Unified Communications as a Service (UCaaS) Lessons Learned
Today, I wanted to summarize some of the things we are seeing in the field and are running into with UCaaS offerings. UCaaS has a lot of appeal. The capital outlay can be as low as just the costs of the phones. There is no onsite hardware to pay for or maintain. In some cases, there are more features available than there are with a low cost on premise system. These typically tend to be charged monthly, so no long-term cost commitments. I’m focusing a lot on cost here, because we are seeing customers look to UCaaS in the small to mid-size range. So, this sounds great! We are saving money up front, we only pay monthly, we may even get more services. Like many things that sound perfect, there are some issues. I wanted to talk through each of them.
So, what’s the downside? There are several things that can cause serious pain. Internet connectivity is the biggest of these. We’ve also seen systems jump into the market that aren’t ready for production. Generally, support must be done remotely, and some of these products are seeing growth that makes support a concern.
The number one issue with UCaaS by far is connectivity via Internet. This is the preferred method of connectivity to the cloud where your calls are processed. This is great if you have a large business class internet connection that is has plenty of capacity. I’m talking about the kinds of connections large companies have. That generally isn’t the case in this market. Most companies have an Internet connection provided by their cable company, or maybe small telco. These connections are great for data traffic. Data generally uses TCP to deliver packets across the network. The great thing about TCP is that packets that are lost are retransmitted which tends to hide any issues with your Internet connection except for significant oversubscription. Voice doesn’t work that way. Voice uses UDP to deliver packets. In a phone to phone situation, each phone starts sending UDP media packets to the other phone until there is a change on the call. If these packets are dropped, or arrive too late, they aren’t incorporated into the audio. This can result in poor voice quality. There isn’t any reason to retransmit a packet, as it would arrive too late in most cases. If I skip a word in a conversation, and then add it back in later, it makes no sense. Similarly, the sounds that are encoded in the packets don’t make any sense if they are too late or out of order. Here is where the Internet connection comes in. The connection may occasionally become saturated. This is fine for data, but the voice packets will either get dropped or delayed too long. There is generally no way to improve this without increasing the size of the Internet connection. Quality of Service can be used to improve voice quality on internal networks, and carrier connections that are direct, but that isn’t true of the Internet. Another factor here is the Internet itself. What path does your voice call traverse to reach the cloud phone system? That path can lead to additional delays and contention for bandwidth with other traffic. There isn’t a simple solution problem. We advise our customers with remote locations not to use VPN over the internet for this reason.
If I were going to move forward with UCaaS…
I would first determine how to test the suitability of the Internet connection. Many of the UCaaS providers have tools to monitor the Internet connection, but be cautious here. Not all tools are created equal. If the test is a quick moment in time test, it really doesn’t tell you how things will perform over the course of a day or a week. Most of these services don’t have exceptionally good testing tools. If you have someone who knows how to setup testing on your own, that’s great. If you don’t, I would suggest seeking assistance. I would also go into this experience with the knowledge that I might have to increase the size of my Internet connection, or even switch to a provider with more reliable service.
The next thing we’ve run into is systems that just aren’t ready for production. The UCaaS market is growing fast, and everyone wants to plant their flag and get their piece of the pie. This has caused some systems to be put into production that just weren’t ready. We’ve seen customers that have gone through nightmares trying to make a system work, who eventually give up and go to a premise based solution. I’m not going to call out names, as most of what I know is second hand. It could be that a system worked well somewhere else, and I didn’t hear about other issues contributing to the failures. I will say that I’ve heard about enough issues that I would personally be very careful. My advice here is to do a lot of research or ask for help. Generally, if a system has lots of issues, there is going to be a post on the Internet somewhere about it. You can also review the Gartner Reports. Gartner looks at market segments and reviews companies ranking them in a quadrant system. They then discuss the companies and give pros and cons. You can get these reports for free, by doing a web search and finding a company that will provide them. You typically need to fill out your contact information to download the report. Trust me, the information contained in the reports are worth the sales calls that may follow. Don’t make a snap decision.
Support is another area that can be a downfall of UCaaS. These systems are often sold by companies that don’t have a local presence. When there is a support issue, you’ll typically be working with the UCaaS provider over the phone. They may require you to gather logs, run troubleshooting tests, etc. If you aren’t comfortable doing that, make sure you have a managed service agreement with someone local. Another issue with support is growth. If you read the Gartner report on support you’ll see that some companies do well in many areas, but there are concerns that they won’t be able to meet support and sales needs as they grow. That’s worth being aware of.
One final thought: do you really want to move your voice to the cloud? There are many on premise solutions that provide comparable features at a comparable cost. Contracts can generally be setup so that the cost is recognized monthly. In most of these cases you are working through a local company with local support. In the end, there are a lot of factors involved that could push you either way. I would come to the table with a lot of questions, and review multiple cloud and premise systems before making a decision.
Curtis brings over 25 years of collaboration experience to ABS. As the Collaboration Team Manager, Curtis works to ensure that ABS is consistently providing the latest collaboration technology and support to ABS clients.