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EC13 Report: Cloud Services

This is the second in a four-part series covering some of the major trends I saw at Enterprise Connect Orlando. On Friday I covered Virtualization; tomorrow's topic will be Mobility, and Wednesday's will be the Conference Room Experience.

Cloud Services
Cloud services are popping up everywhere, reflecting the lower barrier to entry for those who want to become a service provider. There are currently several hundred Managed Service Providers (MSPs) that provide voice and video conferencing services. The market is very fragmented and the barrier to entry is relatively low, so players are trying to differentiate themselves by supporting multiple vendors, solving interoperability issues, and gaining critical mass, In addition to AVI-SPL, I met with AGT, which differentiates itself through offering software-based MCU in the cloud and offering management of video endpoints.

More and more vendors across the industry are trying to make it even easier to become an MSP--by building infrastructure for running their applications in the cloud, and by encouraging their distributors to become MSPs and resell the service. As bonus, the vendors provide management tools so that the freshly baked MSPs can measure usage and charge end users for services month by month.

The cloud allows some traditional on-premise vendors to address very small customers that cannot really afford an on-premise solution. Interactive Intelligence announced its Communications as a Service (CaaS) offering called Small Center, targeting 10-50 agents--and promising unrestricted growth up to 5,000 agents without platform change. This is adding fresh competition to Five 9, a pure-play cloud call center offering.

On the video side, Magor is repositioning itself away from telepresence and towards being a visual communication infrastructure vendor. Its new Aerus cloud service leverages sophisticated routing algorithms to enable new collaboration models, away from the traditional "endpoints calling into the bridge" model.

Since these offerings rely on Internet best effort service, some industry analysts warn against it, while others embrace the Internet quality. Unified Office is taking a different approach, focusing on engineered quality for customers (small businesses with 5-75 employees) that need more than best-effort. Unified Office installs a TCN (Total Connect Now service) box on customer premise to measure QOS and analyze IP networking problems; then works with IP networking service providers to resolve issues. Unified Office also uses an open source SBC based on Asterisk that connects to multiple SIP trunking providers and routes calls based on network quality. This reminds me of the Least Cost Routing function in PBXs; however, Unified Office does not look at cost, just network quality.

The big question is "Why do vendors roll out their own cloud services?" One school of thought is that vendors waited for service providers to develop scalable services and since this did not happen, decided to try it themselves (although it is clear that running a service is very different from making products). Another school of thought is that it is just everyone in the industry looking for room for growth by experimenting with new business models, even risking competition with SP customers.

Finally, the term "hybrid cloud" was often used in conversations at Enterprise Connect, always with different meaning. Some picture "hybrid" as a media server on premise with application server in the cloud. Other imagine some services implemented in private cloud (essentially a hosted outsourced data center) while other come from the public cloud. BroadSoft's definition, for example, is having BroadWorks system in the SP data center while getting UC services from the BroadCloud.

Vendors are rushing into creating cloud services to reach new customers. Small enterprise companies will benefit the most, as cloud services would allow them to use platforms they cannot afford to install on premise. One concern is the best effort quality of the Internet that most cloud services rely on. The second concern is how well vendors will perform as service providers. The third concern is about vendors competing with their service provider customers.