Sergey Nivens

(Sergey Nivens)

What You Must Know to Evaluate Unified Communications-as-a-Service

By Features PCmag

A Chief Information Security Officer's (CISO) responsibilities in an enterprise include choosing, implementing, and overseeing all of the technology that's core to the business—physical servers, virtualized cloud infrastructure, software, and services—and ensuring efficient communication and collaboration between different teams and departments. A CISO needs to do all of this, while making sure this communication and collaboration doesn't come at the cost of the security of an enterprise's data and end-to-end infrastructure.

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Thus, an all-in-one Unified Communications-as-a-Service (UCaaS) platform is pretty appealing. An extension of Unified Communications (UC), UCaaS wraps a host of business communication and collaboration applications and services into a single experience delivered via the cloud. That encompasses everything from enterprise social messaging and chat apps to online videoconferencing and meeting software to business voice-over-IP (VoIP) services.

UCaaS platforms come in all shapes and sizes. There are different types of cloud and on-premises distributions, complicated security protocols, and vendors on all sides of the market—from VoIP and telecom providers to major cloud and enterprise players—pushing their own solution. Here are a few key considerations to help your CISO choose the UCaaS platform that best suits your organization.

1. Choose a Cloud Deployment Model
UCaaS solutions can be delivered a few different ways. According to Gartner's latest Magic Quadrant report on the UCaaS market, the two most prevalent ways are multi-tenant and virtualized. Multi-tenant architecture involves all business users sharing the same common software instance. Multi-tenancy includes some customization capabilities for each individual user or tenant, such as changing their UCaaS app's user interface (UI) or business rules, but they can't touch the underlying code (which makes things simpler and more manageable from an IT perspective).

Virtualized architecture, on the other hand, is single-tenancy in that each user gets his or her own software instance in which to play around. Those virtualized instances can also be integrated with on-premises apps if your business wants to take a hybrid cloud approach that combines both physical servers and virtualized cloud infrastructure.

Both multi-tenant and virtualized options have their benefits, but they both serve the overall purpose of using cloud-hosted infrastructure to reduce the operational costs of having to host the entire UC platform yourself. That said, virtualized is more suited to a large enterprise with 1,000-plus employees who need more customizable UC and tailored security for specific use cases. But virtualized requires a lot more manual admin work. Multi-tenant is easier to support and deliver, particularly on smartphones and tablets, but without the customization.

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2. Hitch Your Wagon
The tough part about choosing a UCaaS solution is deciding what type of software company you want providing it. There are a number of VoIP players that offer UCaaS solutions in this space, but the most prominent is RingCentral. Gartner actually lists RingCentral as the current leader in the space—the UCaaS provider with the broadest business applicability and the most complete solution. The company announced RingCentral Global Office earlier this year as a mobile-centric UCaaS solution to replace legacy on-premises private branch exchange (PBX) systems.

Other solid VoIP-based UCaaS offerings include 8x8 and Vonage Business. Then there's Voice-as-a-Service (VaaS) platforms such as Mitel, telecommunications providers such as AT&T, BT, NTT Communications, and Verizon, that are all trying to get in on the action with their own UCaaS offerings (largely supporting Cisco and Microsoft UC technology). Then, of course, there are the companies providing exclusively UCaaS products such as West UC.

Making sense of all the competing and overlapping offerings in this crowded market can give a CISO a major headache, but the Gartner report succinctly summarizes the current market. For the purposes of this article, we're focusing on the offerings with either the most complete, market-leading offerings or those with the most potential based on the report's methodology.

For CISOs, we've left off a few smaller players that are not yet ready for enterprise consideration as well as offerings primarily focused on non-US markets such as those from BT, Interoute, NTT Communications, and Orange Business Services. Read the report for the full rundown, but here are some pros and cons of major UCaaS players.

8x8
Pros:
Strong UCaaS suite including messaging, mobility, VoIP, and a virtual contact center and office; integrates with Salesforce and Zendesk.
Cons: Virtual Meeting lacks integration with third-party video platforms, and has limited group tools for larger Web conferences; company is in global transition and must establish new partnerships.

AT&T
Pros:
Global telecommunications network with brand recognition and scale; offers an extensive array of UC and videoconferencing services (even if they're not AT&T's).
Cons: As with all of the telcos, relies heavily on other companies' UCaaS technology, including Cisco and Microsoft. Gartner reports they have confusing billing and support problems, with complex mix-and-match UCaaS platforms and a lack of self-service options.

Mitel
Pros:
A hybrid platform combining on-premises UC infrastructure with UCaaS cloud support; video partnerships with Cisco, Polycom, and Vidyo; integration with Salesforce, SugarCRM, Zoho CRM, and others.
Cons: Requires a channel partner which, depending on where it's geographically deployed, can lead to varied capabilities and reliability; does not have strong enterprise penetration.

RingCentral
Pros:
The current market leader; offers a branded contact center, integrations with Google and Microsoft, and a powerful UCaaS stack of interlocking conferencing, messaging, mobility, and VoIP apps.
Cons: Company is still experiencing some growing pains for enterprises; still improving onboarding and professional services for companies of 2,000-5,000+ employees.

Verizon
Pros:
A global communications service provider (CSP) with enterprise adoption and services geared toward data centers, security, and managed communications to complement UCaaS offering; deep partnership with Cisco.
Cons: More VoIP-focused than conferencing, messaging, and mobility; complex to work across groups within an enterprise; user portal could use improvement.

Vonage Business
Pros:
Consolidating smaller UCaaS vendors through M&A; strong mainstream media presence and brand recognition through campaigns; strong project management.
Cons: Still integrating acquired UCaaS platforms; more VoIP-focused, with low videoconferencing adoption.

West
Pros:
Strong infrastructure of UCaaS tools, integrated products via acquisition, and refined user experience (UX) for small to midsize enterprises (SMEs); high-end videoconferencing support and contact center; able to customize on a client-by-client basis.
Cons: Does not typically pursue large enterprise clients; in the midst of a corporate reorganization and runs many of its corporate communications divisions separately; lagging behind in analytics, HD video, and mobility.

3. Know the Elephants in the Cloud
I left a few of the biggest names in UCaaS off of the list above because they deserve their own category. Depending on how they execute, the major cloud and enterprise tech players have the potential to set the market.

Microsoft is making a concerted play for UCaaS through Skype and Skype for Business Online. Cisco also has an established suite of UCaaS technology. The buying guide above leaves out Avanade (a Microsoft-centric UCaaS company) and system integration provider CSC because, along with all of the main telecommunications players, they all leverage UC and UCaaS technology provided by Cisco and Microsoft. Without the cloud software and services of the big tech players, half of this market wouldn't exist.

Cisco and Microsoft are the two leaders when it comes to current market adoption of their UCaaS technology, but Google is also making serious waves in the space. And the split-off HP Enterprise (HPE) is similarly repositioning to take a bigger chunk of the market. When thinking about the UCaaS provider CISOs believe will be established in the market for decades to come, they must seriously consider the cloud and enterprise tech giants.

Cisco
Pros:
One of the most mature and established UCaaS technology suites on the market across messaging, VoIP, web collaboration and conferencing, and productivity, integrated with the Cisco Unified Contact Center. It's hosted either on the Cisco Collaboration Cloud as UCaaS or on-premises through Cisco Hosted Collaboration Solution (HCS).
Cons: Cisco does sell its UCaaS product as a standalone, but more often, you're forced to buy through a reseller or partner channel like those listed above, which introduces a whole other set of complications and additional layers of setup and maintenance.

Google
Pros:
Low-cost, transparent pricing through the Google Cloud Platform; offers a full UCaaS suite of messaging, mobility, collaboration, VoIP, and videoconferencing through Google Apps for Work and Google Drive (for Work). Services such as Google Hangouts provide an intuitive UX; integrates with RingCentral.
Cons: No native business VoIP service, which the RingCentral integration addresses. Dell Chromebox for Meetings still experiencing reliability and scaling issues when dealing with enterprise interoperability.

HP
Pros:
Tried-and-true enterprise architecture and mobility service with both on-premises UC and UCaaS offerings. UCaaS technology leveraged through the Avaya acquisition and including advanced VoIP features, consulting services, legacy app integration, network management, and private cloud capabilities.
Cons: HPE rebranding and reorganization are still shaking out, and HP's UCaaS products have not advanced in the market. Time will tell whether or not enterprise cloud-focused HPE re-asserts itself as a market leader.

Microsoft
Pros:
Well-positioned from an enterprise technology perspective to take the lead in the market. Skype for Business Online, combined with the Microsoft Office 365 ecosystem, robust cloud infrastructure with Microsoft Azure, emerging technologies such as Microsoft HoloLens, and a market-leading position in enterprise IT, all give Microsoft the strongest position as a UCaaS pure play. Available on-premises, as a hybrid cloud, as standalone UCaaS, or through channel partners.
Cons: It's hard to get just one Microsoft service. If a CISO decides on Microsoft as his or her company's UCaaS provider, he or she has just given Microsoft a foot in the door to their entire technology stack. In this case, a CISO should be prepared to consider adopting a broader suite of enterprise Office 365 apps, migrating cloud infrastructure and data to Azure, and essentially giving Microsoft the keys to the kingdom. You'll be committing your business to Microsoft for the long haul—and perhaps that was Microsoft's plan all along.

This article originally appeared on PCMag.com.