The right path to UC?

Picture this: the pros and cons of going down the Unified Communications (UC) route have been assessed and the benefits look promising. So far so good. But in a world where vendors flaunt their purchasing options almost as much as the solutions themselves, and where your capex budget is being squeezed to the point of suffocation, but hosted services feel forever out of reach, which route do you take?

While this is a quandary about financials, it is much more than that. If you think the decision starts and ends with what you will pay up front for a premise-based solution versus what figure will be on the monthly bill that drops through your door for a hosted solution, think again.

The issues that companies face around capex are well understood. Quite simply, getting a sometimes obscenely big up-front lump sum signed off can be wishful thinking at best. The alternative hosted route may be an answer to the problem, and for many businesses it has enabled them to move forward with solutions that would have been prohibitive under a capex-only model, but it does mean handing over control to a third party, something many companies are reluctant to do.

Whatever route a business decides to take, it needs to makes sure that it takes account of all the variables, in order to come up with as accurate a cost as possible. If hidden costs that really should have been identified upfront are unearthed a year or so into an implementation, be prepared for finger-pointing and even heads to roll.

For a premise-based solution, as well as the actual cost of the solution, it is vital to factor in sufficient IT resources to deal with the integration of the new applications with the old, as well as carrying on with day-to-day IT needs. But beyond integration, issues such as performance monitoring and change management will need to be dealt with, which will also require additional resourcing.

Depending on the uplift required for all of this, companies might think about pulling in outside help to cover the transition. Alternatively, they might consider outsourcing the implementation and ongoing management of this to a third party, such as a systems integrator or reseller, where the service is managed remotely, or where a specialist is placed on-site. Either way, these are costs and skills that need to be accounted for. Other costs that might rear their head down the line might include software maintenance and support costs.

Hosted UC might appear easier on the maths, and more predictable from a budgeting perspective, with recurring costs correlating directly to the number of users. But a business needs to be comfortable relinquishing control – and based on feedback we have had from Reg readers in the past, you are somewhat divided on this issue.

As with premise-based services, it makes sense to provision for unexpected costs, such as additional in-house resourcing, or perhaps extra supplier management to deal with interoperability issues. And while hosted UC is easier to scale, it is worth considering if there is a tipping point number of users beyond which it will cease to be the cheaper option, and ask whether the business will be reaching that point any time soon.

In any case, hosted services generally work out costing more in the longer term, and this is unlikely to be any different for UC. Even if the hosted cost model is the preferred option, does it offer the feature set or degree of customisation that the business will ultimately need? And what about data security and data protection requirements of the company? Does a hosted UC measure up to these? If the answer to either of these questions is no, then UC could become a non-starter before the start whistle has even been blown.

The decision of which route to take is not necessarily constrained by the need to go with a preferred vendor, as most offer both premise-based and hosted UC. However, on the issue of vendor choice, picking up on the earlier point around integration, an important question for the business to ask itself is whether UC is being implemented as part of an augmentation of the current email environment, or whether it will form a new pivot point within the business, which embraces email, along with other core business applications.

Where UC is seen as an extension of email, the temptation might be to go with the vendor that supplies the existing email system. So if your company is an Exchange or Domino house, will Microsoft or IBM become your automatic choice of UC supplier? You might want to stick to the same provider because it seems an easier route to take, but equally, if you want to work in a multi-vendor UC environment, don’t assume that good integration won’t be achievable. Pretty much all UC solutions will integrate with Outlook and/or Exchange, and many will interoperate with Notes/Domino out of the box too.

While using your email environment as a starting point for UC isn’t necessarily wrong, it may constrain how UC rolls out across the business. In an earlier article, we talked about the need to think about approaching communication and processes in a different way to achieve genuine business benefits. Getting users to change the way they do things may be easier if UC is something completely new, rather than functionality that is bolted onto existing systems.

At the end of the day, the issue isn’t as much about what is the right or wrong way to implement UC, as what will deliver the best possible benefits into the business, in the easiest, most cost-effective way. A route that suits some businesses won’t be as good for others. And while it may be possible to generalise to some degree about which option to go for, based on your company profile, don’t be bound by this. Make sure the issue of approach is given due attention – it is too critical an area to be treated otherwise. Call on vendors for information and guidance, and if possible, talk to other users about their experiences, but use this to inform your decision, rather than dictate it.

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