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September 10, 2010 • Vol.32 Issue 19
Page(s) 38 in print issue

Hosted Unified Communications For The Masses
A New Way For SMEs To Meet Their Business Communication Needs


Key Points

• Hosted unified communications is often split between public cloud offerings over the Internet and those that run in a private cloud from a third-party remote vendor.

• There are often base services for hosted UC, such as hosted PBX and video, but extra services such as instant messaging and Web conferencing are sometimes added features.

• Costs often include up-front fees per user that are related to setup and configuration. There are also costs associated with the end-user hardware, such as an IP desk phone.

The emergence of UC (unified communications) in business has caused a stir for companies at all levels, both large and small. Like customer relationship management of a decade ago, UC seeks to streamline business communications, including videoconferencing, phone calls, instant messaging, and even Web conferencing and quick video chats. The “unification” comes into play when data center managers attempt to consolidate the back-end requirements for each disparate communication method. Fortunately, hosted unified communications does most of the legwork. The major challenge: deciding which hosted platform will work best for your organization.

Types Of Hosted UC

The first step in choosing a hosted UC platform is understanding the available options. As you can imagine, with any new technology that consolidates several tech silos, hosted UC can often encompass a wide variety of technologies. For some, hosted UC means hosting your PBX infrastructure in the cloud and then selecting whatever extra features are available, such as instant messaging. In other cases, it can mean one end-to-end solution for every business communication possible.

Frank Grillo, executive vice president of implementation, support, and marketing at Cypress Communications (cypresscom.net), says this distinction on hosting PBX is a good one. There are hybrid options, he says, where the provider might offer videoconferencing and telepresence in the cloud while the SME continues to maintain on-premises telephone services.

Scott Gode, vice president of product management and marketing for Azaleos (www.azaleos.com), says another major distinction is between private hosting and public hosting. For UC hosted in a private cloud, a third-party company might manage the service remotely, but the connection to your company is not on the public Internet. Otherwise, public hosted UC uses the standard Internet.

Advantages Of Hosted UC

Like any cloud-based service, all of the typical advantages for hosted UC apply, including faster scalability, which is the ability to add users quickly and support a growing capacity in data. This is important for an SME that anticipates growth and can work the other way, as well: A company can quickly scale down their hosted UC services if they experience a downturn.

William Bumbernick, CEO of Alteva (www.altevatel.com), says hosted UC provides additional benefits to an SME, however. One is that the company suddenly becomes much more efficient in terms of business communication with customers. This was always the purview of much larger companies that installed vast UC services to manage communication endpoints with customers. An SME was left to fend for itself and develop a UC solution that was pieced together from several vendors. And other advantages of hosted UC for an SME include “near-zero” management requirements, elimination of hardware required for on-premises UC, and no need for self-managed upgrades.

Grillo adds that the main advantages for hosted UC involve a lower capital expense (as hosted UC is often marked as an operational expense), a smaller risk than adopting a new in-house technology, and the energy savings that come from hosting your UC in the cloud instead of on your own servers.

Typical Costs

The costs for hosted UC vary greatly based on the size of your company and, even more importantly, on the services you decide to use through a hosted provider, such as whether you are hosting your PBX in the cloud or just the instant messaging, video, and Web conferencing services.

Bumbernick says the typical costs include the handsets you need for VoIP and configuration fees. He also says the costs are lowered by the fact that there are no costs for internal maintenance (say, for software updates) because these are all handled by the hosted UC provider.

“The most frequently discussed cost factor is the up-front per-user cost for the service, which includes software, service, and hardware for a public cloud service,” says Gode. “However, costs quoted are usually just the ‘email-only’ price, whereas the costs to include collaboration, instant messaging, conferencing, and voice services typically increase the total by two to three times. Beyond the up-front per-user costs, SMEs should pay careful attention to the ‘unadvertised’ areas, which could add to the total cost of a public cloud service solution, such as bandwidth and network costs, readiness assessment, vendor management, archiving, mobile support, disaster recovery, and data migration.”

Choosing A Provider

Once you know the playing field for hosted UC--that there are public and private offerings, that you can often pick and choose from a variety of services, and that the costs tend to include up-front fees by user and other configuration costs--it is then a good idea to start evaluating vendors.

Interestingly, this step--while it does not seem like a choice about technology per s--is actually one of the hardest steps, because vendors often provide such a wide variety of services.

Grillo says it is key to choose a provider that can go end to end on UC and even provide the necessary end-user equipment, routers, and other networking devices required; make specific guarantees about uptime; and provide some redundancy of services in case of a failure.

In the end, it is also important to select a provider who you can trust with this important part of your business--the communication with customers--and who will provide exceptional service.

by John Brandon



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