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Hybrid Cloud: Best or Worst of Both Worlds?

Depending on who you talk to, hybrid cloud for business communications can be the best deployment option or a total waste of time and money.
Vendors offering pure-cloud solutions believe that hybrid cloud only delays the inevitable full migration to the cloud, while vendors offering hybrid solutions (generally those with legacy premises-based systems) claim that it offers benefits that pure-cloud solutions can’t provide. Is hybrid cloud the best or the worst of both worlds? The answer is, “It depends.”
Consensus on what “hybrid cloud” actually means is hard to find, as each vendor offers its own definition based on available capabilities -- this also means “hybrid cloud services” come in many variations. In general, hybrid cloud means that some services or elements are on-prem, while some are in the cloud. For some vendors, hybrid means that a segment of the organization is using cloud services while others are using on-prem equipment (e.g., the headquarters may be using a premises-based PBX while branch offices are in the cloud). Others view hybrid as having the core PBX functionality on-prem while unified communications applications such as conferencing and collaboration or contact center applications, for example, are provided as cloud services. However, depending on how this is deployed, this latter may simply be a mix and match of on-prem and cloud applications, and that may or may not be considered hybrid, depending on the specific deployment.
While the term “hybrid” has become rather nebulous, a true hybrid architecture should deliver a single user experience on a single dial plan. Several companies offer such hybrid solutions. For example, Mitel touts a hybrid service that “delivers the resiliency, control and availability of an on-premises, hardware-based phone system with the immediacy, ease and flexibility of virtual PBX applications delivered from the cloud.” Avaya also offers a hybrid option with its Avaya IP Office Hybrid Cloud; it says this solution “can protect any existing investments [a customer has] made in on-premises solutions by choosing to deploy only a few areas of their business into the cloud initially, then increasing slowly as and when it is most beneficial for them to do so.”
Pros and Cons -- From the Pros
There are clear advantages and disadvantages when it comes to the hybrid model for business communications, and organizations migrating to the cloud need to think carefully about what approach makes the most sense.
  • Hybrid cloud helps protect existing on-prem investments, especially if the organization’s PBX isn’t fully depreciated. Hybrid is also a good option for regulated businesses or those that may require some part of their business communications systems to be on-prem due to security concerns. There may be use cases or User Profiles, as my colleague Marty Parker points out, that can’t move to the cloud (e.g., turret users, contact center users, certain types of mobile users with radio system integrations, highly secure profiles) even though it makes sense to move the rest of the organization to a cloud UC service.
  • The hybrid model is often seen as a convenient way to transition to the cloud from premises-based systems gradually, without having to rip and replace legacy equipment. For many organizations, migrating to the cloud is a journey and a flash cut isn’t possible. Using a hybrid architecture eases the cloud migration.
There are several challenges with the hybrid model, although these depend on which flavor of hybrid is in use.
  • Cost -- hybrid solutions often cost more, with duplicative spending required to support an on-prem and a cloud product.
  • Management -- Managing a mixed on-prem/cloud environment is more difficult than either all on-prem or all cloud. Different security and administration models can create confusion and more work, as the IT staff may still have to administer two or more different systems. As one colleague noted, there are subtle differences between how compliance, security, and permission rights are handled whether on-prem or in cloud, and administrators need to smooth out the differences.
  • Features -- hybrid cloud platforms may offer fewer capabilities than their on-prem counterparts. While all vendors aspire to have feature parity between their cloud, hybrid, and on-prem systems, one version is always ahead or different from the others. Functionality differences create different user experiences and the functionality on each system doesn’t align, which means that people working together can be on different systems without feature parity.
Hybrid huh?
In addition to multiple definitions of what hybrid means, there’s also confusion due to the fact that some people view hybrid cloud simply as a migration approach, rather than an architectural platform option. In other words, hybrid in some cases is a marketing term that has no real meat behind it.
The bottom line is that organizations moving to the cloud need to think about where they are today, and where they want to be tomorrow.
There are different hybrid models and approaches, so what makes sense in one scenario doesn’t make sense in another. Are you looking to preserve existing investments? Or are you looking for the most efficient way to move to the cloud? Is a hybrid architecture the end goal due to security or regulatory issues, or simply an intermediary step along the way to a full cloud deployment? Do your business communications decisions align with the organization’s broader digital transformation initiatives and the organization’s shift to the cloud?
For some organizations, a hybrid cloud approach may be the most practical. For others, it may be best to go all-in on cloud. Whichever option you choose, make sure it’s what’s right for your organization’s needs today and tomorrow.
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Blair is writing on behalf of the BCStrategies, an industry resource for enterprises, vendors, system integrators, and anyone interested in the growing business communications arena. A supplier of objective information on business communications, BCStrategies is supported by an alliance of leading communication industry advisors, analysts, and consultants who have worked in the various segments of the dynamic business communications market.