Unified communications services pull together a variety of communication technologies that can be mixed and matched, hosted in the cloud or on-premises, and managed entirely or partially by a managed service provider.
While the breadth of options presents a challenge to companies trying to determine the best solution, it also presents an opportunity for managed service providers (MSPs) to help their customers make sense of it all. Channel partners may sell a range of unified communications (UC) services to guide their clients through the complexities of UC. Among those services are integration, support, infrastructure management and hosting. Providing UC as a service is another possibility as the technology moves to the cloud.
"UC is not really something that's transforming the business, but we do see a lot more of UC, and specifically a lot more cloud UC," said Daniel O'Connell, research director, enterprise communications markets, for Gartner. "People are doing all the services -- telephony, unified messaging, Web/audio/video conferencing. It's taking longer to happen than we projected five years ago, but it is happening, and it's happening on both the cloud and on-premises."
Cloud dims the complexities of UC
"There are many reasons companies go to the cloud," O'Connell said, "and one of those is to reduce cost. The cloud reduces cost for the provider as well as the customer."
But there is another reason why the cloud is appealing for UC channel partners, and it pertains more to the nature of UC than the inherent benefits of the cloud. Grant Sainsbury, vice president of advanced solutions for Dimension Data, said the global IT infrastructure service and solution provider is seeing a lot of interest in its cloud-based unified communications services.
"That [interest is] being driven by a lot of things. At the heart of it, we've known for a long time that there are some powerful business benefits tied to UC in the way it supports mobility and allows users to be more productive. But, frankly, UC has been difficult to design, implement and support."
He continued: "We call it unified communications, but there are a lot of silos and interoperability challenges between big players, so we've seen resistance from IT against what should be a powerful business tool. Cloud services make UC more appealing."
A full cloud UC package, according to O'Connell, includes voice; unified messaging (voice messages are sent to email and text); instant messaging; presence; mobility (usage of a smart phone as a replacement for a hard phone); and audio, Web and video conferencing. "In reality, most deployments don't have them all," he said.
Sainsbury said conversations with customers often focus on deploying UC in a hybrid model, which allows them to keep the investments they've made in on-premises communication tools while growing in the cloud. "It's not a direct on-premises to cloud migration; there's a step in the middle," he said.
Integrating unified communications services
That step involves some integration work. "There's always a bit of cleaning up that needs to be done to make sure that everything is fully interoperable," O'Connell said.
"The key is providing a consistent service layer across all three models, and that's what we've achieved for our managed UC. Regardless of where the assets sit and who's managing them, we create the same experience from the enterprise IT organization's perspective," Sainsbury said.
Integration also takes place when customers want to use various technologies from different providers. "Companies say, 'I like unified messaging from manufacturer A, and I like instant messaging from manufacturer B, and video from manufacturer C,' so now the customer has to manage all of these," said Franz Dornstauder, senior solutions architect, advanced solutions group, for ITsavvy, an Addison, Ill.-based solution provider.
"As an integrator, I can say, 'No problem. We have them all. I can put them in a data center or on-premises, and we can manage as much or as little as you want of that,'" Dornstauder said.
UC hosting and managed service options
MSPs can host a UC offering within their own data center or resell a cloud provider's offering. "Some VARs [value-added resellers] will look to take cloud UC and package it with managed services to get a differentiated service," O'Connell said. "The cloud UC provider is in charge of upgrades. That's the beauty of it."
He added: "Other services users expect would be some sort of installation and tier-1, tier-2 and tier-3 support. [Support] is usually pretty important but it is overlooked."
Daniel O'Connellresearch director, enterprise communications markets, Gartner
In addition to managing the UC platform, MSPs can offer to manage the network infrastructure that supports it. This can include "managing the LAN, managing the router, managing their Wi-Fi or managing their security. Those are all value-added offerings," O'Connell said. "Those types of services are largely for on-premises-based solutions."
Determining where services are hosted and who manages them are not necessarily straightforward decisions. "The biggest challenge we see is that most organizations haven't defined an end state. We deliver different models, but the right model for any client is invariably tied to the end state they are trying to achieve," Sainsbury said.
This involves answering a number of questions, Sainsbury said, including: What business requirement is the customer trying to improve? What user experience within employee communications are they are trying to provide? What are the customer's IT competencies? What services and infrastructure do they want to manage? What do they want to outsource? What are their preferences around asset ownership?
Sainsbury added, "We have a methodology to understand where [customers] are today [and] where they want to be. By the time we work through those questions, we end up with a solution profile that might match a standard offering … but we have the flexibility to mix them as well."
Building a UC strategy: Identify the best tool for the job
The same approach applies to determining which specific UC tools or functionalities customers need. "I see my biggest role in this is to listen to the customer, find out what their pain points are and how they do business, and match those with the tools that we offer to improve their business," Dornstauder said.
Customers don't necessarily need all the features that come in a UC platform. The feature has to make sense for the business. For example, presence technology doesn't provide a lot of value for a company of 50 users working in cubicles within one large office. "In that case, I don't need presence. I can stand up and see if John is there," Dornstauder said. "But in a large enterprise with remote sites, it is incredibly important to know the presence of a person, because I'm looking for first-call resolution."
Ray Pasquale, CEO of Unified Office, a Portsmouth, N.H. -based managed VoIP and UC provider, agreed. "It's not about UC. It's not about the actual feature. It's about how you apply it. It's about increasing revenue and increasing profitability. That's what's important to business," he said.
These benefits often need to be communicated to customers. "As a solution provider, we try to get across the value UC will bring. A lot of times, [customers] don't even know what's available," Dornstauder said. However, once he gives an example, like using presence in an enterprise to improve first-call resolution, Dornstauder said customers get it.
Delivering value is key to UC success
O'Connell said it is common to implement UC functionality based on the user's job description. "[Companies] have different types of employees. … They'll have some back-office employees who just have voice and voicemail. Then other workers who are more knowledge-based will have softphones, mobility and unified messaging added to that. Then executives will have Web and video conferencing [on top of that]," he said.
This is similar to the approach taken by Dimension Data to determine which functionality to recommend to customers. "Our roadmap looks at different personas -- titles and job functions. With a lot of UC deployments you see different devices and video endpoints being allocated. What's more important is looking at how people work, then giving them a tool," Sainsbury said.
No matter how appropriate it is to the user's job, UC only brings value if users adopt it. "It's one thing to have good UC tools that provide an intuitive and integrated experience for the users, but with any kind of investment, especially if the client's on a consumptive model, they won't get the benefit if they don't start using it," Sainsbury said.
It doesn't do any good, for example, if the company deploys video conferencing, and users put sticky notes over the camera on their monitors, he noted.
To help ensure adoption, Dimension Data includes adoption services in its UC deployments. "There are two bookends: One is making sure that clients get the right kind of UC solution for the organization they are or want to become," Sainsbury said. "At the back end, it has to be supported in the right way. We have an adoption management program we will bring to clients that is about shifting the way they work to drive productivity."
He continued: "Getting people to use the tool is key, because this is what drives change and helps companies get value out of the investment."
Read about how MSPs deliver value around managed email services
Learn about the challenges of managed communications
Channel opportunities in the WebRTC market