Fulfilling the promise of UCaaS requires a better network

UCaaS systems

Unified communications (UC), by combining voice, video and text messaging into a single system, has long promised efficiency and convenience for communicating with co-workers and customers. Why are the promises not always fulfilled?

For a long time, integration of hardware-based systems into the enterprise IT stack was a key roadblock for market growth. But with the introduction of cloud-based, UCaaS systems, integration has been less of an issue, leading to explosive market growth. According to Gartner, global spending on UC will reach $43.4 billion in 2020.

Still, the landscape for enterprise communication continues to fill up with more applications like Slack, Facebook for Enterprise and Skype for Business. Many companies are seeing employees adopting new technologies that are sometimes overlap functionally with the UCaaS vendor that’s been installed by the employer.

This overlapping use of multiple technologies could be a symptom of a deeper problem that goes beyond the UCaaS system itself. In fact, quality and reliability are two key problems that are often causing enterprise customers to consider replacing UCaaS vendors altogether, according to a recent survey from market research firm, Frost & Sullivan.

What if replacing the UCaaS vendor doesn’t address the problem? Cloud-based UCaaS systems have to rely on network connectivity to work. Yet, in many instances, the ability to monitor and manage those networks limits the ability of IT personnel to find underlying issues that are affecting UCaaS system performance.

UCaaS and networking – finding the problems

Unified communications systems were originally designed to work best under tightly controlled network conditions, meaning that a private network was needed. And while there are a variety of tools for managing UC system performance under those conditions, there have been fewer options available for troubleshooting end-to-end, when the call (both voice and video) and messaging control systems are based in a cloud environment.

Some of the limitations include:

  • Inability to understand quality of service from the user’s point-of-view. This is because of a lack of tools to correlate performance data across the network and application layers.
  • Always being in a reactive posture for incident management, meaning that personnel are chasing down problems by looking through data after an incident.
  • Limitations on the ability to leverage historical data for capacity planning. Inaccurate benchmarking practices may result in poor quality service for new users.

To overcome performance issues, some UCaaS vendors often require a dedicated link, though some allows customers to extend existing MPLS networks to the vendor’s datacenter. On the plus side, MPLS networks allow tagging in order to prioritize certain types of traffic, including VOIP. On the down side, adding new MPLS links can take weeks or months, and the cost is significantly higher than business broadband service. Also, typical WAN topologies and architectures are rigid and static – a mobile workforce, opening new offices (or acquiring another company) means the network is again the gating factor for enterprise agility.

SD-WAN as a tool to enable UCaaS

Enterprises can get their UCaaS services back on track, despite these issues. One of the key tools is having a more flexible network and SD-WAN technology is a foundation on which to build that network.

One of the core features of SD-WAN is the ability to aggregate broadband links to remote or branch office sites and manage these links along with the core enterprise WAN through a single centralized control plane. What does this mean for call quality in your UCaaS system, for example?

Jitter, latency, and packet loss are all variables that need to be controlled in order to provide consistent quality of service (QoS).

Using the public internet for branch connectivity, while convenient and cost effective, has tradeoffs in terms of control over jitter, latency and packet loss. Routing is done on a best effort basis, meaning that good network paths to your UCaaS provider will change based on traffic congestion at different network interconnection points. If the link goes down, your data is going to be re-routed along alternative paths-along with everyone else’s traffic.

A dedicated private network offers greater control over traffic through various prioritization methods like MPLS tagging. However, routing mobile and remote workers through virtual private networks (VPNs) can add QoS, killing latency as calls get routed through the enterprise datacenter before heading to the UCaaS provider’s cloud. Other issues include the challenge of maintaining QoS when users are using smartphones and accessing services over WiFi or cellular networks.

Monitoring and segmenting for performance

The clear trends towards use of cloud-based UCaaS along with employee use of mobile devices means the enterprise isn’t going to own or operate a significant portion of the network. That makes monitoring the network a key capability. UCaaS vendors recognize this and many have stepped up to offer an integrated end-to-end monitoring solution.

While this is a step in the right direction, there is still an inability to integrate network monitoring with the monitoring of other applications on the enterprise network. An advanced SD-WAN service can provide an integrated look into network and application health. That helps find problems faster; the next step is remediation.  The advantage of SD-WAN over older technologies like MPLS is programmability: software-defined networking solutions enable automated failover to different network paths, for Instance.

One of the techniques used to improve bandwidth management is called network segmentation. Virtual WAN overlays are created to tunnel traffic across specific resources (routers, switches, etc.) and can be used to separate communications traffic from application server communications, for example. Apart from the bandwidth management aspect, security is improved by isolating traffic by application type, making it more difficult for security threats that may have started at the branch office to traverse the UCaaS system and access core enterprise applications.

Benefits:

  • For link loss, active and standby paths
  • More cost effective than pure MPLS
  • Faster expansion of links than MPLS

UCaaS and SD-WAN belong together

It should be no surprise that UCaaS vendors like Vonage, RingCentral and others are already partnering with SD-WAN technology providers to provide customers all the tools they need to take control over the unified communications experience. Choosing a vendor will involve more than whether or not there is an SD-WAN solution on offer from your UCaaS vendor.

As is the case with any SD-WAN implementation, customers should decide whether or not they will want to deploy virtual appliances and white box hardware for SD-WAN functionality, or whether they want SD-WAN as a service. For a look at how to choose between “on-net” and overlay SD-WAN services, which I discussed in a previous article on enterprise network architectures.

In either case, CTOs can see that for reasons of performance, security, and business agility, SD-WAN is a foundational technology that will help enterprises finally realize the promise of their investment in unified communications.

By Mark Casey

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