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To cloud or not to cloud your unified communications applications?

When it comes to running your unified communications applications, which should live on-premises or in the cloud? Expert Dave Michels explains.

For most IT leaders, there are few things more dreadful than selecting a new communications solution. Sure, anything new is fun, but unified communications (UC) solutions are the least fun. Many feel that comparing the various UC options is a high-risk, intimidating and arduous task involving software subtleties and licenses.

That task is now even more complex with this inevitable question: To cloud or not to cloud? UC as a Service (UCaaS) is experiencing rapid growth, and most market researchers see that trend continuing for several more years. That's good news with more options, but while there are twenty-some premises-based solutions to consider, there are also hundreds of service providers to consider. It's very easy to get overwhelmed.

Unified communications: To cloud or not to cloud?

First, be sure cloud-based and premises-based solutions are initially considered, but work to figure out the best model as quickly as possible. There are no silver bullets here -- the best approach depends on the unique requirements of the business. Premises-based solutions remain the dominant approach, but many enterprises are moving away from unmanaged unified communications and collaboration. Surprisingly, neither premises nor hosted solutions offer any unique user-feature advantages. Instead, the preference is more likely to be driven by other factors. Here are some of the top considerations that tend to push organizations one way or the other.

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Mobility. The promise of being able to work anywhere has emerged as one of the top drivers of UC adoption. Many UC solutions offer advanced mobility features such as single-number reach, mobile clients, softphones and more. Cloud-based solutions have a slight advantage here because they view everyone as a remote user. Premises-based solutions sometimes require additional equipment and bandwidth to accommodate remote users, which can be cost-prohibitive for small groups of mobile users.

Multiple locations. If an organization has lots of office locations, a cloud solution inherently creates a virtual campus. Each location gets local numbers, yet can be part of a larger internal network that features free intersite calling, abbreviated dialing and other common advanced features -- all with centralized administration. Virtual campuses are possible with cloud and centralized premises-based implementations but are simpler to set up with cloud deployments. Locations that necessitate failover capabilities will need some premises-based equipment, and that's inherently included with equipment-based deployments.

Technical skills. UC can be complex -- very complex. It's rarely a standalone system anymore and frequently integrates with mobile devices, servers (call control, applications, email, CRM, etc.), and desktops (soft clients, collaboration apps); it may also involve custom application programming interface integrations with workflow systems. Be wary of the line between controlling the technology and being controlled by technology. An organization that regularly finds itself on the wrong side of that line may be a good candidate for a hosted solution. UCaaS is effectively a form of outsourcing and turns a considerable amount of the complexity into a simplified delivered service.

Scalability and seasonality. Some firms experience dramatic swings in required telecom capacity, and this is an area where many cloud services excel. Most premises-based solutions are engineered to accommodate the busiest hour of the busiest day, and that may not be cost-effective year round. This is an important topic that can favor the cloud or premises. The cloud generally charges for usage rather than capacity, so seasonal spikes are handled with lower costs. Of course, some cloud providers share resources among customers, so huge spikes may still be problematic. It is important to consider how the firm reacts to seasonal spikes. For example, an event planner needed to move from cloud to premises because of its annual ticket sales event. The firm had only had two agents, so the cloud's capacity meant it could handle 100 people in the on-hold queue rather than generate a busy signal.

Endpoints. The old-school approach of picking a phone system was to compare prices and endpoints. Although many now prefer softphones, physical phones are still common in most implementations. Aside from look and feel, most Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) phones offer less desktop functionality than proprietary endpoints. That may not matter to organizations, especially because desktop clients are often associated with a desk phone. Most hosted providers use general SIP phones, however, so mind the feature gap. Desktop phone features vary, so verify what features are being offered -- especially hands-free paging and intercom, visual call park, and busy light indicators. Also, be sure to include any conference saucers, fax machines, alarm lines, and elevator and door phones necessary within the evaluation scope.

Disaster recovery and business continuance. Many look to the cloud as a simple approach to disaster recovery and business continuance. To properly prepare for business contingencies, some form of off-site recovery is generally recommended, and the cloud effectively comes with this benefit. Of course, each provider must be carefully reviewed for operational reliability, including geographic diversity of data centers.

Accounting. One point that frequently gets raised regarding this debate is capital expenditure versus operating expenditure (Opex). Most firms favor OpEx, which tends to favor the cloud. Don't let accounting rules dictate technology decisions, though; if OpEx is particularly important, it can be resolved by leasing premises-based equipment. On the other hand, cloud services typically won't require as long of a commitment as a lease.

Don't go into the cloud vs. premises debate with a pre-notion that one is better than the other. Both cloud-based and premises-based UC solutions are here to stay; both are proven, and both offer advantages. The key lies with understanding what fits best with the specific needs and objectives of an organization.

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