UC position has evolved from "UC-as-an-application" to "UC-as-a-cloud element." The Lync UC server and system from Microsoft was what could be viewed as a traditional UC platform, one based on unifying the communication. Document handling and approvals were automated. Lync, however, lacked specific tools to share a more general view of workers' applications.

With the new version of Office, Microsoft wants to integrate the applications with Lync. This would take collaboration deeper into the workers' processes of document creation and data analysis; it would also integrate both Office and Lync with online, cloud-hosted tools. Microsoft is widely expected to field development tools to allow its partners to create applications that integrate communication and data handling on a single screen, in the cloud.

Other UC vendors have focused more on the process of collaboration and on turning that process into an automated workflow. These vendors often include tools that track revisions to documents and track "work" by tracking how it's passed from person to person.

Avaya Inc., one of the leaders in UC and voice communications, has both per-user client tools for UC integration and call center tools for support and sales systems. By making UC an "application," Avaya makes it possible to easily integrate UC with other applications. The company, however, hasn't yet proposed its own application platform to integrate UC with other application components.

Cloud UC vendors will architect unified communication services

Cloud could deepen the divisions between the radical vendors that see UC as a set of composable application services and traditional vendors that see UC as an application. The radical approach has the advantage of supporting collaboration on any kind of application because it is based on composing communication and information into common screens. That composition is also its downside; without work to create integrated communication/application screens, the benefits of the radical UC approach can't be realized.

Traditional vendors can create a collaborative framework within their UC applications and easily fit that framework into current document-production practices. While the scope of integration of UC with applications is narrower for this group, the adoption is much easier, faster and cheaper.

This radical-versus-traditional debate will frame UC in the future. More application- and cloud-centric providers will likely take a broader view of UC and work to create simple tools that can build worker screens combining application data and collaborative communications links. Most traditional UC vendors will likely work to refine their process-centric visions so that sequential application processes such as order entry or shipping can be structured into a UC-centric workflow that incorporates application data. For unified communications buyers, the choices will be feature-rich in the future, but they'll be more difficult to make.

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