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Unified communications managed services evolve amid pandemic

Service-level agreements, management layers, incident tracking and governance are all part of the evolving cloud communications service provider business model.

A new partner business model aims to make its mark by deploying, securing and managing customers' cloud-based communication and collaboration platforms.

These cloud communications specialists came of age amid the COVID-19 pandemic and saw their prospects soar as customers tapped them for guidance on Cisco, Microsoft Teams, Zoom and a host of other platforms. Partners continue to work with clients as they build upon the stop-gap projects of 2020. They believe the market has staying power, investing in unified communications as a service (UCaaS), contact center as a service (CCaaS), and desktop as a service (DaaS), among other offerings.

"There is a new class of service provider emerging out of COVID," said Andrew Gilman, head of marketing and alliances at NWN Corp., an MSP based in Waltham, Mass.

NWN refers to companies in this category as cloud communications service providers and considers itself part of that group. Partners in this market may also describe their offerings as unified communications managed services or digital workplace services.

"There are a number of these partners who offer a range of managed services, primarily to SMB customers," noted Kevin Rhone, a senior partnering consultant who covers the channel at Enterprise Strategy Group, a division of TechTarget.

Kevin RhoneKevin Rhone

Traits of cloud communications partners

The partner model emerged in the early months of the pandemic, as businesses operating in "triage mode" adopted disparate cloud communications tools, Gilman said. Adopters eventually began to realize the complexities of running a distributed enterprise on various cloud platforms, and availability and performance grew into concerns.

"I can spin up an online meeting, but what happens if the application goes out?" Gilman said. "Who am I going to call as an enterprise?"

Andrew GilmanAndrew Gilman

Customers seek assurance that their cloud-based infrastructure will be ready to run and operates consistently -- demands they place on other familiar utilities. Cloud communications specialists address this need with the willingness to provide availability and performance guarantees under a service-level agreement (SLA), Gilman said. Other key deliverables include security services and management and analytics tools, he noted.

Jim SullivanJim Sullivan

NWN CEO Jim Sullivan cited the lack of adequate tooling as "one of the major gaps" for enterprises, government agencies and educational institutions that adopt cloud-based communications platforms. Large organizations, for decades, have deployed tools for monitoring and managing on-premises communications systems and infrastructure. Those capabilities don't necessarily translate to the cloud, Gilman added.

Against that backdrop, NWN provides its Experience Management Platform (EMP), which includes reporting and dashboards that span service desk, cybersecurity incident detection and remediation. The platform also provides data on utilization and SLA management, while also covering infrastructure management and monitoring. Utilization combined with analytics lets users see different levels of information, Gilman said. A UCaaS administration can view information on billing and charge backs, while an HR administrator can see how many hours employees use voice or video.

Brendan WalshBrendan Walsh

1901 Group, an MSP based in Reston, Va., and a wholly owned subsidiary of Leidos, offers UCaaS and CCaaS services. The MSP has its own take on how these cloud communications providers distinguish themselves. Brendan Walsh, senior vice president of partner programs at 1901 Group, said his company's as-a-service offerings, including communications and collaboration as a service, have four elements:

  • Technology. Specialization in platforms such as UCaaS and, with the shift to digital, the adoption of session initiation protocol communications.
  • Routing, ticketing and incident tracking. Software for call distribution and incident management.
  • Monitoring and management of assets and systems. Oversight of infrastructure, including soft client applications, network endpoints and routers.
  • Governance and compliance. The ability to address customers' regulatory compliance requirements. In the federal market, Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program can simplify this task, especially when multiple as-as-service elements have FedRAMP approval. For example, Cisco's Unified Communications Manager Cloud for Government is authorized under FedRAMP, as is 1901 Group's In³Sight monitoring and management offering.

Security is integrated into all four components, Walsh added.

Supporting remote workers via chatbots

The pandemic has compelled service providers to address another element of customers' communications and collaboration platforms: the need to support remote workers.

Karthik NarainKarthik Narain

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, Accenture provided cloud-based tools and related services under the "digital workplace" banner, but the boundaries of work have expanded, said Karthik Narain, who leads Accenture Cloud First.

"The workplace is distributed to remote workplaces," he said. "It is a lot more dynamic and a lot more capability is required."

Chatbots mark one area of expansion, Narain noted.

Accenture's internal IT team developed a Digital People Advisor (DiPA) for Accenture India. The DiPA chatbot, which is built on the Microsoft Bot Framework and Microsoft Cognitive Services, answers workplace questions on topics such as compensation and points them to new areas of learning and career development, Narain said. DiPA is hosted on Microsoft Azure.

While chatbots support employees, they also play a customer-facing role. A rising volume of customer inquiries and online orders amid the COVID-19 pandemic sparked use of this technology.

"The pandemic has put extreme pressure on many enterprises in terms of increased customer demands for service," Narain said. Many turned to chatbots to handle rising call-center and order-entry volume, he noted.

Bots and self-service options helped organizations tackle the spike in remote users during the pandemic, Walsh added. Bots, for example, can assist users with password resets or administrative issues such as filing an expense report. Offerings such as Nice InContact, a CCaaS platform, let customers build chatbots, he noted.

There is a new class of service provider emerging out of COVID.
Andrew GilmanHead of marketing and alliances, NWN Corp.

Virtual agents also play a role in CCaaS, with the goal of boosting call center staff productivity, Gilman said. Many call centers transitioned to remote workforces during the pandemic.

Vendor partnerships

Cloud communications partners typically partner with one or more vendors.

NWN, for example, works with Cisco on the UCaaS side and with HP Inc. for DaaS.

1901 Group also works with Cisco, managing Unified Contact Center Express (UCCX) and Unified Contact Center Enterprise among other offerings, Walsh said. For purely digital deployments, the company works with Nice InContact's CXone.

Accenture, meanwhile, partners with Microsoft among other companies. The company uses Teams in-house and deploys it for customers. Accenture considers itself among the largest Teams customers, having migrated more than 500,000 employees to remote collaboration as part of its pandemic response.

"We are becoming our own case study when we talk about how we have done this for our organization," Narain said.

While vendor alliances provide a route to cloud communications technology, some companies have opted to invest in products.

For example, American Virtual Cloud Technologies Inc., an IT solutions provider and MSP based in Atlanta, last year acquired Ribbon Communications Inc.'s Kandy Communications business. The latter entity's UCaaS, CCaaS and communications platform as a service products now serve as the company's Kandy Platform.

Kevin Howe-PattersonKevin Howe-Patterson

The solution provider now employs the cloud communications as-a-service business model internally and in its customer and partner offerings, said Kevin Howe-Patterson, Kandy Platform CTO and vice president of product management at American Virtual Cloud Technologies.

The company offers its cloud communications offerings on a white-label basis to other channel partners such as MSPs, IT services providers and communications service providers.

Management approaches

Cloud-based communications offerings include similar components such as audio, video and messaging applications. As a result, how partners manage those tools helps set them apart.

At NWN, the company's EMP provides the management layer for cloud communication platforms. "It's a major differentiator for us," Gilman said of NWN's management offering. "It's part of our intellectual property as a company."

EMP also offers customers the option of using those communication and collaboration tools. This federated approach gives customers the ability to retain control over some management tasks if they don't wish to outsource everything to NWN, Gilman said.

Howe-Patterson said American Virtual Cloud Technologies supports fully outsourced and federated approaches with its cloud communications tools. Those options let the company adapt to enterprise companies' needs and business models, he added.

COVID accelerates business model

Service providers manage cloud communications tools in a vastly different business climate. 1901 Group launched more than 10 years ago as a Cisco-hosted unified communications managed services provider. In those early days, customers, many of which used on-premises private branch exchanges, were skeptical of the as-a-service option.

"Now, they are knocking on our door," 1901 Group's Walsh said. "The pandemic … has been a catalyst for speeding up modernization."

NWN has also experienced this acceleration. When the company launched its solutions-as-a-service portfolio in September 2020, Sullivan initially believed customers would take seven years to migrate from their on-premises infrastructure to NWN's UCaaS, CCaaS and DaaS offerings.

The pandemic and the remote work shift, however, has compressed that window to three years. Customer uptake is already underway: NWN reported 20% year-over-year revenue growth in 2020, with its as-a-service offerings contributing to the expansion. "There has been a tremendous increase in adoption rate," Sullivan said.

Other MSPs have also cited the pandemic's effects on their business models.

"The pandemic shed light on the concept of communications without boundaries," noted Howe-Patterson of American Virtual Cloud Technologies.

As customers sought help moving their employees to remote work, the company responded with a "boundaryless model" to provide guidance and technology offerings, he said.

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