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Like many other technological advances over the past decade, the unified communications-as-a-service (UCaaS) market has experienced a speedy revolution as suppliers seek to pull in customers with shiny new features.
Legacy unified communications (UC) systems are already being phased out and replaced by cloud-delivered UCaaS.
According to Gartner, by 2021, 90% of all new UC purchases will be cloud-based UCaaS, up from 50% in 2018. Current predictions from IDC suggest that by 2020, half of all businesses will be using UCaaS services in some way.
According to Dale Vile, CEO and distinguished analyst at analyst firm Freeform Dynamics, the legacy UC market changed when Microsoft entered the market over a decade ago.
“Suddenly, UC became more of a cross-sell from email, messaging and other forms of collaboration,” he says.
“OCS [office communication server] was a natural add-on to the on-premise Microsoft Exchange and SharePoint environment, though lots of early implementations suffered from lack of attention to underlying network requirements,” he adds.
Before long, the original UC players were forming relationships with Microsoft and IBM in some very large accounts.
Vile says this background is important to bear in mind when considering the UCaaS market today.
“The conversation needs to go beyond the commonly cited benefits – move from capex [capital expenditure] to opex [operational expenditure], general lowering of costs, secure remote-access baked in, and ease of management together with increased flexibility. Such benefits of the as-a-service model are now generally well-understood,” he adds.
But why should businesses embrace UCaaS, and what benefits will it bring?
In essence, UCaaS offers communication and collaboration services via the cloud, accessible from any device. It brings together functions such as voice and telephony, meeting solutions, messaging, presence and instant messaging in a single package. Businesses pay for what they use.
The main benefit of UCaaS is that there is instant connectivity across devices allowing teams to continue working seamlessly.
“Beyond this, UCaaS offers both reliability and security by creating performance redundancies that protect against downtime,” says Sukamal Banerjee, corporate vice-president and head of IoT WoRKS at HCL Technologies.
“With data backed up over cloud, it keeps the business running, even in extreme situations, while service providers have measures in place to monitor networks for known threats and potential vulnerabilities.”
Vile says that UCaaS is probably best considered as part of a broader workforce-enablement strategy.
“With the continued increase in mobile and distributed working, together with the growing need to collaborate across organisational boundaries, the ‘as-as-service’ model is looking more and more attractive,” he says.
Getting the right UCaaS in your business
Vile says that the big question for buyers right now is how to scope requirements.
“Do you take a best-of-breed approach and separate the various components, or jump in and commit to one of the all-encompassing collaboration suites? Each has its pros and cons,” he says.
“Office 365 is comprehensive, but very complex with arguably too much in it for any single organisation to digest. Google’s G-Suite, on the other hand, still feels like a work in progress in relation to real-time collaboration, while alliance-based propositions often have gaps and disjoints.
“You could stay focused on the purely comms side of the equation, but that’s not where the market – or business users – are headed.”
Vile adds that the bottom line when considering providers is that businesses need to look at where they’ve come from – Office, customer relationship management (CRM), or call centre, for example – and who is using them today, and particularly the industries, organisation sizes and use cases with which they are aligned.
“They all have their target constituencies and their good and bad points. They also each have their own world view, and that has to fit with yours,” he says.
The pros and cons of different UCaaS offerings
As with all technology, UCaaS offerings are different from company to company and product to product.
Banerjee says there are three choices when it comes to UCaaS: single-tenancy, multi tenancy and the hybrid approach.
He says that single tenancy offers a customised software platform that connects to the on-premise system and/or applications.
“Though it is the more expensive solution, with the upgrade cost usually borne by the customer, it offers a higher level of security by keeping each customer’s data separate, so that downtime for one customer does not affect the other,” he says.
With multi-tenancy UCaaS technologies, software is hosted in the cloud at the service provider datacentre, and not locally. In this setup, all the UCaaS customers share a single software platform.
“The key advantages are lower cost, higher reliability and better support services – including provisioning of software upgrades. The major disadvantage of multi-tenancy, however, is that it offers fewer options for customisation,” says Banerjee.
The hybrid approach can provide the middle ground. Hybrid UCaaS systems are often the best choice for companies that already have a legacy system in use and want to transition to a cloud-based UCaaS, according to Banerjee.
“This approach is also used by enterprises that want to keep their data secure in a single-tenant environment, while still taking advantage of a multi-tenancy system,” he adds.
Before you implement
Before implementing a UCaaS technology in your organisation, it is important to understand the needs of your business before implementing any technology.
But UCaaS – thanks to the as-a-service model – is very simple to roll out, according to Sunny Dhami, senior director of product marketing and go-to-market for RingCentral.
“As there is no need for a huge overhaul, companies can bring-in a UCaaS product and potentially have it up and running very quickly, especially compared to on-premise systems. The product can then be integrated with a wide range of applications, including Google, Microsoft Office and Salesforce products,” he says.
Banerjee says that having a realistic plan is also essential, since moving to cloud-based UCaaS requires time and money.
“Set a realistic expectation about your ROI [return on investment], and accept that there will be a learning curve as employees and the organisation adjust to the new system,” he says.
“Choosing a reliable partner can help with this. Many managed service providers specialise in UCaaS, cloud and other emerging technologies, and can bring extensive experience in UCaaS implementation through best practices and tested frameworks.”
According to Bryan Martin, chairman and CTO at 8x8, when it comes to implementing UCaaS in an organisation, a number of steps need to be carried out.
First is to perform a site and user survey to determine networking and bandwidth requirements to understand the varying personas in the organisation so you can match them to the right user license.
There also needs to a plotting out of future call flows. Numbers have to be ported to the new UCaaS provider, then there is desk phone installation, as well as testing the system and the network.
There also has to be training of admins and users, especially on modern features such as accessing your business communications from any mobile device.
“When you’re looking for a UCaaS partner, ask them about their process for setup and implementation – you can normally gauge from the amount of detail you receive whether this is going to be a smooth experience with that supplier,” says Martin.
“During this stage, make sure to request a dedicated project manager who will coordinate the work across the supplier and your team during the transition. This will help keep your team informed of how the project is evolving in a timely fashion.”
He adds that organisations should take advantage of user training opportunities to encourage adoption of new features across the organisation.
The future of UCaaS
Martin says that over the next 12 to 18 months, workforce mobility, video and chat will be as relevant as voice.
“Today’s workforce expects to be able to work from any location at any time, which sets a high bar for enterprise IT teams to deliver against. We expect to see more suppliers that can deliver a location and device-agnostic, integrated suite of video, chat and voice products that empower the workforce of tomorrow,” he says.
Banerjee says that with technologies such as virtual reality, augmented reality and 5G gaining popularity among consumers, their entry into enterprise UC is the first of many steps towards a different kind of workplace.
“Voice assistants are already being explored for doing simple tasks like controlling your telepresence systems, joining meetings and retrieving documents,” he adds.
Dhami says that in the next 18 months we’re going to see AI continue to be more embedded within UCaaS in the same way that the technology is appearing in contact centres.
“As more aspects of UCaaS become automated, we’ll see products develop in a new and interesting ways, making platforms even more appealing to businesses,” he says.
Read more about UC
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- Many elements can put your UC network at risk, from unsecured information to DoS attacks. Learn five ways to thwart would-be attacks and protect your UC services.
- Automation and AI are increasingly prevalent in unified comms, but do enterprises really need it?