UC in the Cloud – Panacea or placebo?

Separating fact from fiction in a cloud-based unified communications deployment

This vendor-written tech primer has been edited by Network World to eliminate product promotion, but readers should note it will likely favor the submitter’s approach.

The forecast for unified communications (UC) in the cloud seems bright with clear skies ahead.

According to Transparency Market Research, UCaaS (Unified Communications as a Service) is expected to reach nearly $38 billion by 2022 with an impressive compound annual growth rate of over 23%.

And while the benefits of UCaaS have been well documented, it is important to note that simply putting UC in the cloud does not ensure a highly functional, highly available enterprise communications platform that end users will readily adopt.

To truly realize the optimal UC end state – one where old PBXs are decommissioned and dial-in contracts are no longer necessary – enterprises must come to the realization that cloud is just one small piece of the bigger UC puzzle, despite what Microsoft and other UC vendors may profess.

IT departments would be advised to take into account multiple facets of their IT infrastructure that are at least equal to, if not more important than the cloud, in order to build a thriving UC environment. So let’s break down the cloud hype.

Cloud – The 15% UC solution

As Zig Serafin, corporate vice president of Microsoft’s Skype Business Services, stated at Enterprise Connect 2016, users expect a seamless experience when it comes to day-to-day communications. They don’t view video and voice as distinct or separate entities. Rather, “they're thinking about one infrastructure that people use for different modalities”, and “…are expecting a mobility of experience across whatever devices they're using.”

To facilitate this kind of freedom of communication requires a holistic, end-to-end UC solution. Whether or not the UC infrastructure itself resides in the cloud is only one part of a complex equation. UC environments are comprised of highly interdependent systems that rely on the availability and stability of multiple technologies, including endpoint devices, corporate data networks, telephony gateways, TDM services, server infrastructure, the public Internet, and willing end users.

By viewing the UC ecosystem across this full spectrum, it becomes clear that the cloud is not a cure-all. Despite the aggressive efforts by UCaaS vendors (which now include Microsoft) to market and sell the Cloud PBX as the current, hip place to be, enterprises should pause and heed some clear-headed analysis before proceeding. Choosing to place UC in the cloud is likely only a 15% solution, at best. So what about the remaining 85 percent?

The other 85%

Engineering a UC infrastructure is a challenging undertaking. Not only does it require technical expertise in UC architecture, but the success of the project is contingent upon the collaboration and cooperation of other IT teams whose technologies greatly impact UC voice quality, service availability and end-user satisfaction. When the cloud enters the equation, there are additional factors to consider.

* Networking: Successful UC solutions depend on proper network planning. Putting UC in the cloud adds complexity to this environment. Instead of a traditional corporate network environment, IT must now extend the network to the cloud, and have the right bandwidth provisioning and settings in place to prioritize voice traffic. Enabling this capability isn’t impossible to do, but it requires a significant amount of work and commitment of IT resources to account for new traffic flows, QoS configurations and service contracts.

* UC Management: When UC is in the cloud and the CIO experiences a bad call, who takes the heat? While you’d like to think it’s the UCaaS provider, in actuality it’s IT. End-to-end call quality is comprised of many components, of which the cloud is only one part. Ultimately, it’s the responsibility of IT to ensure the stability and availability of the enterprise’s entire UC network. To effectively manage service delivery, IT must have the right tools, metrics and visibility in place for total management of the UC service, including visibility into the cloud. This scenario of a CIO escalation is a common one.  Smart preparation in the form of UC-specific monitoring software and/or services can help IT act fast and decrease the potential for surprises in the UC environment, even when it’s in the cloud.

* Existing Infrastructure: It’s easy and probably advisable for a green field company to begin their UC experience in the cloud. Unfortunately, large enterprises don’t have the luxury to throw UC in the cloud, and ignore the existing hardware and infrastructure that resides across hundreds, if not thousands, of sites and office locations around the world. Decommissioning and re-provisioning hardware is no simple task. In this scenario, enterprises can benefit from a tenured UC expert to help transform sites to UC on an accelerated and strategically planned timeline.

* End User Adoption: The promise of UC is predicated on end user adoption. Think about people in your organization – managers, executive assistants and sales reps – who rely on email, phone and IM communication for their day-to-day livelihoods. These users are set in the ways they communicate, and expect to conduct business as usual no matter what platform is in place. There’s a common misconception that, because IT can put accounts in the cloud quickly, user transformation to the new service will also happen as quickly. However, transitioning users from a traditional PBX system to a UC solution is easier said than done. End user training often ends up being one of the most underestimated elements of UC deployments, whether on-premise or cloud. When it’s overlooked, user adoption suffers which can lead to unrealized cost savings and failed deployments.

* Security and Regulatory Compliance: Taking UC to the cloud adds levels of complexity for data security and regulatory compliance. Some countries, like Germany, have strict rules on where cloud datacenters can be physically located, complicating service delivery for cloud vendors looking to take on multi-national customers. In the case of financial institutions, banks often require additional security software to sit on top of their UC environments to provide auditing and increased levels of corporate firewalling. Added to all of this is the heavily regulated telephony industry with its vast number of local laws and governances. Whereas traditional telephony vendors have years of experience working with these regulatory bodies in many local markets, cloud UC vendors are starting from scratch in most cases. This is a major hurdle for UCaaS providers with implications across tens of thousands of municipalities worldwide.

When it’s all said and done, UC and the cloud have a promising future together. UCaaS can reduce UC costs, accelerate UC provisioning, simplify UC usage and adoption, increase UC collaboration with other applications, and improve UC for the remote worker. However, enterprises must proceed with care and understand that UC transformations are complex undertakings no matter where the user account is homed.  It takes more than just the cloud to have a successful UC environment. But if you plan accordingly, blue skies await.

Shen leads the Unify Square Consulting and Success Services practice, and brings over 10 years of Microsoft experience as a senior program manager in the Mobility, Networking and Office Communications Server groups. Alan is a regular speaker at Microsoft Skype for Business technical events, including Microsoft Ignite, TechReady, Enterprise Connect and TechEd.

 

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