If you’re thinking about migrating your communications and collaboration tools to the cloud, there’s good news: Dozens of Unified Communications as a Service (UCaaS) providers are lining up to help you.
The catch? A crowded field requires a lot of weeding out to reveal the providers you can bet your business on. Here are five questions to ask to help you spot the leaders in the cloud communications space:
1. Is your UC portfolio really enterprise grade? Claiming and actually being something are two different things. Start by drilling down to find out exactly how much control a provider has over the big three: quality, reliability, and scalability.
Control is key for voice over internet protocol (VoIP), which uses data networks for calls instead of traditional telephony infrastructure. This change enables VoIP services to provide more features and clearer calls than what’s known as “circuit-switched” telephony, and at significantly lower cost. The more infrastructure that a UCaaS provider owns, the greater its ability to ensure that VoIP calls get priority over other types of data traffic and that calls can seamlessly switch to an alternate route if part of the network goes down.
Another way to identify a UCaaS provider capable of delivering enterprise-grade VoIP is to ask about its use of multi-protocol label switching (MPLS). This helps network infrastructure prioritize calls and other delay-sensitive UCaaS applications so they provide a great user experience.
2. Where is the infrastructure? The ideal cloud provider has a dozen or more points of presence (POPs) scattered around the country. That redundancy means your UCaaS services won’t be knocked out by a hurricane, earthquake or other regional calamities. Geographic diversity also boosts the quality of service (QoS) of latency-sensitive services by increasing the chances your location is near one or more of its POPs. The same advice applies to the provider’s data centers, which host your organization’s applications and information.
3. What types of service-level agreements (SLAs) do you offer? SLAs help ensure that moving to the cloud doesn’t come with trade-offs in reliability and availability. They’re essentially contracts that spell out the provider’s obligations for service quality, customer support, and other aspects, with financial and other penalties when it doesn’t deliver. SLAs also highlight the importance of MPLS, dozens of POPS and data centers, and owning a lot of network infrastructure, all of which helps the provider live up to its SLA.
4. Do you offer software-defined wide-area networking? Think of SD-WAN as a geographically larger version of another buzzword you’re probably hearing more of lately: software-defined networking (SDN). Both take functions that traditionally were locked into network hardware and transform them into software. This change provides more flexibility when it comes to managing both the network and the applications that use it. (For a deeper dive into how SD-WAN works and its benefits, see http://blogs.gartner.com/andrew-lerner/2015/07/07/sdwan.)
“SD-WAN solutions are smart for multi-location companies whose home offices are on an MPLS network, for example, but whose satellite offices get their QoS from a solution like Vonage SmartWAN,” says Sanjay Srinivasan, Vonage Chief Technology Architect Business Engineering. “This creates a hybrid network, saving money but maintaining QoS across the organization.”
5. What actual solutions are offered? “Many hosted providers only have a strong pedigree in one area,” Jon Arnold, Principal Analyst, J Arnold & Associates Research says. “Most are rooted in VoIP, with either that as a singular offering, or a lightweight Unified Communications (UC) solution pieced together from third-party partners. For enterprises truly looking for a transformative solution that supersedes the conventional telecom-centric upgrade, they’ll need a hosted partner covering the full spectrum of UC.”
That portfolio should include at least:
- High-quality video and audio conferencing.
- Collaboration tools such as virtual desktop and screen sharing.
- Integration with customer relationship management (CRM) tools such as Salesforce®, Google for Work or Office 365™ and workflow tools.
- Intuitive mobility tools (like a mobile app) to ensure seamless experiences across devices.
- Capabilities to allow employees to make and receive calls and texts from their personal phones while maintaining a consistent business presence.
Why? Moving to the cloud should mean more, not fewer, capabilities and benefits than you have with in-house infrastructure. By supporting the tools you already own, and that your employees know how to use, the UCaaS provider helps you maximize productivity.
As a final measure to determine which providers are leading the space, listen to what the experts are saying. Numerous cloud providers means a lot of competition—and thus a lot of pressure on their profit margins. With publicly held providers, peruse their past few earnings reports for key metrics such as revenue growth, profitability, and cash flow. And, see what respected analysts such as Gartner are reporting. They’re also key for scrutinizing cloud providers that are privately owned.