Not all clouds are equally ethereal. Yes, the technology world has its head in the clouds these days, to the point where it is rare when innovative software development organizations provide and support products delivered in a box rather than over the Internet.
Yet one problem with talking about cloud computing is that the definition is vague -- deliberately so. The term "cloud" originated from the convention for alluding to unknowns and unexplained complexity on networking diagrams, much as mapmakers of yore used "Here There Be Dragons" to indicate lands beyond the edge of the known world. As Business Insider explains in a history of cloud jargon, "It's just meant to be a vague description of things happening elsewhere." Where once the cloud referred to network complexity happening offstage, these days the cloud can hide complexity of software and servers, too.
For the most part, we neither know nor care where cloud servers are or how they are configured. We want to know they are being managed for reliability and security, but beyond that the details don't matter very much.
Except when they do, of course. This article is about exceptions to the rule.
Take location. One of the virtues of cloud software is that it is location independent -- you can access it from anywhere in the world. If you are using a cloud application for CRM or accounting, it doesn't much matter where you are in the world and where the servers you are accessing sit. Posting an update to a customer record will take a little longer if the server you are using is on the other side of the planet, but the difference may be unnoticeable.
In contrast, a cloud service for voice or video lives or dies on the quality of real-time communications. Then the distance between your office and the closest cloud network node and the number of intermediary services involved in placing a call are very important indeed. Every millisecond of delay and dropped packet is noticeable when you are talking with a coworker or customer.
This is where the fuzzy definition of cloud can get in the way of evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the various cloud communications solutions on offer today. Generally speaking, cloud service providers offer a simple promise to their customers: We'll take care of the software and servers for you. So your provider might give you a business phone system without the need for an onsite PBX setup for your business phone extensions. Instead of being locally hosted, the PBX software runs in the cloud. But there's a catch: How can you be sure that the phone service will be reliable unless you know about the infrastructure of the cloud itself?
The ability of your cloud communications provider to deliver both cloud PBX software and reliable cloud-based phone service requires something rarely found in the current market: A systems architecture that combines everything there is to love about the innovations of cloud computing with a solid and well-executed strategy for call quality.
In other words, the best-in-class cloud communications providers sometimes have to think -- and act -- like classic phone companies. This means building their own networks rather than relying solely on Internet capacity the way too many cloud operators do. Whether your cloud provider is literally laying fiber-optic cables across the ocean floor isn't important; what is important is that it deals directly with Tier 1 carriers controlling that bandwidth. If your cloud provider does operate its own network, chances are it offers higher call quality and performance relative to other providers. And because your provider doesn't depend on another network operator that could jack up rates at will, as a customer you benefit from price stability.
And what, exactly, does it take to achieve that higher call quality? Look for a cloud communications provider that controls its own transmission circuits and places network nodes as close as possible to your sites -- including those in other countries. This means it will be able to capture calls as close to the source as possible and then route them onto a high-speed network.
If your provider deals directly with phone companies across the globe to get access to phone numbers, or even operates its own competitive local exchange carrier (CLEC), that's a huge bonus. Operating a CLEC gives a provider clout, which is helpful in interacting with incumbent telephone companies and regulators. That status also helps expedite transactions such as porting phone numbers into networks.
The typical cloud service is like a magic trick, where you know something complicated must be going on backstage, but you do not have to know all the details to enjoy the result. In the case of cloud phone service, however, I urge you to peek behind the curtains.
Just how virtual is this cloud communications provider promising to take charge of your business phone service? Does it control its own network? How many layers of intermediaries does it rely on to place a call or port over a number?
Bottom line: Does the organization know how to innovate in the cloud yet have a solid, well-executed strategy for call quality?