As the consideration of eliminating capital cost outlays for new-age communications tools and reducing on-going costs to administer and maintain in-house systems many businesses are making the leap to communications offered as a service. Hosted, Cloud, and UC as-a-Service (UCaaS) are among the labels used for these offerings. However, not all are the same and the exact set of capabilities you can get from each service provider varies widely.
Regardless of which provider you choose you must consider several key factors that will ensure when you make the switch you get what is expected for your business. There are many stories of disenchanted customers with experiences that put them back on the drawing board. The most fundamental can be a realization that the cost savings did not outweigh the fact that you couldn’t hear the person on the other end of a phone call when it comes to doing day-to-day business.
For those organizations considering moving to UC-as-a Service for their communications there are several key factors that should be considered in your service provide review. The following Top Ten provide organizations with some guidance of punch-list of items to consider in their selection process:
1 – Voice Termination & Origination
If you are planning to move to UCaaS you should consider moving all of your PSTN arrangements to your new provider. As a result you should consider the following:
- Is support for voice call termination and origination part of their offering?
- Can they port all of your existing numbers over?
- Ensure that you include all voice services, including any 800-services, long distance /international termination services, etc.
- Check to see that your provider has multiple carrier relationships to enable alternative call routes and best-price services.
2 – End-user and Phone Service Tiers & Options
One of the reasons to move to a cloud-based service is to take advantage of newer unified communications capabilities. You should evaluate the various feature and pricing tiers that the provider offers and consider how they map to your end-user needs. You should also take inventory of all analog lines or other specialty communications you utilize and ensure the provider can accommodate these. Then, make sure you review their UC Client offerings for a match against your inventory of PCs, MACs, Mobile and Tablet devices. Some examples of key services to review include:
- Basic services typically used as a voice-only service for basic users or phones in locations such as a voice phone for a lobby or conference room.
- Analog services may be needed if you intend to reuse certain analog devices such as older conference phones, modem lines, or fax machines.
- Advanced phones and related phone features should be considered – take inventory of users that may utilize more advanced features on existing phones such as “Boss-Secretary”, multi-line, etc. Contrast these with available devices and pricing from your provider or review alternative work styles you will enable using the UC Clients.
- Voice-mail will more than likely change if it will be part of your new service by your new provider. Be sure the transition planning and the training on the differences are included. This may also be an opportunity to move to unified-messaging and therefor you need to consider how the provider will link messages into your email system.
- Unified communications services such as desktop applications that provide instant messaging, presence state information, and easy to add contact lists can enhance collaboration in your business. Be sure to evaluate how these services will tie in to your existing directories, email calendars, and other systems. You should also plan for desktop client deployment and administration of these new clients to your employee desktops.
- Email may also be a consideration and you need to evaluate how this transition to a hosted email will occur with the least interruption to your business. If moving your email to the provider make sure they have a well defined continuity plan and clear security methods to protect your business information that will now be in their data center.
- Web Conferencing and Audio-bridges may also be a service option. If you utilize a service today this may be an opportunity to optimize the costs and the ease of use for your business. Often service providers can provide a more integrated user experience for these services. Be sure to evaluate the web conferencing services for how well they replace existing services and meet your business needs.
- Contact Center, if you have a customer support center that utilizes a Contact Center application you should review how connectivity into this center is maintained, or if you are also switching to the providers contact center service then a very detailed review of you customer support workflows and tool comparison need to be considered.
- Wireless Phones may be used in your internal areas such as factory floors and while these may be analog you should review the options to support WiFi or DECT based wireless devices as part of your new service as it may provide you with additional benefits.
- Soft Phones are becoming a way in which mobile users can save money and connect with better voice quality back into others in your organization.
- Optional Services should be evaluated for how well these fit into special needs you have in your business. You may wish to phase some of these services in as you transition, however you should be aware of what is available.
3 – Deployment Service Capabilities
The transition to your service-provider will no doubt include an evaluation of your existing internal networking environment and the deployment of new equipment on-premises to support the service. You should ensure that your new provider is experienced in such evaluations and offers assistance in deployment of on-premise equipment. Be clear on who will do handle all on-premises deployments.
- Check premises termination points and be sure you know what gear will provide what level of connectivity and for IP devices and validate all routing policies to ensure private-to-public handling of addresses are planned for.
- Validate that all external connected devices used have a security policy associated with them and check for how will that align with your existing policies.
- A transition to IP telephones will require new power considerations, be sure you know how these phones will be powered, including during power outage scenarios.
- You should include a request to understand the premise deployment skills from your provider, even including any new rewiring that you may need to complete the service enablement.
- Be clear on who will manage which devices – where is the “demark” between you providers responsibility and yours.
4 – Data Center (DC) Capabilities
Ultimately your service provider will be operating a portion of your business within their data center facilities. It’s important to understand their data centers and how they can provide you with an assurance of service delivery. Some things to consider include:
- The physical locations and the number of DCs your provider operates. They should have a minimum of two locations providing redundancy in their service across these sites. It is worth checking these locations for threats such as major weather trends. Be sure the sites provide sufficient geographical isolation (sometimes referred to as geo-redundancy). Some operators will utilize another party’s data center facilities to operate their service; this can be just fine however they should have a list of credentials for these data centers as well.
- DC connectivity is a must and you should ensure you are clear on how your provider interconnects their DCs with the appropriate bandwidth. External connectivity to your site(s) and to voice (PSTN) services from each site under failure scenarios should be included.
- Most providers will utilize a variety of vendor components to comprise their services. You may wish to evaluate the service security and its isolation for your business. Providers can experience greater economies of scale with shared services on a single software (known as multi-tenant) but you may wish to have distinct isolation via a virtual instances (know as a virtual machine/instance or VM)
- All connectivity should include an option to apply security. This includes options for encryption of IP connectivity, physical security of facilities the facilities, and related alerts & alarming to protect to facilities.
- Often providers will utilize well-known accreditations and auditing of their service and facilities. One common auditing method is SAS70, which has multiple tiers, providing different levels of auditing of services delivery, reporting, etc. You should familiarize yourself with the different accreditations of your provider and what they mean to your business.
- All the equipment utilized to provide your service requires power and you should review the methods your provider utilizes to ensure uptime. This will include alternate power sources, usually one consisting of a self-standing generator that can provide power for the duration of an outage. You want to understand how long your service will be available during such conditions.
5 – IP Connectivity
In most cases you are moving your entire set of voice and data services to your new provider and it is important to evaluate several factors for this connectivity:
- Since you will have real-time IP traffic for voice and video services you need to clearly understand how the provide handles quality of service (QoS) methods for different traffic types. Be sure you consider end-to-end flows of such traffic.
- One of the options may be to move your Internet data service to your new provider. You should ensure that your Internet connectivity needs are considered for appropriate bandwidth. Keep in mind that you may move to a single broadband IP connection into your facilities with voice, video, and Internet services.
- Your service package may also provide site-to-site connectivity for other on-premises data and for voice and video calling among your internal employees. Be sure to assess these calling patterns and the data-oriented applications you are running and how they might consume connectivity needs through your new provider.
- Understand their options for connectivity, including Fiber, Ethernet, xDSL services, cable, or wireless. What are their alternatives for backup connectivity?
6 – Premise Equipment Options
As part of the transition to UCaaS there will be several areas where you need to consider changes to premises equipment. The most obvious may be the desktop telephones, however you will also need to consider others that should be part of your evaluation checklist:
- Telephones should include various type of phones (phone features) needed within your business and this inventory creates the baseline for selecting new phone devices that are supported by your provider. Don’t forget to inventory analog phones and phones that do not have people associated with them.
- Powering IP phones can be accomplished using local AC power adapters on each phone or by deploying Power Over Ethernet (POE) switches that will provide power and IP connectivity. The later is the most desirable and as a result you will need to consider where and how many POE switches you will need and match that against the existing wire runs to where the end-phone will be connected.
- External Network Access – If you have connectivity for users that work outside of your organization, such as work-at-home users or mobile softphone users then you will want to evaluate your provider’s support for these users. Typically they will operate from an unknown private network that uses Network Address Translation (NAT) as a means to interwork with public networks. To ensure that can connect easily many provides will support appropriate routing of the users connection through a Session Border Controller (SBC) that accommodates for these different IP address environments. Additionally you could support connectivity for these users back to your network via Virtual Private Network (VPN) technology, by enabling ALG functions in a firewall or by adding an appropriate device that handles this at your network edge. Be sure to include all remote users in your plan and to understand how your provider will support you.
- Edge Routers – As part of getting your office location connected you will likely deploy edge routers on premises to terminate the service providers IP connectivity. Most providers will provide this as part of their service deployment plan and it is this device that will be part of the QoS intelligence for your new real-time voice services. As part of the planning you should also consider the relationship between these edge routers and your local area networks ability to provide matching QoS criteria.
- Media Gateways – If you have analog devices on premise then these will require special gateways that provide the appropriate analog device termination. These are readily available however you need to ensure that the device you plan to utilize is one supported (or provided by) your new provider as they must be controlled by the service to process inbound and outbound calls.
7 – Monitoring, Reporting & Administrative Tools
There can be many types and levels of administration and monitoring of the service and ultimately you should seek to have your provider handle most of this while ensuring that they having it in place. There are some areas you may still wish to have some access to or at a minimum understand the provider’s capabilities:
- You should expect the provider to be monitoring network performance however you should request a review of their real-time media monitoring, alarming and response mechanisms that are used in their service to ensure the appropriate service levels.
- Utilization of your new service should be transparent and allow you to adjust the service levels based on new knowledge of utilization – either reducing or expanding certain services. To accomplish this you need to ensure your provider includes the appropriate reports, either documents they send or an online interface, that allow you to assess you utilization of the service.
- Basic management of users, often known as Moves, Adds, and Changes (MACs) is also something you may wish to request from your provider. Often it’s easy to allow an administrative person within your organization to handle these simple changes as opposed to making requests back to the provider. Either is a good approach, however if you will have to request changes to your provider then understand the process and the timeframes for implementing these changes.
- If you itemize your utilization costs by department then you will want to ensure they can provide you with the appropriate call accounting information so you can parse the expenses accordingly.
8 – Support Process, Engineers and Issue Response
As part of most service provider agreements you will have a Service Level Agreement (SLA). This is an important part of your new arrangement and you should pay particular attention to it. In addition you may wish to inquire about the providers capabilities to truly support all elements of the written SLA they provide to you. Remember, its one things to have a legal arrangement, its another to be sure your business is running every day:
- Ask for their documented support and escalation process. Know how they will respond and address issues that you may experience.
- Look for methods that provide specific tracking / ID numbers for your issues and know that you can get reports on their status.
- Request a review of their staffing of engineers that support the service and who and how will respond to your issues. You do not need to know all of them by name or how many, but ensure they have a clear answer with staff and a plan to support you.
- What is the engagement method in the event of an issue; do they offer 24 hour, 7 day a week support? Is it necessary? How will you contact them, via email, a Phone call, a web site?
9 – Integration with Other Applications
In some cases your new services may need to connect with other applications you have and operate (those not managed by the provider) and you need to be clear on how these will integrate.
- Email infrastructure (server) integration if you wish to utilize unified messaging – this means the voice-mail capture now by your service provider needs to make its way into your own email servers.
- Business application integration if you want users to invoke calls, web conferences, other services from within those applications. If you are using a Contact Center application for example are the telephones for your agents connected to your existing phone system or are they isolated? Often the relationship between an agent phone call and the contact center application is very specific and needs to be considered carefully.
- Mail Client integration, such as Outlook, to enable your users to invoke the new services directly from within these clients. The most common is the form of an Outlook Add-in that provides certain UC, Web Conferencing, or calling services directly from within Outlook.
10 – Price
Lastly, pricing of the new service is of course often a key driver for you to move to the service provider. When evaluating pricing be sure to evaluate all the key factors:
- Read deeply into each cost, as some initial price points may appear very desirable until you realize they do not include all the important services you need to have a reliable and business-class set of services for your business.
- Consider all the costs, including connectivity for the Internet, the new PSTN services, and email if you are moving to the service provider’s email, and more. Compare these against your current service costs, reliability, or the cost for you to deploy it yourself.
- Include manpower. If you have to run these services yourself and want to compare apples-to-apples then you have to include your estimates for manpower in your comparisons.
- Maintenance and software assurance fees must be considered since with a service provider you will always have these latest service (or should have) an do not have to pay to a vendor these fees.
- Hardware devices will still be needed and of course you will need to weigh the options of purchasing versus leasing/renting devices such as telephones. Different providers offer these options and you should be sure you understand how what they offer balances with your goals.