Verizon moves ahead with unified communications in the cloud.

Verizon today took another step forward in its efforts to bring unified communications off premise and into the cloud.

In November, the telecom giant announced a program to deliver Unified Communications and Collaboration (UC&C) as a service. That trial phase ran smoothly and beta testing officially begins this week, with an eye toward a commercial launch in the late summer or fall, according to Roberta Mackintosh, director of global UC&C.

For business customers of 1,000 employees or more, Verizon is banking on cost as being the big appeal. “Because customers have typically had elements of these [UC] services in a premise based solution, they had to buy all the hardware, they had to buy the software, license the software, manage the services,” Mackintosh said. Move it all to the cloud, take away all that overhead, and life gets both simpler and cheaper.

This has become the predictable rallying cry of those pitching cloud-based services across a range of industries.

Where Verizon’s plan differs from most is in the phone company’s readiness to accept that not all businesses are ready to leave premise-based solutions entirely behind. The company is offering what describes as a number of hybrid approaches to the cloud.

“Shifting from a premise to a cloud is a big jump for many customers,” Mackintosh said. Suppose a company has 25 locations, with call control in three or four locations and fragmented e-mail across the system. A hybrid solution might leave call controls in place while consolidating e-mail in the cloud. “Then those elements in the cloud can be married with elements in the premise. I think that’s a realistic approach.”

Verizon is looking at this kind of flexibility as a way to differentiate its offering from other cloud-based UC&C products, Mackintosh said. Just as elements of premise and cloud can be intermingled, the system likewise allows for gradual adoption of individual elements. For example, newer versions of an application can be rolled out selectively, rather than having to deploy across the board.

While initial tests this fall and winter were a success, Verizon learned a few things along the way.

Elements of the Cisco core needed tweaking, for example, especially the softphone capabilities. Regulations require that a user must indicate a change in location when going from office to home, in order to facilitate 911 responses. That capability was lacking in Cisco’s core offering, and so Verizon is bringing in an as-yet-unnamed softphone provider to bridge the gap, Mackintosh said.

Even as it works to overcome small technical hurdles, Verizon still must leap the confidence barrier. Cloud, for some, remains a scary prospect.

Consider the infrastructure setup. To deliver UC as a service, Verizon hosts the cloud-based elements within its own data center, an arrangement that allows for a certain degree of efficiency in management. Customers get their own dedicated applications layer, but there is shared hardware involved.

That may enough to ring alarm bells for users already concerned about the cloud, concerned about leaving their key processes in third-party hands. Verizon aims to overcome such worries with a seeing-is-believing approach.

“When we take them through, showing them where the applications sit in the server environment, they actually rethink their strategies,” Mackintosh said. Those still nervous can pick and choose, sharing hardware only for elements whose security is less of a concern, for instance voicemail.

Verizon also intends to round out its UC in the cloud product by allowing end users to take UC capabilities on the road.

“Customers are having more and more interest in extending the UC capabilities on mobile devices,” Mackintosh said. In its initial launch Verizon’s UC as a service offering will offer applications tailored to iPhone and Nokia devices.

In summer the company will launch a beta run of its own mobile applications on Droid. As an added bonus, that program will include the capability for mobile devices to dock into desktop stations, thus doing double duty by potentially eliminating the need for desk phones altogether.

Underlying all these evolution is a basic philosophy that says the move to UC as a service should come with as many options as possible. “With UC there is no one answer that is going to solve every question within enterprises,” Mackintosh said. “You really need multiple choices.”

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