Beware of sweeteners when choosing ‘candy’

Companies may be spoilt for choice when upgrading communications systems, but deciding on the right solution for their business can be a challenge, writes Kate Bevan


Your telephony is so ancient that you’re using rotary-dial phones, your email is handled by a creaking implementation of Microsoft Exchange 2003, and your users are clamouring for better webmail and access to your system via their Macs. Even more annoyingly, their smartphones, and videoconferencing is something you only dream about.

Ripping out an existing, out-of-date infrastructure is one very good reason to rethink your business’s communications. Other companies may wish to upgrade parts of their communications system while retaining applications or processes that work for them.

Many businesses have mix-and-match systems in place that have been added over time, resulting in an infrastructure that isn’t driven by an overall strategy or cost considerations.

“It’s a journey,” says Craig Wellman, business development manager at Azzurri, a voice and data communications consultancy. “Everyone’s on the journey to unified communications.

“The first question to ask is what is the client trying to achieve? Are they trying to clear up a mess or a legacy system, or are they starting the journey for the first time? And the next question is, do you want to keep your legacy applications or do you want to sweep the board clean?”

Suppliers will highlight large discounts for buying the bundle, rather than investing in individual licences

For a business seeking to update its infrastructure, there are a number of points to consider. Gartner, the technology consultancy, points to the need to have a range of licensing options. As the big players offer increasingly integrated solutions, such as Microsoft’s Lync server, it becomes increasingly difficult to discern the value propositions for each part of that bundle.

Gartner says:  “Suppliers will highlight the large discounts – typically 50 to 60 per cent – for buying the bundle, rather than investing in individual licences. A common comment from clients has been ‘We wanted telephony and unified messaging, but it was only 10 per cent more to buy the bundle’.

“Herein lies the issue: it’s 10 per cent more for all users and with higher software support costs for the package. Unless all users take advantage of all the functionality provided in the package, the cost for providing basic services increases over and above the cost for buying licences individually.”

Gartner advises that any responses to a tender should fully itemise the costs. “When it comes to pricing, the detail is notable by its absence. Some level of itemisation is essential to understand how good the deal is. Organisations should expect to see purchase costs broken into hardware and software, with list prices and applicable discount.”

Businesses should also consider their existing IT set-up. Daanish Khan, head of marketing and strategy at Formicary Collaboration Group, a consultancy that works with the financial services industry, says: “You can extend the regime you’ve already got in place, such as with Microsoft; you might already have Exchange and Sharepoint, and thus a licensing regime that’s already in place, but you’re not using features that you’ve paid for.”

Squeezed budgets are another factor that organisations have to work into their strategy. With bank lending tight and concerns about the economy, it’s hard to make a case for a wholesale rebuild of an infrastructure. So a single-vendor solution might look attractive, but the most appropriate solution for your business might not be a single vendor’s offering and the right solution will save money in the longer term.

When Azzurri evaluated City & Guilds’ unified communications needs, it found that the awarding body could save 33 per cent on their fixed-voice infrastructure and 41 per cent on their mobile infrastructure. As a result, City & Guilds is now moving towards a structure that will reduce ISDN (integrated services digital network) costs, deliver single numbers and allow staff to have access to all the telephony system’s functionality wherever they are.

Ian Turfrey, head of architecture and strategic development at City & Guilds, says: “As part of the RFP [request for proposals] we asked ‘Do 500 people really need both a mobile and a fixed-line phone?’ We wanted to get to the point where the choice of device is irrelevant – we just want to provide staff with the communication services they need regardless of their location.”

According to Gartner: “Enterprises have large investments in communication infrastructures that must be preserved. This leads to a slower evolutionary approach rather than a faster revolutionary ‘rip and replace’ approach.

“The business case is frequently based on a soft ROI [return on investment] or strategic investment, such as productivity improvements, rather than on hard ROI, such as cost savings. As a result, in a conservative economy, deployments occur slowly.”

The IT landscape has changed significantly in the past ten years, so it’s important for whoever is driving the process to have a sense of what is happening now.

One of the most significant changes is the move towards consumerisation or “bring your own device” (BYOD). This is where users, now much more savvy about technology than they were a decade ago, prefer to use their own laptops, smartphones and tablets for work rather than an IT department-issued piece of kit that may not suit their personal needs.

The aim, says Azzurri’s Mr Wellman, is to have users onside. “User behaviour has to embrace what you’re doing otherwise you’re doomed to failure,” he says.

Consumerisation can represent big savings for an enterprise, which might choose to contribute towards users’ hardware, but is absolved from big hardware investments itself. However, that is also a “nightmare”, says Mr Khan. “With a mobile workforce, they’re asking for access to your applications on their mobile – that can be 20 or 30 applications on any number of platforms, devices and implementations.”

It’s also a nightmare from a security point of view and one of the challenges is to create a secure way for those users to access what they need without compromising the network. “People are using their iPads, other tablets, Face Time in the workplace,” says Mr Wellman. “It depends on your attitude to security. You can secure the information you’re passing down to an iPad – and this is the way people are working now.”

Mr Khan adds: “What you need to think about in this scenario is what people are asking for. In many cases, they’re not asking for the applications, but for the information that’s sitting on your systems. It’s a collaboration challenge – they just want to know what the last conversation was or the latest sales figures. They don’t need to go and mess about with the spreadsheet. So you need a good collaboration platform.”

The other significant change in the marketplace is the emergence of the cloud. While consumers tend to think of the cloud as a way to store files, the cloud also delivers business services, including collaboration and communications services. The best known is probably Microsoft’s Office 365, which includes instant messaging and conferencing. But the cloud can also deliver entire platforms.

Cloud services can significantly reduce costs, especially for smaller businesses who don’t want to invest in maintaining an on-site infrastructure. It also means that your business will have access to the latest versions of software, rather than you having to decide to invest in an upgrade.

Mr Khan has reservations about cloud solutions. “Vendor-hosted solutions generally offer reduced functionality when compared to the on-premise alternative. In addition, they provide limited integration opportunities with existing IT assets.”

He also points to concerns around data storage and compliance issues. “Is your data being stored in a warehouse in the US? If so, suddenly that data is subject to the US Patriot Act.”

Given how much the landscape has changed in the past decade, it’s as well to remember that it will change further in years to come. “Ten years ago it was all about hardware,” says Mr Wellman. “Now it’s all about virtualisation, which offers great support and cost efficiency. The plastic on the desk is a much less relevant part of the system.”

He also sees an even greater move towards mobile. “4G has the potential to replace old analogue networks. And we’re seeing a massive increase in the role that mobile tech plays in networks. We’re wedded to our iPads and smartphones.”

It’s a challenge for the chief information officer (CIO) who needs to make changes to the business’s communications infrastructure. Not the smallest part of the challenge is managing the people. Mr Khan says: “You’re dealing with different departments with different priorities and relationships. Networking and telephony might be owned by the IT department, while the collaboration space might be owned by business development.”

But the challenges shouldn’t put you off. Having the best unified communications infrastructure in place not only delivers business efficiency, it also saves money. And that’s particularly important in this day and age.