Most of us have been hearing a lot of talk about Cloud. For the last couple of years, it’s been more just interesting conversations and intellectual debates. But more customers are telling me that they intend to at least evaluate the option of Cloud. Keep in mind that far too many people lump Cloud, Hosted, Something as a Service, etc together. What most people have in their head when it comes to “cloud” could actually be more accurately described as “IP Centrex”. There are definite differences, but lately, I’m finding it to not add enough value to spend the time trying to delineate those characteristics. People love to use the word Cloud for everything. So, be it. In any case, those different characteristics and deployment models exist, and I’m finding that customers aren’t necessarily thinking through all the implications of their choices. Often, it isn’t IT/Voice that is making the decision of whether to go cloud. I find that it is often a finance decision where a lot of the technology variables just aren’t taken into consideration. It is rarely an overall Cost of Ownership benefit. But there is a potential benefit in the conversion of Capex (pay everything up front, for future benefit) to Opex (expenses, such as wages, maintenance, utilities, etc, incurred in the course of ordinary business). A lot of the time, it is to eliminate the resources/expertise needed to manage the system. I think the biggest advantage is in the form of “elasticity”, having the flexibility to grow or shrink the solution’s cost as the business grows or shrinks. But again, all of these benefits change based on exactly what deployment model you’re looking at. I’ve found that just bringing up these options and asking questions (of which most people rarely have a solid answer for) will how a customer that they need to have some deeper conversations before they make their final decision. There are a million topics to talk about with a customer to gauge their level of interest, but I will always start with the following?
Are you looking at a Multi-Instance or Multi-Tenant solution? Multi-Tenant is one of the characteristics that I think separates “cloud” from “hosted”. Cloud tends to be more Multi-Tenant, meaning more than one customer is sharing a single “system”. The advantages to this is usually on the side of the provider. It’s one system to manage and maintain. It’s one system to upgrade. This also generally allows providers to be more flexible with their elasticity as well as their scale (both scaling big and scaling small). With a multi-tenant system, it is much easy for a provider to let a customer buy individual “seats” to very small customers. But most customers hate the idea of having to “share” their system with someone else. There is a security risk (perceive or real) that one customer’s data could intermingle with another customer’s data. Multi-Instance solutions are ones where each customer has their own dedicated system. This is definitely more expensive for the provider, although virtualization tends to ease that pain considerably. The advantages for the customer are plentiful. Each customer can be on a different software versions which keeps their integration apps from breaking as the provider applies upgrades and patches. There are much better options for customization per customer when they each have their instance. I find that once the more complex or larger customers understand the differences, they all want Multi-Instance.
How/where do you plan to deploy the hardware? Most people think old school with their idea of “cloud”. They want EVERYTHING in the cloud (not in their premise). There’s usually much higher costs associated with this in terms of network bandwidth, especially for heavily trunked environments. Every call (voice and often video) is chewing up bandwidth to get back to the media resources. You really just have to map it all out and look at the traffic flows and pools of concentrated users and see what makes sense. You could think of providers offering 3 different hardware deployment models. The first is FULLY hosted. Everything is in the provider’s data center. Another option is FULLY hosted, with on-prem survivability (fully managed/monitored by the provider). The third option is to only have the application servers hosted, but all the media resources and trunking located on-prem (again fully managed/monitored by the provider). The answer is fairly predictable, again based on the customer’s size and complexity.
What kind of integrations are you doing to back office systems? Are you doing any data dips in your IVR? Are you screen popping customer data onto your contact center agent’s desktop as they answer calls? And advanced CEBP integrations? Any Enterprise Directory lookups or integration with on-prem UC solutions like Lync? This complicates things immensely for hosted/cloud providers. Not only do you have to worry about the voice bearer paths (which, in the SIP world, is easily handled by SBCs), but now you have to expose that data access to the provider, unless they conveniently happen to be hosting that infrastructure as well. If not, exposing that data to a provider makes customers VERY nervous.
What about trunks? Are you looking to just pay one price per user that includes PSTN local and long distance access? Or do you want to BYOT (Bring Your Own Trunks)? This tends to be a customer size question. Small customers don’t want to have anything to do with any of it. Pushing it all to the provider. Bigger customers will still have their data network services (ie MPLS) to deal with and often have existing relationships and contracts with their carriers. They almost always want to get their own and just point their trunks to the provider’s data center. This is almost always easier with SIP trunks. Keep in mind that the providers who buy the carrier services and resell them to individual customers usually need to become a regulated CLEC. This is why most of those providers that fit into that niche are already carriers. They have already figured out how to handle provisioning and billing of those PSTN services. There is some middle ground in there where a provider may have an agency relationship with some carriers and can help coordinate everything on behalf of the customer, but the customers’ PSTN bill will almost always still come from the carrier directly.
So, there are a lot of things to evaluate when looking at a move to any kind of off-prem solution. We really haven’t even talked about feature completeness and capabilities. Most customers who view telephony as a utility, probably won’t care as long as it can do the basics. But choosing a cloud provider requires the same due diligence as would be required for changing out on-prem solutions. Whether you call it IP Centrex, hosted, Cloud, UCaaS, there are a ton of different models, with most providers only offer a subset of these options. So, it is important to talk to your vendor about those options before they get too far down the road, locking in some bad, uninformed decisions. Arrow SI has many of these options in ourportfolio and can be your trusted advisor, either reinforcing the benefits of their on-prem solution (which also happen to have many “cloud” characteristics, usually called the enterprise cloud) or helping advise you on choosing the best hosted/cloud offer.