By now, the promises of unified communications (UC) are pretty well established. The technology purports to reduce ‘human latency’ – the delay that results from employing several disparate communications methods – therefore increasing the time your employees spend doing actual work.
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Now that sounds great. But what if you can’t spare the staff necessary to run a UC system? It’s not a trivial question: it takes a good degree of knowledge and experience to handle the equipment and its management software, and many Australian companies just don’t have the resources.
For many, the happy answer is “get someone else to do it”. This is the principle behind managed UC. For a fee, a service provider can take charge of your UC system, making sure things run smoothly and making any necessary adjustments to hardware and software as time goes on.
Some organisations take the idea a step further, outsourcing their entire UC operation – including equipment – by embracing UC as offered through the cloud. They eschew UC servers and other CPE altogether, instead paying a service provider a monthly fee for remote access to UC applications.
Let’s take a look at these two ideas, how they differ and what they can each offer.
Managed on-premises UC
On-premises UC systems all start out the same way. First of all you employ a vendor or systems integrator to install a set of UC equipment, into either your place of business or your data centre. They’ll put plugs in sockets, connect wires and hopefully unify your communications.
Once everything’s installed, you have the option of handling management duties in house. One of your IT staff will be using the management tool that shipped with your UC system, configuring and making changes as needed.
Mark Magill, from UC equipment vendor Alcatel-Lucent, explains: “The management tool is a graphical user interface application that’s designed to allow easy and efficient management of the entire environment – whether it’s the UC or the IP telephony platform.
“So if you’ve got a highly skilled IT guy that’s maybe got some voice background and understands what he’s doing, then he could use this tool himself.”
Alternatively, you could contract a third party to manage your UC system. This third party could be your vendor, one of their partners or someone else entirely. And according to Magill, this outsourcing of management is fairly common.
“Generally our business model to date has seen customers buy management or maintenance from our business partners – it’s generally part of the model – but that’s not mandatory in any way,” he says.
It’s worth noting that this administrative service is an entirely separate product from the initial installation, one that you can pick up or drop as needed. So if you deploy a UC system with a view to managing it yourself, but soon find management too much of a chore, you could outsource it to a third party. Six months later, if you’ve brought on some extra IT staff, you could cancel the management service and bring it in house.
The pricing for outsourced UC management generally takes the form of a monthly fee, on top of whatever else you’re already paying. So all up, you’re forking out for hardware, installation, design, licences, any line-leasing, some other bits and pieces, and then the administration fee.
Note that you’re just paying for someone to administer your UC system – you’ll still have to pay for any equipment or software upgrades that take your fancy. So if a revision of your UC software comes out a year after implementation and it has a great feature you want, you’ll be reaching for your wallet. However, some vendors will pass updates your way as they are released, if you pay an optional up-front fee.
Similarly, if you decide that you need videoconferencing licences for another 50 staff, you’ll have to pay for those extra licences. When you outsource management, that’s really all you get: management.
Who is it for? According to Magill, outsourced UC management is a good fit for companies that want the benefits of UC but don’t have IT staff with the specialised skills required to manage a UC system.
Magill says that in reality, this skills gap boils down to a difference in company size: large companies are more likely to have IT staff with specialist UC skills than small or medium-sized companies.
Conversely, he says, companies of 1000 employees or more tend to have larger IT departments featuring telephony specialists, and usually want to manage their UC systems themselves.
Cloud-based UC – also known as network-based UC – offers the same benefits as CPE-based systems, but delivers them as services through the network. Service providers run these services from their own UC hardware, meaning customers don’t need to deploy UC servers of their own.
As such, cloud-based UC services can be seen as an extension of managed UC – but instead of outsourcing just administration, you also outsource the investment in equipment.
Telstra Enterprise Group (TEG) offers both on-premises UC and a cloud-based service. According to the company’s Paul Geason, the two delivery methods offer the same applications, so you’re deriving the same productivity benefits regardless of which delivery method you choose.
“The user experience is actually much the same, depending on exactly what’s been deployed in the organisation,” Geason says.
The pricing of cloud-based UC services is simpler than that of on-premises solutions. While premises-based systems involve a mix of up-front and ongoing costs for hardware, upgrade and administration, cloud-based services tend to involve just a monthly fee. This fee is based on the applications you want and the number of users that require them.
So while premises-based solutions entail a capital expenditure and a recurring operating expenditure, cloud-based services involve only operational expenditure. This provides a degree of flexibility, and a good deal less risk. So if you use a cloud-based service for six months and then decide you’ve had enough, you can simply cancel the service. Things will be as they were prior to adopting the service, and you won’t have any costly UC equipment sitting unused in your data centre, or under your receptionist’s desk.
As Orange Business Solutions’ Stephen Edwards points out, this sort of flexibility is particularly relevant in the current economic climate. The company’s clients have increasingly focused on this ability to move capital expenditure into operational expenditure.
“There’s been a shift in conversations recently moving away from end-state visions to cost savings, as everyone’s more wallet conscious,” Edwards says.
So cloud-based UC offers the same productivity enhancements as on-premises solutions, is more convenient and carries less risk. If cloud-based UC is so great, why would you ever deploy a premises-based UC system?
Cloud-based UC customers aren’t just moving CAPEX into OPEX – they’re also paying a premium for the extra conveniences. Just how much of a premium they’re paying depends on the deal they’ve struck with their service provider.
TEG’s Geason explains: “If a customer’s prepared to take a longer-term view on the value of CPE, and they’re prepared to write it down over longer periods, that can obviously have an impact on the return on investment.”
But a pure ROI analysis doesn’t give the full picture, Geason says. Workers that would have been looking after the UC deployment can be reassigned to other duties, increasing overall productivity.
Who is it for? According to Geason, cloud-based UC systems are a good fit for companies with several branch offices.
“Instead of having to install expensive CPE or routing equipment in each branch, you can simply bundle up an access service and literally the only CPE requirement for those branches’ office would be the phones themselves,” he says.
But if your entire company fits under the one roof, you might be better off with a CPE-based system.
Cloud-based UC could also be suitable if you don’t want to make a capital investment in a technology you’re not sure about – an investment that on-premises UC systems demand.
On the other hand, if you have oodles of capital and a bunch of UC specialists sitting around doing nothing, you’ll probably save a few dollars by bringing UC management in house.
Of course, few real-world companies are as black and white as these examples. For more complicated deployments, there is the option of a hybrid system. Some businesses – such as banks – have a corporate HQ and a bunch of smaller branches. Geason says these businesses should install CPE into the large corporate HQ and run network-based services into the branch offices, providing the best of both worlds.
As always, business needs should dictate adoption of technology.