COVID-19 has, without a doubt, accelerated the move from a ‘cloud-first’ to a ‘cloud now’ strategy for most organizations. Even before COVID-19 led to a new remote workforce springing up, we already saw a noticeable acceleration to a UCaaS-centric (unified communications as a service) world.
In part because of immediate need, and partly because of the abundance of straightforward collaboration features in Microsoft Teams, IT has taken it upon itself to “rush-migrate” large numbers of users over to Teams. A typical Teams user seems extremely easy to deploy: Enable the user, install the client, and you’re done. Work-from-Home problem solved, right? The question is, though, has this ‘simple’ setup resolved the issue, or have you only succeeded in opening pandora’s box and creating massive blind spots for your IT team? Blind spots will start to manifest themselves when the “new normal” sets in.
As we point out at the end of this post, blind spots may lull IT into a false sense of UCaaS confidence. Let’s look at the set of considerable impacts to an existing IT infrastructure, to end-users, as well as many security-related aspects, which you need to examine now that your simple Microsoft Teams setup is complete.
In the Beginning, There was the End User…
Conventional IT wisdom tells us that you cannot accomplish a switch from an existing UC on-prem system to Teams on a global scale over a weekend. Microsoft Teams is only “sort-of” like Skype. Cloud is not at all like on-premises. There really should be a transition period lasting many months…and possibly even years (in various hybrid forms) for the more conservative IT organizations. We have worked with some companies who have done just this: A weekend shift—granted mainly just conferencing. And on Monday, the world was still standing.
So, what are the looming train wrecks for the end-user? There are inconsistencies between presence states, meetings, and device handling. Many features will be vastly different, and some are no longer available. For example, “Federation” and federated contacts might not have their name on display. Instead, only the SIP address is displayed. Microsoft Teams allows users to create groups (“teams”). Guidance and training are required to avoid the proliferation of teams and an uncontrollable distribution of information, documents, and versions.
…but the Network is the Snake
When moving from an existing UC solution (e.g., Skype for Business) to Teams, you can expect a significant shift in traffic flows. Gone is internally managed traffic. Here to stay is unmanaged traffic over the Internet. This will impact proxy servers, Internet access firewalls, and connectivity to PSTN gateways. Even more importantly, after the quick move to Teams to support an extremely high percentage of WFH, don’t be lulled into a false sense of security. Many of your network issues won’t start to surface until users begin to trickle back to the office.
You need to also anticipate other network shifts as the hybrid (users in the office vs. users working from home) fluctuates from day to day or week to week. And then there is video. Already we are seeing a massive 500% (on average) video modality growth since March 2020, but as users become increasingly comfortable with video, you can expect those numbers to grow ever larger. With that growth, of course, comes a more considerable network strain. Have you engineered to anticipated it all?
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Client, User, and Platform Management
The UCaaS DNA of Teams allowed for easy deployment, but be careful what you wish for. The Teams client updates itself automatically, without involvement from corporate IT or desktop management. Compared to other Microsoft365 applications, the client hardware and software requirements are much higher, requiring hardware replacements to function efficiently over time.
End-users can be configured and provisioned, but this now needs to happen in the cloud, typically through web portals. Existing 3rd party apps and associated workflows that involve on-premises systems need to be either “re-programmed” or perhaps even redesigned from scratch. Most importantly, to allow for a good line of sight view of the blind spots that may exist, existing tooling used to operate, monitor, and manage the UC platforms and the end-user experience will most likely no longer work. New tools, policies, and methods will be required.
Room Systems…growing or fading?
Before COVID-19, one of the hot topics was the rapid growth of Huddle Rooms. Now, surveying empty office buildings, conventional wisdom is that room systems are dinosaurs. But are they? Companies have been able to sidestep any focus on conference rooms for the time being. But what happens when offices open back up? Will that new Teams system work well with your old Skype Room System hardware?
As we wrote about last week, SBC’s are experiencing a re-birth thanks to the UCaaS acceleration. While that’s good news for the SBC hardware vendors, it’s not exactly great news for IT. Given the increased importance of the SBC and the exponential traffic flow through them, magnifies the overall value of SBCs in the UCaaS ecosystem. However, most organizations don’t have their finger on the pulse of their SBCs – they aren’t proactively monitoring or managing SBCs. Have you lost count of the blind spots yet?
Collaboration Security & Governance
Microsoft Teams allows easy sharing of information by inviting external participants (such as vendors or partners) to collaborate in a team or channel. But what happens when the project concludes, and the channel access is no longer required? Who removes guests associated with vendors who are no longer under contract? What happens if a team or channel owner leaves the company? Teams provide easy access to vast amounts of information, which – thanks to powerful search options – can be easily discovered and consumed. There are also countless video conferencing security issues to consider. IT and InfoSec need to team up to think through all the different collaboration security landmines, governance plans, and policies that now apply to this new UCaaS landscape.
Don’t Forget Cloud Phone
With all the focus on video conferencing, those poor desk phones have been sitting idle on the office desk. But not for long. The infrastructure used to handle calls to and from the PSTN has drastically changed in the UCaaS world. Most enterprises are planning for an extended transition phase. As such, components like PSTN trunks and gateways will have to support the new Microsoft Teams requirements and continue to fulfill the old PBX or on-prem UC platform requirements simultaneously. You will need to port phone numbers to Teams and ensure routing configurations need so that calls can still be placed and received, even if across different UC platforms. Whether the play is phone system integration or phone system migration, there is no quick or easy solution.
False Sense of UCaaS Confidence
Finally, there’s one last key point to remember. Today’s work from home environment is very different from a typical Pre-COVID-19 “remote working” environment. Everyone is working from a very static home environment, which means the following situations aren’t in play anywhere close to the way they would be in “normal” times:
- Aggressive mobile client usage
- Constantly changing peripheral devices
- A wide and varied set of public networks (4G/hotels/cars/cafes/customer offices)
- Corporate WAN & Wi-Fi networks
- A broad and continually changing set of different office meeting rooms
Most of this post has examined how IT must consider each of these elements in isolation. Still, perhaps the most significant issue to not overlook is that everyone has been connecting from a single static setup for at least 2+ months — same endpoint, same peripheral device, same network connection, same physical space, etc. Given this set of “simple configurations,” IT has been able to stabilize the environment, and enterprises have gone mainly unscathed after rush enabling tens of thousands of users. What is usually a set of complex and continuously changing UC use cases has been boiled down to a simple subset and then frozen.
As users begin to re-establish something resembling a ‘normal’ UC usage pattern, we can expect an onset of new chaos. Workplace environments are one factor, but it’s the variability that comes with UC usage that will increase Teams and Zoom’s management complexity once people start venturing outside of their homes.
So What’s Next?
Many IT departments opted to license their new UCaaS offerings on a month-by-month basis as they rushed to deploy. As the new normal sets in, IT leaders must choose how to continue their licensing for the long haul. Does the new IT strategy make this great new UCaaS nirvana either unnecessary or redundant? Or, is the added flexibility of Teams beneficial, even with the current rough edges? The glass is half full mindset tells us that COVID-19 has accelerated a massive “way of working” cultural shift.
As a result, many of the things that would have usually been disruptive to users are not as big of a deal. And IT is taking advantage of this unique moment. Looking at the half-empty glass reminds the old-school UC folk that there was a reason why Skype for Business instant messaging was rolled out SO quickly. In contrast, the conferencing, and especially the phone modalities of Skype, often took years to gestate.
UC is not simple, even when its UCaaS. Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Cisco Webex Teams — all of these UCaaS platforms (and their related infrastructure sidekicks) require careful planning, systematic deployment, and 24x7x365 monitoring and troubleshooting. Microsoft Teams is undoubtedly easy to deploy to end-users. However, the impact on the underlying infrastructure landscape (which will persist) will be extensive, complex, and, diverse.