As hosted voice and unified communication (UC) services continue to evolve, businesses face a basic quandary: continue to deploy and operate hardware and software on-site, or take the leap to deploying a cloud-based system. For some enterprises, on-site UC solutions are preferred, perhaps for security reasons, while other enterprises are finding cloud solutions more flexible and convenient. And, still other organizations find a hybrid system to be the best solution.
So, how do you decide what's best for your enterprise?
ShoreTel has a helpful approach. The California-based communications services provider developed a list of questions business leaders should ask when considering an upgrade to their communication services. It recently published that list in its November newsletter to customers and shared additional insights with us.
Before reviewing their recommendations, it helps to take a step back and consider what's involved with unified communications and where the technology is heading.
PBX Out, UC In
Analyst firm Infonetics Research reports that hosted communication services saw a global growth rate of 20 percent in 2013. They see that expansion continuing in 2014 and beyond, as increasingly more businesses explore alternatives to traditional, on-site PBX systems.
Enabled by both the Internet and the cloud, unified communication systems integrate numerous communication services -- everything from phone calls and voicemail to e-mail, instant messaging and video conferencing -- all via a single network. UC enables users to communicate in either real time or non-real time, switching seamlessly from one communication form to another (for example, sending an instant message to someone who just left a voicemail). Systems for unified communications also enable users to collaborate more easily across an organization.
Once limited to on-site PBX telephony systems, businesses today have more choices than ever when looking to update their phones and communications services. In fact, as Infonetics analyst Diane Myers noted in an August research report on the UC market, "While sales of premises-based PBX systems have been stagnant to declining over the past few years, the market for cloud services continues to expand with businesses worldwide seeking out hosted alternatives."
Infonetics predicts that the global cloud-based PBX and UC market will reach $12 billion by 2018. With UC services increasingly available either through on-site deployment or hosting in the cloud, businesses need to consider a variety of factors before deciding on the communications modernization route that's best for them. That's where ShoreTel's checklist considerations come into play.
Capital or Operational Expense?
When considering UC options, one factor that ShoreTel suggests businesses consider first is whether they prefer to treat IT as a capital expense or an operational one.
On-premises UC systems are "generally less expensive over the long term," but require large upfront investments in software, phones and other hardware. In-house systems also have ongoing operational costs for administration to consider.
Hosted UC, on the other hand, offers a pay-as-you-go option that makes it easier for organizations to scale up or down when needed, without making a large investment when growth is needed.
Do you have stringent compliance or security requirements?
If maintaining total control over your systems is important, for security or other reasons, an on-premises phone system may be preferable. This consideration can be particularly important for organizations involved with healthcare, finance or industries where sensitive information needs the best protection.
What type of UC capabilities do you need?
This is an important question, though the answer won't necessarily restrict you to either an on-premises or cloud service. In the past, on-premise systems usually offered more features and flexibility than cloud UC services could provide. But cloud services have caught up and now include a full range of services for voice, instant messaging, web conferencing, video chat, mobility and presence information.
Do you need to deploy quickly or on a temporary basis?
If time is of the essence, a cloud UC solution may be the quickest way to get your unified communications system up and running. The UC cloud provider can handle initial configuration and eliminate the delays of installing on-site servers and storage.
Do you want to integrate communications into your business workflow?
If you want to integrate your UC system with your CRM or accounting system, perhaps for making sales calls or billing purposes, these are important considerations that could affect your decision. While cloud UC systems are starting to offer more integration, an on-premise system may still be preferable if extensive customization is needed.
Do you want a system that is simple to maintain?
If you're looking for simplicity, a cloud system may be the way to go. It leaves more of the maintenance and technical management to the pros at your UC service provider, and helps relieve the ongoing burden for your in-house team.
Do you want a scalable, pay-as-you-grow (or shrink) solution?
If you need flexibility to scale up your system instantaneously during peak periods, for example at call centers during the holidays, a cloud UC service can be a flexible solution. The UC service provider can usually just turn on or off the additional services you need.
Do you, perhaps, want the best of both worlds?
Many organizations are finding that a hybrid UC solution is best, using an on-premises server to support IP phones, but also using a cloud provider for additional UC services, such as web conferencing and mobility management.
ShoreTel points out that, "many organizations are taking their first step into the cloud with a hybrid approach, using their current IP PBX for existing UC functionality, but then providing new services or provisioning new locations with a cloud service."
We reached out to ShoreTel to learn more about what other trends it's seeing in the UC market.
"We are actually witnessing two different forces that are having a profound effect on the growth of unified communications currently," Chris Burgy, vice president of corporate strategy, told us.
"The first is the increasing push of employees spending substantial time working outside of the office or being complete remote workers. This places a substantial focus on having the right tools to enable rapid, seamless and easy to use communication to connect employees together," he said.
"The second force is the drastic increase in the number of companies seeking to consume unified communications in a cloud business model. This is driving significant growth for cloud UC solutions by virtue of the inherent flexibly in a cloud model and that it allows customers to focus on running their business and not their UC platforms."
Burgy added, "We think the next evolution of this for UC, as cloud continues to march into larger accounts, is the ability to deploy a hybrid-cloud architecture that gives customers the exact benefits related to cloud but with the inherent reliability, scalability and quality of experience that has long been the mainstay of a premises-based UC solution."