Like most emerging technologies, the definition of unified communications (UC) is a bit of a moving target, evolving as new capabilities and modes of interaction are added to the mix. But generally, we can define it as:
“…the integration of real-time enterprise communication services such as instant messaging (chat), presence information, voice (including IP telephony), mobility features (including extension mobility and single number reach), audio, web & video conferencing, fixed-mobile convergence (FMC), desktop sharing, data sharing (including web connected electronic interactive whiteboards), call control and speech recognition with non-real-time communication services such as unified messaging (integrated voicemail, e-mail, SMS and fax).”
Whew. So clearly, UC is not necessarily a single product, but a set of products that provides a consistent, unified user-interface and user-experience across multiple devices and media-types. When UC is supplied via a partner via the cloud, it becomes Unified Communications-as-a-service, or UCaaS.
Because of its strong ROI and positive impact on critical processes, deploying a UCaaS solution should be near the top of CIO priorities lists. This is true for organizations across the size and complexity spectrum and adoption is clearly in full swing as the technology has moved well into the mainstream. Before deploying, however, organizations should carefully consider:
- Budgetary Issues: A hosted solution minimizes the capital expense outlay required to deploy the UC solution and increases operating expense through a monthly recurring charge. Depending on the organization, a bias toward or away from CapEx means conflicts with this OpEx cost approach need to be fully explored and resolved.
- Deployment and Utilization Timelines: Hosted Communications and Collaboration solutions can be deployed relatively quickly, given the lack of infrastructure that must be deployed, tested and optimized. Reaching full integration and utilization, however, can take longer unless a specific plan is prepared to drive early adoption. Only then can the full benefits of UC be realized.
- Operational and management skill-set gaps: Managing communications used to be very simple. Systems were self-contained and relatively straightforward, but offered no flexibility. Today’s systems offer significantly more power and potential but require a new operational skill set for IT – if only on the vendor management side, in the case of a hosted solution.
1. UCaaS is More Flexible
Historically, communications infrastructure has been deployed on a node-by-node basis.
Each individual location had its own PBX, voicemail and features. As organizations migrate to IP-based communications, they often replicate this model; however, this limits the flexibility of deployment.
Organizations used to deploy CPE-based solutions on a location-by-location basis. While this met the needs of the specific location, it made it difficult to distribute applications to users on the outside. This is problematic if department personnel are located in different offices, parts of the country or regions of the globe. As organizations try to get geographically dispersed teams to collaborate for competitive advantage, effective distribution of applications becomes critical.
For example, an organization may have a collaborative application, such as Web conferencing, which they want used by a highly distributed staff. With a premises-based solution, the long rollout process to different locations would mean some of the staff members would be using the new tool and some would not — creating inconsistencies for the entire team.
A hosted solution provides the ultimate in deployment flexibility. The solution can reach any staff member, in any location, on any device, over all networks. This means the deployment strategy will no longer need to be structured around the limitations of the technology. Instead the company can choose to deploy whichever applications will benefit the organization most to whatever group of users they choose to, when they desire.
2. Hosted UC Offers Simplified Administration
One of the more difficult challenges in managing any kind of premises-based application is scaling management functions and administrative tasks. These are tasks such as setting up new users, making changes to user profiles, updating features, and application software patches.
With a premises-based solution, many of these tasks may need to be repeated a number of times based on how the deployment is structured. For example, the simple task of applying a patch to the system in an organization with 50 locations could mean doing that specific task 50 times. This significantly increases the chance of human error or misconfiguration, let alone time and resource use.
Another difficulty is managing client-side software. If the user’s application is local to the endpoint, each end point may need to be upgraded to enable a new feature. This is why some organizations can spend months going through software upgrades and will often pass on minor software upgrades. The administrative burden outweighs the user productivity benefits.
With a hosted solution, all administrative and management tasks are centralized, so the administrator can perform tasks once and have confidence that the result will be complete organization-wide. In addition, because hosted solutions often use a Web browser for the user interface, the frequency of upgrades for a user device is minimal.
Centralization of management and administrative tasks can save companies hundreds of hours over the traditional distributed model.
3. Rapid Deployment of Unified Communications
The legacy distributed deployment model meant organizations could spend months rolling out new applications or feature upgrades to its user population. IT needed to load the new feature set to each location, and then test independently.
With a hosted solution, a new feature or application can be made available to the enterprise as soon as the service provider makes it available, so the organization can roll it out on their own schedule. Ultimately the organization can be as aggressive as it wants, allowing it to respond to its needs and environment on a schedule that makes sense for them.
The upside of a hosted, or cloud-based, solution continues to expand as the number of deployments increases and the time that these solutions are in the field lengthens. So here are two more benefits that organizations are able to leverage to their continuing advantage.
2 Bonus Benefits of Hosted UC
1. Improved Continuity & Disaster Recovery
Disasters can strike at any moment. Natural disasters, power outages or even manmade problems can strike without notice, making any particular location, the resources in it, or people located at it, unavailable. Ensuring communications and collaboration applications are continuously available to workers wherever they are, using whatever equipment they have, over any network connection needs to be of the utmost importance. Often, collaboration tools are used to communicate with external groups and partners, meaning any unavailability could result in a significant negative outcome.
Since a hosted solution is not tied to any particular location, individuals can access them over whatever infrastructure using any device, whether the physical location is available or not. This can greatly simplify an organization’s operational continuity plan: The alternative would mean having to build a redundant data center with infrastructure that must be continually maintained and tested. Additionally, a hosted communications solution obviates the need for a dedicated, physical disaster recovery location, so that in a disaster, staff can function anywhere - including from a home office.
2. Increased UC Technology Agility
True organizational agility can only be achieved with an agile IT infrastructure. For organizations to meet their larger goals, CIOs need to be able to respond faster and with projects completed on time. In one recent study, ZK Research has found 90 percent of IT projects are delivered late or cancelled altogether, which can have a tremendous ripple effect. Nowhere is this truer than with collaboration applications. A robust collaboration solution allows organizations to streamline core processes and create new ones that provide information to more staff and stakeholders faster and more accurately.
A hosted collaboration solution provides a stable, rock-solid collaboration foundation. CIOs can respond to organization leaders immediately and deliver the project on time. Instead of having to say “no” or “not yet,” a hosted solution allows the CIO to say “yes” and the company can have the solution when required.
Agility also takes the form of rapidly responding to changes in demand driven by factors like seasonality, disruptions in the normal process cycle, or through operational consolidation. Given their nature, hosted communications solutions can respond very, very quickly. Need another 100 users added to the system? No problem. Need to reduce the number by 500 after Memorial Day? Again, not a problem. This agility means that organizations don’t have to overbuy capacity based on peak use projections. Better to turn those resources into more productive outputs rather than excess and unnecessary IT spending.
The jury is in and hosted unified communications solutions outperform premises-based solutions across a number of critical dimensions. Cost, capability, flexibility, agility – the list goes on. Chances are, the key performance criteria that drives your organization’s decision making is similarly impacted by the advent of hosted, or cloud-based, solutions. The first step is to simply learn more, having conversations with key industry players, so you can clearly identify the ways in which unified communications can best be deployed for your organization.