Moving to the Cloud: Avoiding Proprietary Traps

Any given organization will be at a different stage of its unified communications (UC) adoption lifecycle: Traditional TDM technology often lingers on both the trunk and station side, once touted next-gen VoIP solutions have achieved legacy status, and a truly unified communications experience continues to elude large enterprises faced with a disparate mix of solutions -- not to mention a dwindling IT budget. Interoperability efforts are hampered by unsupported gateways and handsets, recurring maintenance has become an onerous annual expense, and many of the professionals who know and understand how to operate these platforms are looking toward retirement.

Businesses today continue to prioritize supporting remote working environments, which means there continues to be an urgent need to deliver a common UC experience to both at-home and in-office workers. Enterprise mobility is no longer only about minimizing the cost of real estate or improving employees' work-life balance; rather, a functional, mobile workforce has become an integral part of many disaster recovery and business continuity strategies.

With so many challenges, balancing the integration and support of multiple platforms, while simultaneously evaluating new technology, can be overwhelming.

The promise of the cloud can be an alluring option; indeed, there are myriad financial and operational advantages to moving to a cloud-based UC platform. "Turning over the keys AND the car" to an outside service provider promises to reduce labor costs, eliminate recurring maintenance costs, and transform a traditionally capex-driven operating model to an opex model.

As organizations large and small begin to evaluate cloud UC solutions, they see that much remains unchanged from their on-premises counterparts. Anyone can have a "complete solution" from almost any manufacturer, so long as you adopt its entire OEM-specific product suite. These type of solution suites offer little in the way of integrating disparate systems, offering simple interoperability rather than functional integration. Often, the only remaining choice is either a forklift upgrade of endpoints and gateways or the expense of owning and operating legacy systems in parallel.

There are four essential components of a UC service today:

  1. Basic telephony (VoIP) with unified messaging (UM)
  2. Instant messaging and presence (IM&P)
  3. Voice and video teleconferencing services
  4. Collaboration

And, if you consider integrating contact center systems with the basic suite, you can make a case for five essential components.

Almost every manufacturer of a UC solution today offers a full suite of features through a "single vendor experience." History shows us, however, that placing your faith in a single manufacturer can ultimately limit flexibility and scalability. But the alternative is equally challenging. While each one of these UC functional components is also available as a stand-alone solution from any number of manufacturers, the task of operating and maintaining "separate, but equal" solutions based on function creates administrative and support nightmares. Simply maintaining these solutions is an onerous task, let alone integrating them.

A lack of resources, however, combined with the much shorter lifespans of UC platforms, suggests there is an advantage to leveraging a single OEM provider for a truly unified on-premises UC solution. That desire for "one neck to choke," from a support and integration perspective, often trumps the desire for flexibility.

Back in the day, the advent of SIP signaling indicated that the demise of proprietary, functional "stove pipes" was imminent. The injection of proprietary feature sets into a SIP environment has led to some rather creative manipulation of SIP headers, making even SIP endpoints easier to deploy if they share the same name as the call control platform they register to. This, in turn, hampers transformation of any kind. Immersed in internal "religious wars" between one OEM faction or another, the selection of a truly unified solution is continuously deferred until either one faction out-maneuvers another politically, or some compelling event forces them off the fence, such as the end of support for some legacy component. Given the proprietary nature of most cloud UC offerings, the fear of making the wrong choice continues to challenge most organizations.

The only way to break the perpetual cycle of endpoint refresh and replacement is to adopt a best-of-breed UC strategy as you migrate to the cloud. Industry leaders do not have a vested interest in creating truly interoperable components; therefore, it is incumbent upon the customer to demand fully integrated solutions from their cloud service provider (CSP). Because they deliver unified communications as a service (UCaaS), the moving parts behind the curtain are virtually invisible to their customers. In theory, they should already be incentivized to create an OEM-independent cloud offering in order to accelerate migration and expand their install base.

All of the pieces are there today. While the initial lift for the CSP is heavier if they choose to go down this path, the dividends should be there in the end to support the efforts.