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Hybrid Capabilities Crucial for Enterprise UC Cloud Planning

Plan ahead using a UC&C roadmap; expect a hybrid configuration; and seek a provider who offers a hosted-instance, rather than multi-tenant, approach.

Cloud UC options have many attractions. First, cloud implementation is often much faster than a premise deployment, so the prototyping, roll-outs, and initial benefits are more immediately available. Second, cloud configurations require little or no front end capital spending or approvals. Third, cloud offerings are often bundled so that core functions such as IM or conferencing justify the costs and then other UC features are available at "no incremental charge." Fourth, cloud offerings are usually priced on a per-user-per-month basis, so that an enterprise can start with just a small pilot group and then scale up as needed, when successful.

Based on all these reasons, and a few more, we can expect cloud options to be marketed very aggressively and then deployed by an increasing number of enterprises. However, there's usually one big catch: The users of the cloud systems still work for an enterprise! Consequently, there is a need for integration and interoperability (there's that word, again) between the cloud systems and the enterprise communication systems.

The amount of hybrid deployment and interoperation will vary widely, based on the cloud services being used. For one simple example, if the cloud UC functions are limited to e-mail, IM, and presence, then the cloud service might be an island unto itself. But if the enterprise wants telephony status (say, on-hook or off-hook) to show up in the presence indicators, it will be necessary for the enterprise PBX to have a presence server that can federate with the cloud-based presence engine.

Another simple case, which has been around for a long time, is cloud-based audio conferencing. In this case, users on the premise PBX system will just call into the conferencing service over normal PSTN trunks. If the e-mail system is hosted on the same cloud service, then integration of conference scheduling with the users' calendars will be easy. If not, then it will be important to integrate the cloud system with the user's premise e-mail system, such as is provided by the Cisco WebEx plug-in for Microsoft Outlook.

It gets more complex if the UC cloud functions include enterprise telephony. It is easy to find cloud UC services which provide the user with a direct inward dial (DID) telephone number and allow the user to make calls into the public network from their UC software client or SIP devices. But it gets complex if the enterprise wants their employees to keep their same DID number when using the cloud service. Can that number be ported to the cloud provider? Or will DID calls still need to land on the enterprise PBX and be forwarded to the cloud UC system? How much more trunk capacity (whether TDM or SIP trunks) be needed for that additional call routing? What is the administration load for managing the connections between premise and cloud and for administering users who move onto or off of the cloud services?

In many cases, these questions come up late in the game. In some cases, a cloud-based UC provider is awarded a multi-year contract for IM/Presence or for conferencing services without consideration of future requirements to add other UC functions such as enterprise telephony with mobile client support. The questions often arise when it is too late to do anything about it, creating a barrier to progress.

All these questions have answers, but they vary dramatically between various cloud service providers and even between each cloud provider's service offerings. Also, the answers vary dramatically depending on the current enterprise communications infrastructure. It is crucial to focus on these details in the planning stages for cloud-based UC. As we have said many times in the past, this is the reason to have a multi-year UC&C roadmap, rather than just racing from one shiny idea to the next.

It is also the case that answers to the hybrid questions become much more clear, practical and affordable if the cloud-based system is a hosted instance of the enterprise's chosen UC platform rather than a multi-tenant version of the UC solution. A "hosted instance" means that the cloud-based provider is operating the UC solution on a set of virtual machines, each set of which is dedicated to a specific enterprise. In that case, the cloud-based system looks like a branch office location to the premise-based UC system, whether that UC system is a document-centric system such as Microsoft Lync or IBM Sametime or is a voice-centric system such as Cisco UCM or Avaya Aura. Presence, call routing, dial plans and much more will work just as they would on the enterprise's own wide area network (WAN).

The action items are clear: 1) Plan ahead using a UC&C roadmap when considering cloud options. 2) expect a hybrid configuration that connects the cloud system to the premise systems. 3) Look for a cloud provider who offers a hosted instance approach based on your enterprise's incumbent or planned UC platform brand. Your time and effort to do these three things should be well rewarded by the benefits of the cloud.