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Cloud UC Explained

The use of multiple terms that seem to be interchangeably mixed creates a confusing set of options for IT decision makers looking to understand the cloud UC opportunity. How are hosted UC, hybrid cloud UC, and UCaaS the same, and how are they different from each other?

All three service types typically rely on a on a monthly per-user pricing model. Some only support softphones while others allow for use of physical phones, but often from specific vendors. How do the solutions match your business requirements? What kind of questions should you be asking a provider before signing a contract? Let's spend some time examining some of these questions.

Hosted UC
In an email exchange, I asked David Roberts, product management director at Riverbed, about his view of the different services. Hosted UC is fundamentally about who has administrative control, he said. In hosted UC, an organization outsources the communications hardware and the facilities needed to support UC. The service provider runs the hardware, but the organization has ultimate administrative control. So, the organization handles moves, adds, changes, and deletions (MACD), not the service provider. The organization still needs administrative staff and local phone hardware.

Larger organizations that wish to retain most of the administrative functions but want the flexibility of outsourcing the hardware and its administration might prefer a hosted UC implementation. When considering hosted UC, an organization should inquire about how the service provider will handle system upgrades after five years, the typical life of IT equipment.

Because the administrative workload still resides with the customer, larger organizations will find an API essential for reducing the time required to perform MACD functions.

Hybrid Cloud UC
With hybrid cloud UC, some of the hardware and some of the administrative responsibility starts to shift from the customer to the service provider -- thus the hybrid part of the name. A good example is outsourcing remote office UC to a provider while the headquarters is handled by the organization's IT organization. In addition, the service provider handles some system administration, like comprehensive dial plan administration, while the IT organization handles other parts, like MACD. Or the IT organization may use an administrative interface to communicate MACD instructions to the provider. Some of the hybrid UC systems use a local PBX server to provide basic functionality while relying on cloud-based services for functions like collaboration or mobility. This combination of local and cloud service is a hybrid solution.

The hybrid UC solution would be a good match for a medium-tolarge business that wants to outsource most of the hardware and some of the administrative functions. Look for simple admin interfaces that streamline the most frequently used MACD functions.

UC as a Service
UCaaS, typically used by smaller businesses, provides the means to outsource as much of the administration and operation of the phone system as possible. The number of MACD events per year is low enough to be managed by a call to the service provider. This type of system is also beneficial to medium-sized businesses that have multiple offices and would like a common dial plan with in-bound, outbound, inter-office, and intra-office calling. They frequently use softphones, though some providers will have a few models of physical phones available, too.

All of the UC outsourcing services will need connectivity between the business locations and the cloud-resident UC systems. Larger organizations will likely want to use dedicated or MPLS links for guaranteed voice performance. Smaller implementations might depend on Internet connectivity between business sites and the UC cloud systems. Of course, the connectivity between the business and the UC provider should be monitored so that packet loss and congestion are identified before they begin impacting voice quality.

Calling Platforms
A quick review of a large set of UC cloud providers showed a wide variety of supported endpoints. Determine whether your organization needs Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, or Linux operating system support. Do you need to support BYOD, where your employees are bringing their own devices? Do you need softphone support, and if so does the service provider provide it? Are physical phones required, and how many at each location?

Check whether you need to license softphones per user or if the licensing price is built into the monthly cost. Can you use the physical phones you already have, or will you need to deploy and train your employees on a new phone and UC system?

The level of management is going to depend on the type of service that you use. UCaaS tends to be a packaged offering with a Web-based administrative interface with integrated reporting and management.

The hosted UC service, however, is dedicated to a single organization and therefore offers the most flexibility. The organization may be allowed to integrate third-party monitoring and diagnostic systems with the UC service.

Regardless of the type of service, management reports are going to be important for good monitoring and management. Investigate the type of reports you can produce or request the service provider to deliver. Do the reports include a Top-N call quality report that shows calls with the highest latency, jitter, and loss? Monitoring a call quality report on a weekly basis makes it possible to identify locations that have on-going call quality problems, even if the employees at those sites don't report it.

Learn More
We noticed a trend in the last two Enterprise Connect conferences in which attendees were interested in learning more about cloud-based UC. As a result, at Enterprise Connect 2017, we are including two sessions to provide answers to many of the questions we were hearing. The first session, "Deployment Strategies for Cloud-Based UC," consists of panelists from UCaaS service providers who will answer questions about connectivity, design decisions, technologies involved, and the differences among offerings. The second session, "Tools and Methods for Managing Hybrid Cloud Communications (UCaaS)," is a panel of tool vendor subject matter experts who will help us understand what tools, management, and monitoring mechanisms are applicable to cloud UC. We hope to see you there.

Learn more about cloud communications trends and technologies at Enterprise Connect 2017, March 27 to 30, in Orlando, Fla. View the Cloud Communications track, and register now using the code NOJITTER to receive $300 off an Entire Event pass or a free Expo Plus pass.