Once upon a time, businesses needed only a few conference rooms and a collection of phone lines to help employees collaborate. That's a far cry from today's landscape, in which smartphones, cloud services, video chat, and other new technologies enable workers to collaborate with anyone from anywhere at any time.
The new tools can help businesses be more agile and productive, but they also present growing technical challenges. Unified communications (UC) vendors offer more diverse and far-reaching products than ever. The variety can empower IT admins, but it also forces them to slog through a quagmire of evolving technologies and use cases. As the options grow, it's all too easy to overcomplicate a deployment, create user training problems, or otherwise turn your UC system into a productivity inhibitor.
How can enterprises make sure they choose the right UC tools for their needs? InformationWeek spoke to KelCor president and principal analyst Brent Kelly, who will be among the experts discussing UC technologies at the upcoming Interop conference in New York. Here are five tips Kelly shared to help you choose the right UC vendor for your needs.
1. Define your employees' use cases.
Whether you're buying products from Cisco, Microsoft, ShoreTel, Avaya, or some other UC player, it's easy to get so caught up in the options that you lose sight of concrete goals. "It's important that, before you start the process of trying to identify vendors, you identify needs within your organization," said Kelly.
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A complete UC system can include instant messaging, presence, audio and web conferencing, calendar integration, file systems, and more. Not all employees will benefit from all the newest bells and whistles. If a bank's web engineering team includes members in different countries, those engineers could obviously benefit from a video conferencing product. But do the bank's tellers need the same tools? "A bank teller might not need more than a phone or voicemail," Kelly said. "Some employees might not need anything."
2. Keep an eye on long-term costs.
Kelly said that some IT decision makers think they're getting a great deal on a UC system but end up getting blindsided down the road by maintenance and support expenses. "The initial capital outlay is going to be less than half of the cost of ownership," he said. "Before they buy, companies need to look at what it is really going to take to maintain, as well as at ongoing licensing costs and upgrade costs."
3. Consider the cloud, and watch the web.
Though many UC systems are still based around on-premises hardware, cloud and web-based services are opening new opportunities. Kelly said that there's cause to be "really bullish" on these advances, and that cloud-oriented options are almost a no-brainer for SMBs. "The breakoff point is between 500 and 600 employees." Smaller companies can save money by purchasing a package with something like Microsoft Lync and bundled voice services instead of a conventional on-premises product.
For larger companies, he said, cloud services are cheaper for a year or two, but that the advantage shrinks over time. Nevertheless, he said, "large companies are often willing to pay a bit more for a cloud service, because it frees them up from other hassles." IT staffers can spend time working on business objectives instead of dealing with help desk tickets, for example.
Kelly also suggested keeping an eye on emerging web technologies such as WebRTC, which builds many voice and video capabilities directly into the browser. Over time, this technology could diminish businesses' reliance on expensive PBX systems for their phones.
4. There can be consequences if you mix and match.
Few things enrage IT admins as much as vendor lock-in, but Kelly said there are advantages to using products designed to work together. He recalled working with a business in which different departments chose their preferred tools, resulting in a mix of products from Dropbox, Box, Google, and Citrix. In some meetings, "the head buy didn't have his own account, so an admin needed to start the meeting, then sign off," he said. "No one could control it."
Even if a business invests in best-of-breed technology, if the products come from different vendors, it can just be a mess, Kelly said. He reiterated that businesses should build granular use cases before choosing a vendor. By profiling the types of users who will actually use the UC products and defining what those users need to achieve, companies can plan how different tools will need to interact. Kelly added that most large vendors have demonstration centers that allow IT decision makers to get hands-on experience with a product before deciding whether to buy.
When businesses do mix and match, "all the vendors say they're compliant with standards, but all have extensions that allow them to do more things with their own devices."
5. Third-party maintenance can save you money.
PBX maintenance can be costly when it's completed through the original manufacturer, but Kelly said third-party options can save businesses more than two-thirds of these costs. He noted that many reliable third-party service options are available, and that first-party service isn't necessarily superior. Third parties "are pretty good at what they do and know PBXes really well," Kelly said. "They just charge less."
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