Virtualised PBX vs. Cloud Voice: A Microcosm of the Challenges Facing Modern IT Departments

Gary Barton
Gary Barton

Summary Bullets:

  • Go-to-market decision makers within an enterprise are likely to favour solutions that treat voice as an application.
  • IT managers, whilst acting as enablers for the rest of the business, should not automatically assume that the cloud holds all the answers.

The maturation of cloud platforms has, rightly, been cited as a primary contributing factor for the increased uptake amongst enterprises of unified communications (UC) solutions. However, for voice services, the PBX is still (at least for the moment) king. What is changing, though, is that the PBXs being deployed are now very commonly ‘soft’ PBXs. A number of smaller IP voice solution providers are reporting a significant uptick in the soft PBX sales, primarily virtualised on Linux, VMware or Microsoft Windows Hyper-V platforms. So, what is driving this change and why should enterprises consider a soft PBX over a pure cloud solution?

A simple answer to the question ‘why a soft PBX?’ is that voice is increasingly seen as an IT challenge rather than purely as an old school telecoms need. Treating voice as an application rather than hardware opens up a range of flexible solutions for the enterprise – and this is where UC becomes as much a sales and marketing decision as it is a decision for the ‘IT guy.’ Marketing and sales teams should be pushing for a voice solution that more closely interacts with wider enterprise communications solutions: in other words, a solution that makes an enterprise more contactable by its customers (e.g., through interconnection with UC and collaboration tools and contact centre facilities), and a voice system that also interacts with the enterprise’s CRM program. Such a solution is not likely to be achieved in one move, but treating voice as application is a big step in the process.

In an increasingly competitive marketplace, it is inevitable that IT decisions are now commonly being driven by the more creative go-to-market elements of a business that lie outside the IT department, with IT being repositioned as a behind-the-scenes enabler rather than a front-row decision maker. However, IT departments should still want what is best for the company. Fundamentally changing an entire enterprise’s IT setup may not be the best way to achieve great customer service, and the law of unintended consequences must always be taken into consideration. A big bang change from a physical PBX to a cloud solution may well involve a significant degree of inconvenience and risk. Money also inevitably comes into the equation, and whilst UC may be delivered on a piecemeal basis to segments of a company, a voice solution is more likely to need to apply to a company as a whole (at least in a single geography). A virtualised PBX solution may well offer a keener per-seat price than a cloud solution, whilst still retaining the flexibility of easily accommodating new sites. Cost comparisons also need to considered over the long term, as the overall cost of a fully hosted solution often exceeds the cost of a premises-based solution, heightening the need for these solutions to be fully vetted by the IT department. Hybrid solutions are also increasingly common as a way of maximising returns on previous investments whilst also allowing new/critical sites to deploy more integrated voice and UC solutions. Fixed voice remains mission-critical for most businesses, but the decisions facing enterprises when considering whether to deploy a hardware PBX, soft PBX, cloud-based voice or a mix also provide a microcosm for the macrocosm of IT decisions across the enterprise.

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