Unified Communications in the cloud

Unified communications (UC) as we know it today is flawed. The initial investment is simply too high for the return, partly due to the cost of each component and the fact you need gateway servers and software to tie the disparate systems together. Even then there's no guarantee the products will play nicely with one another, meaning you have to add a line item to the budget for troubleshooting.

Enter cloud-based UC, a solution that is fully integrated before deployment and can be beneficial for companies of all sizes, not just massive enterprises with matching budgets.

But first, what exactly makes up UC? There are many options but most industry watchers agree that at the heart lies a messaging or e-mail solution. The standard UC makeup adds instant messaging (IM), presence awareness and telephony (normally in the form of VoIP) on top of the messaging component. A true UC composition, however, should also include file services, SharePoint (or another collaboration solution), voicemail integration –– like what you would find with Outlook Voice Access for Microsoft Exchange –– and potentially Web conferencing.

So UC is often comprised of seven services, but most companies typically have only two or three of these that are actually engaged and integrated. For in-house IT departments, getting more integrated can be challenging, requiring staging/operating budgets as well as a full-time staff –– and that doesn't even deliver half of what UC can be.

Cloud-based UC relieves this burden from IT, providing a package that works regardless of internal infrastructure or staffing. Through the cloud, a bundle of services can be purchased and, aside from activating a VoIP phone service, be up and active within an hour.

Obviously the benefits of UC are numerous –– the enhancements to collaboration, flexibility and efficiency have been well documented. What is not often discussed are the benefits of UC-in-the-cloud compared with an in-house operation.

Cost is an area where cloud-based UC shines. It offers incredible cost savings when compared to in-house, thanks in large part to eliminating the need for hardware, software and licenses. Alongside the reduced need for hardware and software, staffing costs can be easily managed, as cloud UC doesn't require a large team of internal experts to deal with upgrades or maintenance, all of this is handled by the service provider and is included in the monthly cost of the UC service.

Add to this the fact that cloud-based UC provides the same redundancy we have come to expect from a cloud service (think Amazon EC2 or OpSource), and it looks like in-house solutions are not even playing on the same field. And this is before you factor that UC in the cloud offers greater geo-diversity. With more companies turning to dispersed staffing systems as well as remote consultants/freelancers, the ability to make sure all employees have access to communication solutions is imperative while the inherent redundancy of the cloud increases reliability and prevents data loss during outages.

There are, however, a few things to be aware of before committing.

First is that cloud-based UC services are offered as “all or nothing.” It is usually difficult and expensive (if possible at all) to bring your current e-mail and/or phone service to a cloud provider and “mix and match” these technologies with new cloud services for a hybrid UC approach.

In a way, it makes sense that cloud providers will not integrate with pre-existing in-house technologies –– they've already done the heavy lifting by creating an integrated UC bundle that works perfectly with industry “best of breed” technologies. Why would they jeopardize their offering just so you can keep your current business VoIP solution?

Despite this, the good news is that most providers offering cloud-based UC offer the widely accepted standards of Exchange and SharePoint, so it's not like your organization would be switching to an unproven technology for UC.

Secondly, outages can still be an issue as they are for any service. The cloud is not infallible, as Google's downtime experiences demonstrate. In theory, with a cloud-based solution a company should never be totally out of the communications game due to the sheer number of separate functions (if e-mail is down, VoIP may still be up and so on). The only “cloud killer” would be if Internet connectivity is lost – there’s just no way around that.

Another concern around UC-in-the-cloud is bandwidth. Companies need to have fat pipes so all of the services function properly at the same time. The bigger the bandwidth, the better. Bandwidth not only helps speed up the delivery of the UC services, but can also combat some common problems with VoIP, like “tinny” voices.

Bandwidth is a serious consideration when it comes to UC in the cloud, so if your Internet provider is unreliable or struggles with high data loads, you should consider investing in a faster Internet circuit, implementing a QoS router, or other alternatives to cloud-based UC.

Moving e-mail, Instant Messaging, voice, collaboration and presence awareness to the cloud and ultimately into a single “package” not only eases cost burdens, but enables UC to live up to its promise –– a simple, streamlined solution for employees to effectively communicate with one another across multiple channels and devices.

Hosted UC ensures the necessary messaging components are in place and integrated properly, not collecting dust in a server room waiting for another costly upgrade or troubleshooting session.

Additionally, taking UC to the cloud allows all businesses, regardless of size, to enjoy the flexibility and production improvement of unified communications, benefits previously only available to enterprises that could afford integrated in-house systems and upkeep.

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