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Is UC on Cloud 9?

I was struck by a recent post on, authored by Paul McMillan, who directs UC Strategy at Siemens Enterprise. Paul's post, "At the Intersection of Cloud Computing and Unified Communications," argues that UC can ride the momentum behind all-things cloud to get into the enterprise much quicker than has thus far been the case.He writes:

The same concepts that will make the cloud attractive for enterprise customers deploying line of business applications can be applied to UC... 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.

Paul has been around a long time; he has a deep technical as well as market background, and he discusses prospects for both UC and cloud computing in measured terms. Without disagreeing with his overall point, however, it seems to me that there's more to the story.

We've seen attempts to deliver UC and cloud computing before. Before there was UC there was CTI, and before there was cloud computing there was timeshare computing and, in voice, there was - and still is - Centrex.

Like UC, CTI promised and, in some cases, delivered, important capabilities that unified disparate elements in communications and computing. CTI enjoyed its principal successes in contact centers, because of the economics - speeding up call handling paid off in the call center being able to handle and process more customers. Outside of the call center, however, CTI never got off the ground. The costs, primarily the system integration costs, proved too high for general business users; the ROI simply wasn't there.

CTI's limited success holds an important lesson for UC. As Don Van Doren and I have written about in recent issues of this newsletter, the longer interoperability remains a UC "futures," the longer UC's fate will remain uncertain.

McMillan suggests that the cloud may help ease that problem when he writes: "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."

The question for any enterprise, however, is whether any of those 450,000 developers is producing anything that the enterprise needs and, if not, would they be willing to do so? And how long will it take and at what cost?

There's no doubt that the cloud offers some important benefits, many of which McMillan describes in his post. And there's also no question that there are successful cloud-based services that enterprises are buying and using; and Amazon's EC2 come to mind.

But when it comes to porting over enterprise communications and IT operations, it seems that the key question is whether the cloud is a long-term play or merely a response to short-term budget belt-tightening. Timeshare systems disappeared and Centrex's enterprise market share continues to shrink because of two inter-related issues: First, cost -- enterprises found that the total cost of renting exceeded the cost of ownership of IT facilities, equipment and personnel. Second, flexibility and responsiveness - the owner of the cloud determines what capabilities will go into the cloud, when upgrades will occur and when new capabilities will be added. The pace at which an enterprise's requirements change, however, won't always fit with the cloud owner's investment schedule.

So, the way in which the cloud and UC play together will have much to do with how each enterprise perceives UC and the reasons for deploying it. If, for example, it's about presence and messaging, the cloud may be a great choice. But if, as many argue, UC delivers the biggest ROI when it is integrated into business processes, I wonder if the cloud will be selected as the deployment path and, if so, how long it will take for the new cloud-based, UC-business process to migrate back down to earth.