What is UCaaS? (unified communications as a service)

Almost every IT and communications solution is offered in an “as a service” option now. Hosted telephony has always been provided in this way and it’s also the way that most unified communications (UC) services are provided. Quite simply, the UC is hosted in the cloud rather than on-premises and can this be accessed by users from any location where there can get an Internet connection.

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What is unified communications?

In a UC system, VoIP (and all its functionality, including voice messaging), email, instant and text messaging, and real-time video and collaboration apps are all brought together, allowing users to use and manage all these capabilities through a single interface. With UC, you can see all the interactions you have had with your contacts – whether it was a simple voice call, an email, IM session or a video conference. It’s a bit like having a multi-dimensional email system – you have an Inbox and an Outbox, but with all kinds of different items, not just emails.

The idea of UC is to make it easier for users to communicate digitally, and to improve productivity, reduce cost and improve control. A big part of the UC concept is that you might need to connect on any kind of device from different places – at the office or at home on your laptop, while you are on the move on your smartphone when you are out and about. Depending on your circumstances at that moment, it might not always be convenient to take a voice call, or easy to reply to an email.

Ordinarily, if you could not take a call, you might send an SMS message to the caller to let them know you’ll get back to them. But while you’ll have the missed call on one list, the outgoing message will be on another list. With UC, they end up on the same list, so you can see all incoming and outgoing comms, whatever method you used to communicate.

UC also gets over the problem of having to think about what device the other party might be using right now. You can email, text, leave a voicemail, and you know they will get it. With UC, all roads lead to Rome – messages end up in the same Inbox and leave from the same Outbox.

Another key idea and benefit of UC is “presence” i.e.  being able to tell whether someone is online and available or not – and maybe even what kind of device they are using right now. That means you can avoid waiting time trying to connect to them if they are not available, and you can choose the most appropriate method of communicating if they are.

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What’s the difference between UC and collaboration?

Now you might be thinking that UC sounds quite a lot like the kind of thing you get with Microsoft Teams or other collaboration solutions, and you’d be right – to a point. While you can use IM and share files in Teams, Zoom Cisco Webex, Google Meet and other similar apps, you can’t just dial out to anyone at any time, and they can’t just call you. To do that, you need to use additional software and while that’s possible with some of those solutions, it’s not completely integrated. That’s the whole point of UC – it is totally integrated, so you have all the functionality and all the visibility in one place.

Collaboration apps don’t quite work in the same way as UC either. The former is focused on allowing teams of people to work together; while UC is also designed for team collaboration, it’s much more oriented to the actual communications between parties.

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How does unified communications work?

We could make this sound simple or extremely complicated. Essentially, all the capabilities of the apps we mentioned above – VoIP, email, IM, video conferencing collaboration tools – are lumped into a single, fully-integrated solution. That’s the simple description of UC. If you want the complex version, we’d need to explain all the protocols and techniques they use – but that will take a while and it’s not really necessary to understand these to make UC work. In larger organisations, the ICT staff will certainly need to get a good comprehension of what goes on “under the bonnet” of a UC system, as it were, but for users that’s not really helpful.

If you are a small business with no dedicated ICT staff and you want to make use of UC, you will probably be best using a specialist small business provider of managed services, although the big name companies that offer UC services should also be able to look after you perfectly well. As noted earlier, UC always best provided “as a service” and one big advantage of this approach is that someone else – a real expert – can configure, monitor, and manage your UC set-up remotely.

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Different unified communications providers

There are many independent and well-known providers of UC services. Certainly, big names like BT and TalkTalk can provide UC services, but as you’d expect, all the services on offer are different and with UC they functionality and capabilities on offer can vary a great deal. It’s really important to think about what exactly you will need and to talk in some detail with suppliers about how their solution can match your requirements. In many cases, the UC service can be tailored to a degree to your needs, so you needn’t compromise.

If you are a small business, don’t imagine that UC is not for you. An independent plumber, electrician or any other tradesperson could benefit just as much as high-flying corporate account executive and there are UCaaS offerings to suit all sizes and types of business.

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UCaaS vs. VoIP: which is better for your business?

If you decide that UCaaS is what you need, in most cases you will also get all the benefits of a VoIP service incorporated into it. Of course, if you can get all the functionality you need from a hosted voice service – messaging, call forwarding, redirection and so on – then you may decide you don’t need a UC system. Alternatively, you may be happy to run your VoIP and use collaboration tools separately. But if you do want to bring these two functions together, it’s worth considering the UCaaS option.

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