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At The Intersection of Cloud Computing and Unified Communications

Last year I happened to pick up the latest book from noted Harvard professor, Nicholas Carr. His previous work set the Information Technology world on its heels. The title of that book, "Does IT Matter," postulated that since enterprises have equal access to the same technology, it's useless to expect competitive differentiation to last very long, and thus enterprises should really question the value of large investments in new fangled hardware and software. Suffice it to say many of the enterprise heavyweights had less than kind words for Mr. Carr. I have to admit my initial reaction was, "This guy is off his rocker." After taking the time to read his book, I grudgingly agreed with some of his statements but overall didn't find the main thesis 100 percent credible. Still I believe it is always healthy to challenge conventional norms and ask the provocative questions. His latest work entitled "The Big Switch" sparked my interest as I read the back cover. "The Big Switch" is really a primer on the value proposition of cloud computing. Once again, Mr. Carr makes some bold proclamations on the impact cloud computing will have on the enterprise market. This time he has a lot of folks agreeing with him. So what is cloud computing, and more importantly, what roles can unified communications (UC) play in the cloud?In very simplistic terms, Gartner defines cloud computing as a style of computing where massively scalable IT-related capabilities are provided "as a service" to customers over Internet technologies. That is simple enough, but what changes with this new capability? I believe Gartner summarizes it nicely:

* Acquisition Model --Based on Purchasing Services

* Business Model --Based on Pay for Use

* Access Model --Accessible over Internet Technology

* Technical Model --Scalable, Elastic, Dynamic, Multi-tenant and Sharable

This, in my view, is where it gets interesting. Essentially, many IT functions that run in the data center today can be ported to the cloud and run much more efficiently (read: at lower cost). Also implied is the move from physical hardware orientation to a virtual orientation (although not always necessary, it is true in most cases). Mr. Carr makes it very plain in his book that companies such as Google, Amazon, Microsoft and others can leverage their Internet scale and expertise to deliver many of the software functions that are delivered on premise today from the cloud at several orders of magnitude lower cost. This is a bold statement, but there is ample anecdotal evidence already available today to back up this claim. The big question is, where and how does UC fit into this new model?

We are well into the deployment phase of UC in the enterprise space with second- and third-generation platforms coming onto the market. Mature software offerings and more realistic pricing models are beginning to see adoption in the enterprise market. UC has probably taken the low road as years of hyping of the technology have failed to seize customers and result in massive uptake of the technology. UC is happening, but not at the speed in which it was initially represented.

There are a number of valid reasons as to why UC did not have a meteoric rise. More importantly, I believe the best days lie ahead for enterprise adoption of UC and that's where the intersection of the cloud and UC come together. The reason is simple. In addition, the complexity surrounding UC can be greatly reduced when it is ported to the cloud. Customers can avoid the up-front financial, human and time-related costs associated with implementing a UC pilot or initial implementation. UC software can be ported and provided as a running instance in the cloud with a front end that allows for the sign up, provisioning and ongoing management of your running software instance. User templates can ease the burden of configuration.

What is critical to understand is that the risk with doing all of this is quite low to the customer. They can pilot the technology for a few months and then turn it off only paying for what they used. This is far different than the traditional model of acquiring software and hardware. Don't want to be burdened with the provisioning of the software? Use a systems integrator or vendor to do the work. Managed services from the cloud will offer customers a true utility model. Service providers offering voice services today that wish to add UC to their business model need only reach into the cloud for a UC platform. As their user base fluctuates they can turn licenses on and off as needed making optimal use of software utilization and driving down costs. Data center space can be collapsed and customers can make informed decisions about what applications they retain on premise and what can be ported to the cloud.

Over time, more and more applications will be moved to the cloud as the cost model will provide significant incentive to make the move. What really interests me with UC in the cloud are the possibilities for innovation and collaboration on a massive scale. Want to federate with the most strategic partners and customers? Sign up for a cloud federation service. Need an extra layer of disaster recovery? Snapshot the most vital applications on a regular basis and port them to the cloud. When a disaster strikes provide service to critical users with little to no downtime.

Here is one example of innovation that speaks to the unlimited possibilities the cloud will offer to UC. Amazon's EC2 cloud has well over 450,000 developers accessing APIs and SDKs to build innovative new applications across a variety of markets. Just by providing a UC SDK to the cloud a company can gain access to a multitude of external resources innovating on its platform. The amount of time, effort and expense to do this organically is significant. Cloud computing is enjoying a significant amount of hype at the moment, but there are several real world examples of companies using the technology to advance their business today. UC can take advantage of this new technology imperative and deliver even more value to the enterprise. We are at the intersection of the cloud and UC today and the road ahead has unlimited possibilities.