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Weighing cloud UC deployment options

UC deployment has evolved, and enterprises can now choose from on-premises or cloud-based UC options or a mix of both. Find out how to decide which UC model is right for you.

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In the world of unified communications, deployment options have been limited historically. As internet connectivity...

and applications improve, those options have become more plentiful. As a result, IT administrators need to understand the differences among UC deployment choices.

In the past, UC servers were almost always deployed on premises in the campus LAN, and telephone options were limited to legacy voice or data services such as T1 Primary Rate Interfaces or Session Initiation Protocol trunks. But thanks to advancements in cloud computing, along with increasing reliability of WAN and internet connectivity, enterprises now have a choice among on-premises, hybrid and cloud unified communications deployments. The cloud gives administrators a choice of where their UC applications are deployed and what level of control they want to have. This column explores the unique characteristics and circumstances of these three primary UC deployment models.

Various integration options as well as best-practice deployment procedures will also help to ensure a smooth rollout and longevity no matter which UC model you choose. While there's no right or wrong answer when it comes to choosing a UC deployment option, one method usually makes the most sense for your organization. Take a look at these options.

On-premises UC deployment

On-premises deployment, with servers located on the corporate LAN, is still the most commonly deployed model.

If your site lacks reliable, low-latency and low-jitter WAN or internet connectivity to public cloud services, it's likely that cloud or a cloud and on-premises hybrid setting will not function as intended. This is where an on-premises deployment continues to make sense, because you have more control over low-latency connections.

If administrators require full control over the UC environment at the infrastructure level, on-premises UC deployment also remains the best fit. Businesses that manage customer contact centers may require an on-premises UC platform to better control end-user applications and have more flexibility when it comes to telephone services and pricing options. With cloud and hybrid options, enterprises lose much of that flexibility because they are at the mercy of pricing and deployment options the service provider offers. The cost of an on-premises deployment can range from $4,000 in equipment for a small office setting to hundreds of thousands of dollars for an enterprise.

UC global market

For those businesses that determine an on-premises deployment is the better fit, keep in mind that new UC applications and feature enhancements, like smartphone applications that allow users to log into cloud-based UC to make phone calls even if they're not at the office, may require expensive, upfront capital expenditures and more administrator effort to deploy. Therefore, those seeking to put the latest and greatest UC apps in front of their employees may want to consider a cloud or hybrid deployment.

That said, the popularity of this model is declining in favor of cloud and hybrid models. Still, it remains a top choice for several common scenarios.

Public cloud UC deployment

Cloud computing in general has shaken up the enterprise IT space over the past decade. Yet it's only been in the last few years that IT departments have seriously considered migrating UC apps to the public cloud. The primary reason for this revolves around the need for low-latency connections when using UC apps transmitting and receiving real-time streaming media.

As WAN and internet connectivity matured and became more reliable, IT departments began migrating more of their apps and data into the cloud. Many companies now treat public clouds as just another extension of their in-house infrastructure. According to Cisco's "2017 Global Cloud Index," which was released in 2018, 94% of workloads will be processed by cloud data centers, and only 6% will be processed by traditional data centers by 2021. That means that, in a few short years, virtually all apps and data will be in the cloud.

As this trend continues, enterprises will have an increased interest in migrating to cloud unified communications services along with all other business apps. Doing so decreases infrastructure overhead when maintaining complex, on-premises UC servers. In fact, cloud UC deployments that use SaaS cloud models need only deal with on-premises UC endpoint hardware like desk phones and video conferencing devices. All other UC components and services are managed in the cloud with no concern for underlying infrastructure failures or server upgrades. Those responsibilities reside with the service provider. Additionally, new features and server software upgrades are rolled out by the service provider, allowing your business quick access to the latest and greatest communications tools to end users.

There are a range of expenses to consider for cloud unified communications deployments. Enterprises need their own end-user devices like desk phones or video conferencing equipment. The licensing costs depend on what UC apps you want users to have, and it's very much a la carte. Options include voice, video conferencing, web conferencing, chat and file storage among others. In general, these services can range from a few dollars per user each month to upward of $50 per user each month.

UC deployments for businesses that have growing remote workforces also fit well within a cloud deployment model. Having UC applications centrally located in a public-facing cloud allows remote users the ability to easily access UC services without the need for remote access VPN software to connect to the corporate network. This streamlines UC service access and increases the chances that end users will use corporate-sanctioned UC apps, negating the potential for shadow IT.

Where cloud unified communications deployments fail is when a business or remote office has poor connectivity or a lack of redundancy to the cloud service provider. This is especially a concern for large, geographically dispersed organizations with remote sites around the globe. Connectivity into some of these sites might be adequate for cloud UC use. But it's next to impossible for service providers to guarantee all locations will have the required low latency, high throughput and redundancy components in place for reliable service.

Hybrid on-premises and cloud UC deployment

For those that already have a large investment in on-premises UC servers but want to dip a toe in the public cloud UC market, a hybrid model can be a good fit. Many companies are opting to keep critical parts of their UC environment -- such as voice and contact center servers -- on premises while moving other functions -- like team chat, web conferencing and file sharing -- to the cloud. This allows IT to continue using a large chunk of their on-premises UC capital expenditure while moving less latency-sensitive services to the cloud. Additionally, as new UC tools crop up, IT has the option of deploying them in-house or at the cloud service provider. A hybrid UC deployment model is great for those that want to keep all options on the table.

Decision-making and deployment process

Technical obstacles aside, the choice in determining the correct UC deployment model should largely be left to those that use it. End users, network and voice engineers, and IT managers should work together to determine the needs of end users by discussing what they use on their current UC applications -- and what they want to see change. Doing so will help gauge what tools users will likely latch onto with a new platform.

For example, many business users are moving away from desk phone use because they either spend much of their time working outside the office, or they have begun using more modern, team chat communication tools. If that's the case, administrators should adjust UC applications and deployment methods accordingly.

UC deployment

When it's time to roll out a new UC platform whether in the cloud or on premises, enterprises have a choice of two migration methods:

  • Full migration. This brings all users over to the new UC platform all at once and potentially reduces impact to the business. In addition, IT doesn't have to support two separate UC deployments for a period of time.
  • Rolling migration. Completed on a department-by-department or building-by-building basis, a rolling migration allows room to manage potential mistakes and problems on the new UC platform without impacting the entire business.

Regardless of migration method, when deploying critical business tools like unified communications, make sure you work out as many bugs as possible before rolling out to production. Pilot programs are a great way to accomplish this goal. If you choose a small, but wide-ranging spectrum of employees who use UC apps differently, you're most likely to catch problems with hardware, software or configuration settings of your new UC deployment. I've personally worked with midsize and large-size enterprises in cloud and hybrid rollouts. The information gathered from end users at this stage proved invaluable in the final rollout. This is especially true when it comes to fine-tuning specific functions that vary widely from one company to the next.

This was last published in April 2018

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