Why Unified Communications as a Service Needs Software Defined WANs

Unified communications (UC) has been a market in the making for nearly two decades now.  While no offence to the vendor community is intended, it’s fair to say that the adoption of UC has never lived up to the hype around its potential. This has limited the uptake of traditional, on-premises UC and ability to track conventional PBX replacements. Over the past couple of years, UC has seen a sharp increase in both interest and adoption. The catalyst for this resurgence has been the growth of UC as-a-Service (UCaaS) where companies can buy and access all their UC apps from the cloud.

The cloud has many benefits including faster adoption, no up-front hardware costs (other than endpoints) and better alignment with mobile. Another benefit, that I feel is undervalued, is the ability to accelerate innovation. Businesses would often take forever to evaluate new features and functions and take months, sometimes years to fully roll them out to their users. With UCaaS, the features become immediately available, driving more adoption. Team collaboration is a great example of this where the uptake has been fastest because the applications are readily available.

One of the “gotchas” in UCaaS deployments is the network, particularly the WAN. While it’s often said that UC is just another app on the network, and that’s true, it’s a very unique type of app that is subject to quality issues due to things like latency, packet loss and jitter. It’s also a very important app as its used for branch and remote site workers to collaborate, sales people to talk to customers and for executives to make critical decisions. The quality of voice and video must remain high. If not, any savings looked to be gained by moving UC to the cloud will be for naught and that ROI wasted.

SD-WANs present an excellent alternative to conventional networks for UCaaS. Actually, I’ll correct that statement. SD-WANs provide a superior network and user experience for UCaaS. SD-WANs should no longer be thought of as something equivalent to traditional networks. The technology has matured and the best practices are there and overall, it’s a far better network, particularly for cloud-first businesses.

Historically, businesses have relied on expensive MPLS circuits to provide the best call quality for voice and video. This works most times and you can even fail over to a backup circuit if there’s an outage. But how do you compensate for congestion on the network? Or, if there’s some sort of other network issue where packets are being dropped? In this case, the traffic will continue to head down the poor-quality path and only fail over if there’s an issue.

This certainly isn’t a new problem. I recall when I was a network engineer, I would often purposely shut down a network interface to force it to fail over to the backup connection. In a sense, I was doing my own form of manual path selection and optimization. While not ideal, it wasn’t hurting the business as most network applications were not mission critical.  UCaaS most certainly is business critical and organizations simply can’t afford to have sub-optimal performance.

This is where the value of SD-WAN really shines for many businesses. SD-WANs constantly search for the best possible path for directing real time communications, allowing companies on broadband or MPLS to have a better quality of experience. A user makes a VoIP call and the SD-WAN automatically prioritizes the traffic across the WAN to ensure the best possible call quality.

Also, most SD-WANs have security tools such as firewalls, VPN services and others to make it easy to move to a direct-to-cloud model enabling greater security while dramatically simplifying the architecture. Branch-to-branch calling can be done more efficiently as well though the creation of dynamic VPN tunnels between locations.

The final benefit is dramatically lower costs.  The ability to replace MPLS with broadband as contracts come up for renewal will dramatically lower the cost of communications. Dynamic path selection and sub-second failover ensures call quality is maintained irrespective of network conditions across underlying links.

Lower cost, better quality and improved security. These are the benefits that SD-WANs can bring to UCaaS. Businesses of all sizes should be actively evaluating UCaaS solutions as it’s a better, more efficient way of enabling better workforce collaboration. So before you make the move to UCaaS be sure to evaluate your SD-WAN options to significantly increase your ability to deliver an exceptional quality of experience.