Organizations of all sizes are adopting cloud-based unified communications (UC) services to gain cost efficiencies, agility, resiliency and scalability. But while the benefits of cloud-based UC are easily identifiable, organizations must weigh a variety of deployment options and infrastructure considerations before adopting a solution.

There are three basic approaches to cloud UC — hosted UC, hybrid cloud UC and UC-as-a-Service (UCaaS). Although all are based on a monthly, per-user pricing model, there are key differences in hardware ownership, network segregation and administrative capabilities.

In hosted UC, a provider owns and maintains all the necessary hardware and delivers subscription service in a single-tenant model. This means customers get dedicated networking capacity and a customized software platform that can be integrated with on-premises applications. In this model, the customer retains administrative duties, including control over moves, adds and changes. This is generally the preferred model for large organizations that have administrative staff and their own hardware in place.

A hybrid model involves a mixture of on-premises and cloud-based features. For example, an organization might use an on-premises IP phone system at headquarters while deploying cloud-based solutions at smaller remote offices.

UCaaS is a more “hands-off” approach in which hardware, software and administration is all part of the service. UCaaS solutions are usually delivered in a multitenant model, with a single software instance serving multiple customers. This is an attractive option for smaller organizations or startups that have no existing investments in an on-premises solution and lack in-house administrative expertise.

Regardless of the approach, it is important to understand that UC involves an ecosystem of highly dependent systems — and the real-time nature of UC strains every segment of this ecosystem. A network readiness assessment will help you identify and correct potential problems in advance.

One of the first things to check is that you have business-quality routers, and that they are properly configured to prioritize real-time traffic. Voice and video are incredibly sensitive to network delays, and off-the-shelf routers might not be able to handle the load. In fact, router configuration issues are among the leading cause of latency, jitter and packet loss in UC networks.

Adequate bandwidth is an obvious necessity. Video transmission can require 10 times more bandwidth than when transferring data files or emails. Call volume can also dramatically influence bandwidth requirements, as can voice-encoding schemes and compression techniques.

Beyond your own network, it’s important to assess whether the service provider operates from a data center environment that is optimized for voice, allows multiple connectivity options and has high levels of infrastructure redundancy. This is key to ensuring that you can quickly scale up or down to meet demand and that you are protected from any network failures.

Such infrastructure is what sets ShoreTel apart from many other cloud UC providers. State-of-the-art data centers in Dallas, Chicago and London deliver N+1 redundancy and full failover capabilities. To ensure the highest levels of availability, the company continually improves its network with the most advanced routers and switches available. Proprietary switches enable connectivity with geographically dispersed carriers to add another layer of redundancy.

Cloud-based UC are proven to improve productivity and collaboration while reducing cost and complexity. As with any significant IT initiative, due diligence is essential. A thorough appraisal can help you discover how both you and your potential service provider stack up against industry best practices. Such knowledge can help ensure that your UC solution works as planned from Day 1.