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By 19 November 2013 | Categories: Press Release

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While Unified Communications as a Service (UCaaS) promises much, is it a viable solution in South Africa? Gavin Smith takes a closer look.

While not a new concept, unified communications (UC) is starting to come into its own. Spurred on by stable, cheap, and robust connectivity, companies are aiming to make communication management easier and more cost effective, while also leveraging the power of integration. In line with this, Unified Communications as a Service (UCaaS) is a model that bundles numerous communication and collaboration applications and services which are then outsourced to a specialist vendor. While this model does have it merits, is it a viable option for business in South Africa?

 Popularity expected to grow

Essentially, the 21st century workplace is filled with a diverse array of communication mediums. This includes voice, video, instant messaging, email and mobile. Unification allows the utilisation of these various technologies to be accessible from any PC, Mac, smartphone or tablet. The goal, at the end of the day, is to reduce costs and increase efficacy and productivity.

The base, it would seem, is a stable and reliable cloud from which to work. According to Bruce Dowling, managing director of Asia and South Africa at ShoreTel, cloud computing has established itself in the enterprise space and is expected to continue to gain in popularity over the next several years. “Companies find that the platform allows them to adopt new features quickly and extend an existing system to additional departments or regions. However, cloud-based UC or UCaaS is unlikely to be adopted in the same way as other cloud-based IT services by enterprises.For example, Gartner analyst, Geoff Johnson, recently cited that some 95% of Australian businesses' UC are kept on premise. Gartner believes the trend in enterprises will be towards what the analyst firm terms Hybrid Unified Communications and Collaboration (UCC), rather than the wholesale adoption of UCaaS,” he continued.

This sentiment is echoed by Andy Bull, MD at Mitel South Africa: “You cannot simply put everyone in the cloud. You look at the customer’s requirements, what they are trying to do and tailor a solution to fit their needs. Whether it be on-premise, in the cloud, or a combination of the two.

Leasing is the new owning

Ryan Steel, product development specialist at Business Connexion, delves further into the hybrid idea, noting that there are two very distinct customers within the UC sphere. “There are those that want one provider and one platform that does everything, and then there are the hybrid guys who have a voice delivery system in place but don’t have the solutions available to use collaboration, video calling, messaging, presence, etc. Coupled to that, leasing is the new owning. People do not want to own their own equipment anymore, they just want to pay a monthly amount and get the desired service. People don’t want to invest in physical technology anymore. Their thinking is based on the fact that they have X amount of users, a BYOD policy, and want to deliver the service onto people’s devices.”

Is hybrid the answer?

Dowling notes that the hybrid model makes sense and allows enterprises to procure UCC services through several deployment models, whilst supporting the seamless service integration needed to deliver a UCC experience to users. This is done by blending traditional on-premise, public-cloud and private-cloud deployment models. Hybrid UCC allows organisations to select different procurement models for different UCC functionality. The trend at the moment seems to favour maintaining core telephony and call control on premise while having the option to move to the cloud any UC applications deployed in the future.

While the adoption of UC in SA is more mature than hosted IP, it does seem that it is not up to the level of total immersion. “Putting UC into the cloud as a service is really the next step to hosted IP service,” says Bull. “It is here, once again, that we see two types of customers. The first being someone who needs to update their voice solution because it is antiquated and they start asking what else they can do with the new technology. They then find functionality in UC that they would never have considered as part of a voice solution. Alternatively, there are people with a real business requirement who are looking for specific requirements. We are certainly at the stage now where people understand the benefits of UC, and we are in a place where we can apply solutions to their specific business requirements. It is a case of how to marry it to their business requirements and how to decide what components are required by a particular customer.”

A compelling alternative

The problem arises when CIOs believe that many of the same benefits of cloud-based UC are offered by an on-premise solution, and they do not see a reason to move to the cloud for core UC functionality. Dowling outlines three factors CIOs need to consider before moving to the cloud - rapid deployment, reduced IT administrative overheads and technology obsolescence. “If an on-premise solution can demonstrate ease of deployment, management and upgrades, it becomes a compelling alternative to a cloud-based offering. At the same time, on-premise solution providers are becoming more creative with purchasing and financing options for UC buyers. Many are now offering managed UC services, providing predictable monthly costs, or consolidated telco billing, with the UC deployment financed and packaged with telecommunications services,” Dowling noted.

Further reasons to move to UCaaS, according to Steel, must lie with the fact that there is no CAPEX required, it is generally delivered on an OPEX model. Coupled to this,” says Steel, “you don’t have to employ additional resources to support and run a new environment. UCaaS is a service that sits somewhere else and someone else is tasked with looking after it. This means technology changes and redundancy are not a problem either.”

Leave it to the experts

Expanding on this premise, Bull notes that it gives customers the opportunity to take advantage of solid technology without having to build or maintain it themselves. “This is the big issue at the moment. If you are a business that does not have the in-house IT resources, and you don’t have either the budget or desire to buy server hardware and deploy it, then this is the solution for you. We have done all of this and all you do is pay a monthly subscription per seat and sit back and watch things happen. Conversely, there are those companies that want to divest themselves of the big server rooms and in-house IT expertise and are looking to outsource their needs. They want to reduce the infrastructure on site, and don’t want to invest in big data centres, UPS’s, generators, cooling plants etc.”

So which one is better - cloud or on-premise UC? This, according to Dowling, is not really the right question to ask. Instead, CIOs need to consider which model best suits their organisation's needs and unique circumstances. “Today, most UC systems are on-premise deployments, especially those organisations that need to meet stringent requirements of business continuity or privacy. Entities that need to integrate voice, video, instant messaging, presence awareness or other UC capabilities into their applications may also opt for on-premise UC, which typically allows for tighter integration than hosted systems. However, cloud-based UC solutions are gaining in popularity, especially for small to medium businesses with multiple office locations - offering quick UC deployment, as well as all the benefits of cloud-provider IT services.”

To the point

For now, the hybrid model seems to be the weapon of choice. Going forward, however, Steel says that traditional voice is going to be phased out and more and more voice traffic will be turning into voice data. “Looking at it simplistically, you have a device that connects to mobile network which uses an app which, when you take a call, is routed via IP channels. You are not actually using voice minutes, you are using data.”

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