The question was deliberately provocative: "Will the Cloud Take Over Enterprise Communications?" In a panel discussion at Enterprise Connect in Orlando, no one seriously suggested that all enterprise telecommunications equipment would turn to vapor overnight.
"If you look at the role the cloud has played in the applications world, it certainly hasn't taken over, but it's significant," said Zeus Kerravala, senior vice president of enterprise research at the Yankee Group. He moderated the panel along with Eric Krapf, conference co-chair and editor of TechWeb's NoJitter.com.
While the cloud could be as overhyped for Unified Communications as it is for other categories of technology, "I don't think there are any enterprises out there who aren't thinking about the cloud and how they can use it," Krapf said.
The panelists were David Marshak, a senior product manager at IBM; Yancey Smith, product management director at Microsoft; Eric Schoch, senior director of product management for Cisco voice technology; Tom Daniel, group manager for Unified Communication and Collaboration at Verizon; and Marc Lindsey, a partner in the law firm Levine, Blaszak, Block & Boothby who helps companies negotiate technology contracts and service level agreements.
Daniel said the Unified Collaboration-as-a-Service cloud product Verizon announced this week is positioned to support a hybrid model, acknowledging that many companies have already invested in on-premise products for functions like Voice-over-Internet Protocol call control. Yet, as those same companies look to add new collaborative capabilities "they are looking for ways to deliver those applications from the cloud and integrate them with their existing environments," he said. The customers who are successful with that hybrid model may later consider moving more of their infrastructure to the cloud as on-premise equipment reaches the end of its useful life, he said.
Microsoft's Smith agreed many customers are looking to supplement, rather than replace, their internal infrastructure. They often want to use cloud services to "accommodate scenarios they couldn't support otherwise," he said.
But supporting that kind of hybrid environment is not easy. "You can do that, and we're seeing a lot more of it, but it's still a big challenge," IBM's Marshak said.
Several times during the discussion, Cisco's Schoch emphasized the importance of identifying an architecture that can span cloud and on-premise environments. "How do you make sure the experience is the same?" he asked. "Is it an architecture that allows for ubiquity of services, and do you have the right partner -- or partners -- to make that happen?"
Lindsey said the companies he advises are moving cautiously. "There is a lot of confusion about what really is the right choice," he said. They may move email into the cloud, or pick selected collaboration services such as WebEx, "but they're really careful about taking applications out of their internal infrastructure to put into the cloud." He said.
Some of the doubts revolve around quality and reliability of services, Lindsey said, particularly since cloud service is typically offered on a commodity basis, without the guarantees of traditional managed services outsourcing. "If you have a lot of problems with services dropping sessions, that's no good. A lot of our customers are concerned that they're not getting meaningful [service level agreements]," and the agreements are worthless if they are not enforceable, he said. "If it's going to take 25 steps to get a credit, that's nothing," he said.
Smith said Microsoft has gone to a model that is much more proactive with its Office 365 service, where "we notify you if a service goes down -- and we pay you money."
All participants agreed mobility is one of the driving forces behind cloud adoption, since geographically distributed services make it easier to deliver applications to more people in more places. However, Marshak said it needs to be used with some imagination. Smart phones are not just miniature laptops and need to be treated as "social devices," he said. "Just trying to take what you did on the desktop and do it mobile doesn't work," he said. "If you think of it in terms of accessing documents -- that's pretty old. This is about changing the way we collaborate, the way we interact."
While sticking with one vendor for the majority of on-premise, cloud, desk, and mobile communications might make integration less challenging, Lindsey recommended keeping the request for proposals process competitive to maintain bargaining power.
"The incumbent vendor tends not to be as attractive with pricing," Lindsay said. It's a good idea to do pilot projects with several vendors, even while keeping one's current dominant vendor in mind "as an attractive default," he said.