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Unified communications (UC) or unified communications/collaboration (UCC) has been a topic of interest to users looking to evolve from a disorderly combination of voice, email and message communications to something more structured. It's also been the target of UCC vendors to transition their older voice system businesses, expand their software collaboration offerings and most recently build cloud service offerings. Today, it's becoming increasingly clear that the cloud will figure prominently in UC, so it's important for prospective UC buyers to understand what services are available today and how these unified communication cloud service models are evolving.
The cloud is a mechanism for hosting applications on external resources, and clearly that definition is very broad. It's the breadth, in fact, that opens the door for a number of "cloud UC" models to exist, all having valid credentials as cloud services but differing significantly from one another in terms of functionality, focus, and compatibility with current equipment and practices. A good review of UC cloud services has to begin with an assessment of the models.
Service model type 1: The cloud communications service
The most radical unified communication cloud model is the cloud communications service, the most popular of which is Skype, now a part of Microsoft. Cloud communications services like Skype were designed as hosted services; the only premises component is a software client that's installed on each device. These services offer users considerable flexibility in supporting smart devices from desktops to smartphones, but they are limited in how they can integrate with current voice systems and devices. While it's possible to find adapter devices to use Skype and other services like Google Voice with phones, most users don't know that and never make the attempt.
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The biggest problem users report with cloud communications services is that they emulate public telephone services and not business phone systems. They lack features for attendant services, call forwarding, and the like. They also often lack a closed community or user group with open inter-calling and restrict external calling. For larger businesses, or even for call center activities in smaller businesses, this can be a fatal flaw.
Service model type 2: UC as a Service
The second cloud UC model is the UC as a Service model created by having traditional UC software hosted in the cloud. Microsoft's Lync software has transitioned from a traditional server model to a cloud model (called Lync Online), and is now being integrated with Skype. Most larger network operators are now offering or preparing UCaaS offerings, and they're also available from providers like Siemens and Mitel. UC Market leader Avaya has gradually expanded its own UC/UCC service plans to include private and public cloud capabilities, directly and through partners.
Nearly any server-based UC product can be converted to UCaaS simply by finding an Infrastructure as a Service or Platform as a Service provider or integrator who hosts the platform on which the product runs. In fact, some UCaaS offerings are simply cloud-hosted server-based UC, but others (like Cisco and Avaya) are providing a set of UC platform tools and allowing for developer enhancement and expansion of their UC capabilities. This strategy is the one most likely to prevail in this space because UC requirements tend to be somewhat specialized; companies value different features and capabilities and thus need expert developer or integrator tuning. That tuning is easier with UCaaS than with cloud communications services, which rarely offer much latitude for customization.
Service model type 3: Distributed UC model
The final of the unified communication cloud service models is the model Microsoft is creating in the integration of Skype and Lync: the distributed UC model. In the distributed model, UCaaS elements are combined with cloud communications services to create a UC strategy that can be totally hosted, hybrid hosted in-house and in the cloud, or totally in-house. However UC is implemented, it can be integrated with a UC/UCC-capable service set (in Microsoft's case, from Skype) that will itself serve as a basic cloud UC service to small users, which can extend UC capabilities outside the company to customers and partners.
The distributed UC model offers enormous advantages:
- First, it tracks the true cloud trends toward hybrid clouds more accurately because it allows both public and private hosting of UC components.
- Second, it is more easily integrated with premises equipment since, at worst, some components of the model can be hosted in-house for easier connection with legacy systems and phones.
- Third, it presents a low barrier to adoption while allowing enterprises to expand to a full-featured UC system as the cloud UC value proposition is proved.
- Lastly, the promise of developer support to build custom features, particularly for vertical markets, like legal and medical, will be critical to many users.
It's possible to create a distributed UC model by combining VoIP services with email and IM from various providers, using application program interface (API) integration, and this model of distributed UC would offer users some relief from concerns that a proprietary cloud communications service, like Skype or Google Voice, would lock them into or limit connectivity. It's reasonably easy to integrate IM and email with VoIP now, but video collaboration may pose a problem because of the lack of accepted standards for cross-platform video conferencing. There is increasing pressure to adopt video standards, but it's not likely that pressure will create open video collaboration any time soon.
Unified communication cloud service models will continue to pose challenges for prospective buyers, both in terms of selecting a model and in terms of how to support current voice systems investments or balance voice, video, and email and IM in importance. As usual, the lowest costs and best features in cloud UC will be available to those companies who focus on empowering their workers through advanced appliances like laptops, tablets and smartphones rather than to try to preserve legacy voice handsets. For most technologies, but for cloud UC in particular, it makes more sense in the long run to invest in where markets are going than to cling to current practices.