The move of business telecommunications from office-centric phone systems and computer servers to the cloud is accelerating. That demand translates into telecoms developing new products and services to take advantage of the trend.
There are many reasons for this technological shift. In particular, mobile wireless devices make it easier for employees to work outside the office. In addition, businesses of all sizes always are looking for ways to trim capital expenditure costs, and in-house phone and IT systems can be costly to maintain.
Then there’s the ongoing convergence of data and voice on a single device that also can easily and quickly share information, whether it’s contained in documents or emails. With devices enabled to make calls, send emails and share data, phone service and data management are blending.
The rise of services like Microsoft Office 365, designed to allow employees to collaborate via the technological giant’s OneDrive file-sharing platform, is just one example of how vendors are developing new cloud-based communication systems.
Not every business is shifting voice and data capabilities to the cloud, but telecommunications providers are offering ways to make it easier, cost-effective and more secure to do so.
Talk to telecom providers about what has been changing in the business market, and nearly all will mention the trend called BYOD—bring your own device. Employees can work from anywhere—and often they need to do so. Companies that support that practice “will clearly improve employee satisfaction, which is directly tied with employee productivity,” says Kim Green-Kerr, senior vice president for Sprint Business Solutions, who’s based at Sprint’s Kansas headquarters.
Employees also are out in the field talking with each other, customers and vendors—often on a national or worldwide basis. That means they need agility and flexibility, Green-Kerr notes. The technology that allows this to happen can help businesses integrate voice and office productivity applications and eliminate unnecessary desktop devices, she adds. This mobile strategy, Green-Kerr maintains, can benefit enterprises of any size, from big corporations to small operations looking to operate nimbly.
“Bring-your-own-device obviously drives more network needs,” notes Kalyn Hove, vice president of Comcast Business at Philadelphia-based Comcast Corp.’s St. Paul regional headquarters. For instance, bandwidth security and scalability “are of utmost importance to handle that increasing traffic,” she says.
With eight out of 10 Americans owning smartphones and a great many bringing them to work, it’s important, Hove says, to establish policies about who can use their own devices and how they can use them. Minimizing employee websurfing on the firm’s internet connection might be one useful restriction. If employees spend lots of time on sites unrelated to their work, it “can bog down the network bandwidth needed to run your business,” she adds.
Green-Kerr notes that BYOD can create security and business challenges. With all the different devices floating around among employees, businesses are worried that smartphones and tablets might serve as gateways for hackers to access sensitive company data. But there are services that allow device owners to keep their business and personal communications separate.
One of those is Sprint MultiLine—in essence, it’s a second line on an employee phone. “The business owns that second line and that number,” Green-Kerr says. The personal and business voicemails also are separate.
Sprint introduced MultiLine this past August, which lets users store and record calls. The service is available on Android and Apple smartphones, not just Sprint devices, and can operate on cellular, wi-fi and data networks worldwide. Green-Kerr says that Sprint has seen a particularly large demand for this service in the financial services sector, since industry regulations require recording conversations involving transactions and trades.
In November, Comcast launched a cloud-based mobile-phone service with similar capabilities. In addition to allowing the employee’s smartphone to have two numbers—one personal and one business—this offering, VoiceEdge Select, provides other business-oriented call-handling features. They include call forwarding that can be performed on the employee’s smartphone.
Telecommunications companies note that a cloud service is more than a means to achieve telephone and internet connections. With more high-speed networks accessible throughout the U.S., an everything-as-a-service IT model has emerged. That’s the terminology used by Stefan Pittinger, Minneapolis-based vice president of local government, medium and small business markets for Louisiana-based CenturyLink.
Many business IT departments are asking about particular services, such as bookkeeping or sales management, Pittinger says. They are questioning the need to buy equipment rather than simply purchasing services.
By shifting services of all kinds—including telecommunications—small and midsize businesses can be extremely nimble and better compete with larger companies, he says.
Building your own infrastructure is capital-intensive. That can make it prohibitive for smaller companies “to really leverage IT the way they can today,” Pittinger says. High-speed networks “have democratized data.”
He argues that some small companies are best suited to benefit from cloud-based IT. Companies that “were born in the cloud” have fewer capital expenditures to depreciate, including hardware, he says. “They can actually take advantage of the best-of-breed technology that’s out there,” he adds. Because telecoms and other cloud-services providers typically use an à la carte model, businesses pay only for what they consume.
One of the drivers of a cloud-based approach to business communications is the need for multiple departments to share information and collaborate, sometimes very quickly. “Collaboration helps increase productivity and fosters motivation internally,” says Chris Lewter, Colorado-based vice president of small business sales and distribution for Verizon Business Markets, a unit of New Jersey-based Verizon. This requires that “your teams have secure, reliable access to data, applications, services and other collaboration solutions,” he adds.
As a result, Lewter says, companies need to identify the right application platforms that will connect, protect, compute and store the data that fuels their entire organization. A cloud-based solution that brings together many software and data platforms could be a useful approach for companies with far-flung departments that need to work together. Along those lines, Verizon offers a converged VoIP product that allows customers to stream voice, data and internet connections over one network.
One concern about cloud computing many businesses mention is security. Can an IT network managed by an outside company be more trustworthy than one that a business has under its physical control? Advocates for cloud-based telecom services argue that the cloud can provide more security for company phones and data.
Security is a major concern when companies handle large volumes of customer payment information. “Increasingly, I think a lot of businesses are finding that doing security by themselves may not always be the best way to handle it,” says Satya Parimi, group vice president, data and cloud products, for Spectrum Enterprise, a unit of Connecticut-based telecom provider Charter Communications. “That’s because of the sheer rapid nature in which the security space is changing. It’s hard for internal IT teams to keep up with all the breaches and attacks.”
Spectrum Enterprise’s cloud-based services include its recently launched Hosted Voice, which offers business-oriented capabilities, including high-definition voice equipment, data connection and voicemail-to-email transfers. Spectrum Enterprise manages the IT to run Hosted Voice’s various offerings. Spectrum Enterprise’s cloud communications management also can keep watch against any nefarious activity on the network. Instead of protecting an email server from a hack attack, a company can shift security vigilance to the cloud provider, Parimi says.
If your company operates its own private branch exchange (PBX) phone system, “you have to dig the moats and build the firewalls around that to protect the integrity of your business,” says Joe Martin, Sprint’s director for wireless solution enablement. A move to a cloud service can provide security “because it’s very difficult even for a big business to keep up with all the bad guys,” he adds.
Martin notes that cloud telecom providers also typically offer what are called mobile device management (MDM) or enterprise mobility management (EMM) services. They update the company’s mobile-phone users’ business-centric applications and software. Some also can “wipe” a lost phone clean of all data while keeping the phone’s data safe in the cloud.
Yet companies still need to manage their security. When it comes to BYOD, for instance, businesses “need to go beyond passwords,” Comcast’s Hove notes. They need to have an added layer of security, such as a test question or other second line of verification, so that only employees can access a company’s phone and IT networks. Other cyber-security guidelines, such as training employees to avoid phishing emails and leaving digital devices unattended, still apply.
While many telecom representatives argue that moving to the cloud for telephone and internet connectivity can better protect business data on employee devices, each business should evaluate their own situation and needs.
CenturyLink’s Pittinger recommends that companies start simply by taking a detailed inventory. What communications services are under in-house management? These could include not only services such as internet access and email but also other platforms where data is shared electronically, such as accounting.
Next, he says, the business needs to ask: “What is absolutely mission-critical and what can afford some downtime?” The next question: “Do you have 24/7 staff to work on those mission-critical services?” Pittinger offers one final tip: Test your systems regularly; small and midsize businesses in particular can’t afford any system downtime.
That could be especially true of very small businesses. “Professional services businesses like real estate offices or law firms often don’t have a lot of employees,” Parimi says. “But they’re heavy users of software applications and storage.”
Like Pittinger and other telecom executives, Parimi advises businesses to reassess anything related to applications, servers and storage, and see if moving to the cloud might help. “Solutions from the cloud are better and, in many cases, cheaper because you’re not paying anything up front,” Parimi says. “And you’re not burdened with maintaining the infrastructure that you have.”
Telecoms are responding to marketplace changes and what businesses want and need from their companies. With all the new products and services available, businesses of all sizes can readily re-evaluate their communications systems and see whether it makes sense to shed in-house phone systems and servers and move to the cloud. It’s a move that even businesses with just a few employees might find affordable.
And with telecom providers offering a variety of approaches, this could be a good time to do some comparison cloud shopping.
Gene Rebeck is a Duluth-based freelance journalist who writes monthly for Twin Cities Business.