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The recent release of Microsoft Office 365 E5 Licence sees them take their biggest leap yet into the world of Unified Communications + Telephony in the form of "Cloud PBX". With this offering, Microsoft are looking to put their mark on the telecommunications market by giving access to the services your classic On-Premises based phone system offer but via the internet from the cloud meaning there is no longer a need for your business to host expensive and maintenance heavy telephony infrastructure in order to provide quality voice services to your user base. But is this new offering all it claims to be?

Cost
Well at £15 a month for a full international calling plan or £7.50 for a national calling plan it's not bad. Certainly given that some Enterprise level companies will potentially be paying close to these prices for an On-Premises dedicated service it brings in to question if you are getting the level of service a local deployment can give you for the same price as you are paying for your cloud based service (with the Microsoft Service Desk backing you up). In addition, it is key to point out for users who are new to this Cloud PBX Service that they also have to sign up to the full Office 365 Licensing structure as well which comes in at £27.50 a month. Given that many businesses or users will already have their own licensing in place for Desktop Services it could be an unwelcome surprise that in order to sign-up for Cloud PBX they also have to upgrade their infrastructure for Word/Excel/Powerpoint which brings with it its own set of challenges!

Setup
For someone who has had a huge amount of experience with Skype for Business and Unified Communication over the past 5 years I will admit that the basic actions of finding the Skype Management Console, requesting and selecting a local number and then assigning it to my user account did not take me long (30 mins) but understanding that your local number is tied to configuration items like your SIP/SMTP account is not going to be second nature to some people in the telephony space. Similarly, for Non-Telephony experienced Infrastructure teams though they may think that setting up "Voice" is easy there are pitfalls of taking on local voice responsibility which they are not prepared for. In addition, the fact that some setup items are mandatory before you can even assign this number will definitely have some users with less experience of Unified Communications going in circles and Googling how to complete this seemingly simple stage in the process. Once my number was setup and assigned I found it was options like setting up my Voicemail and Syncing my Outlook Calendar to Skype for Business that had me scratching my head while I made the connections between the Primary Admin Account for my Office 365 Licence and my Email/Skype details. So overall not the most intuitive process which Microsoft may have hoped for!

Call Quality
Of the limited test calls and conferences, I have made so far quality has been good but not incredible as I would expect with any conferencing or calling system across the internet but my calls are crossing my own local router at home and not having to vie for bandwidth with an office full of staff and I have expectations relative to the capability of the system. One thing to stress with anyone moving from their own local on-premises service or carrier based service (BT/Vodafone) is that once your call is on the public internet you are fighting for bandwidth and space like anyone else and there is no way to guarantee the level of call quality as you might be able to with a local service. Where Skype does excel is that it will let you know if the quality of your call is starting to dip. In the event of such an incident though there is very little that your Administrator would be able to "do" in order to resolve such an issue other than test your own local equipment is not faulty before raising a service ticket with the Microsoft Support Desk (rather you than me).

Capability
For the average office based user with needs of a basic phone Skype for Business Cloud PBX offers everything they could want with the ability to make/receive calls, use a dedicated conferencing area complete with local dial in for 3rd Parties, setup call functionality like forwarding/speed dials or voicemail and even the ability to delegate calls for Boss/Secretary type setups. Cloud for PBX absolutely epitomises the fact that for the standard office workforce the deskphone is a thing of the past and can offer very little in the way of competition in terms of functionality. If your business requires more than this then the need for an On-Premises deployment of Skype for Business starts to become apparent with configurations like Hunt Groups, Reception Consoles or the need to connect Analogue/Fax devices requires investment in local infrastructure to migrate away from your existing telephony solutions.

Summary
For Small/Medium businesses with a minimal requirement for basic telephony who are looking to consolidate their costs and become efficient as possible the new Cloud PBX service offers a fantastic opportunity. Why pay for a separate and costly telephony solution when you can integrate your Desktop Software and Telephony in one platform and manage it from a single location? However, the potential pay-off between the level of service you can provide and the cost saving would have to be clearly explained to your business and stakeholders before making such an investment.  

At the Large/Enterprise Organisation level the Cloud PBX service is still just too immature to compete with the On-Premises Skype for Business offering. In future as Microsoft get a better grip on the needs of large scale business and evolve the product to take this into account it could be a real game-changer in terms of hybrid Cloud/On-Site telephony but for now cloud based solutions are not the way to go for large scale enterprise telephony. In addition, the fact that "General" IT Service companies could start offering this as a solution for Large Scale business without understanding the complexity and experience which Enterprise Level Voice Solutions require gives real credence to the fact that any IT departments considering this technology need to stop and think before they make such a dramatic change to their network.

If you're interested in Deploying Unified Communications solutions such as Skype for Business and would like to know more or see any parallels with any of the scenarios above please get in touch with E-WAN Networks here.

SKYPE FOR BUSINESS - CLOUD PBX - IS IT ANY GOOD?