Hosted services have long been touted for their ability to save organisations money by negating the need for large capital investment into technology, and delivering services on demand for a flexible and easily scalable solution.
Says Gail Holt, MD at official distributor Zycko, "However, until recently, due to well known bandwidth issues, the number of hosted services available in South Africa has been somewhat limited.
"Now that more and better quality bandwidth is becoming more readily available in the country, hosted services have become a far more viable option and service providers are expanding their offerings to greater numbers of applications and services."
One area where hosted services is emerging as a strong option is in the area of unified communications (UC), as running these systems through a hosted option allows organisations to save large sums of capital normally involved in conferencing and other advanced features.
Says Chris Wortt, Polycom VoIP sales manager, EMEA, "When it comes to hosted services in the communications field, there are generally three types of provider to choose from. The traditional service provider will deliver a full portfolio of business communication packages including bandwidth, connectivity a range of competitively priced, hosted and managed communication services.
"Internet telephone service providers (ITSPs) differ by offering "hosted" telephony services across IP (hosted VoIP), as an alternative to expensive analogue or GSM lines, by using a SIP Trunk over a new or existing IP connection, such as broadband. In this case, users benefit from fixed rate calling 'into the cloud', a similar model to the mobile phone business but by using an IP Network rather than an expensive GSM network.
"The third level, which is becoming a real option in the South African market and is poised for major growth thanks to additional bandwidth availability, is the 'hoster', which is something of a hybrid of the other
"The hoster will offer a range of services and features, from bandwidth and connectivity to IP telephony and hosted applications. Applications are 'hosted' by the service provider in their data centre, and
users access them through an IP/broadband connection provided by the hoster, enabling users to access any combination of the variety of products and hosted applications on offer."
This is the area which may be of particular appeal to the SMB market, as is opens the field up, allowing these organisations to access advanced features and functionality which were traditionally only affordable to large enterprises. Using hosted services, unified communications and business applications can be delivered on a cost per seat basis, which is more suitable to the budgets of smaller organisations.
For cloud based hosting companies, UC functionality can simply be added on as extra features to the service, for which organisations will pay a nominal monthly fee per seat rather than having to fork out an investment into infrastructure which is liable to become outdated.
This allows organisations to pick and choose the services they need without having to continually purchase new and often expensive equipment. A Web front-end allows users to easily access and manipulate the features they are running through the service provider, and organisations can take advantage of expert skills and knowledge in the field without the need to hire these expensive resources.
"The 'hosted community' allows SMBs to access functionality such as data sharing, Microsoft Live meetings, video conferencing and IP telephony, traditionally features exclusive to organisations with large budgets, all from one easy to use and cost effective platform," adds Holt.
"These collaborative UC features are becoming of increasing value, as they allow for the collaborative atmosphere of a face-to-face environment without the high cost of travel.
"These integrated and collaborative features allow users to firstly establish the availability of people, who can then be migrating into an instant messaging session where video can be added dynamically and more
people can be added into the conference. Once all parties are present the participants are able to share voice, video and data and can even collaborate on documents using technology such as Microsoft SharePoint.
"All of these features can be accessed easily, added to or removed from the service offering as necessary, and quickly scaled on a month-to-month basis according to how many users need access."
The hosted unified communications market is set to take off in South Africa, as there are a large number of SMB organisations that stand to benefit from the offering. However, when looking to enter this market there are a couple of things that organisations need to bear in mind.
From a small business perspective, it is imperative to ensure that the service provider can deliver immediate cost savings in terms of telephony, as this will help to build the business case for switching to hosted UC.
On top of that, the service provider needs to have a clear roadmap of the future regarding extended services that will be offered, and organisations should ensure that the services being offered will meet their needs going forward.
For the enterprise it is vital to balance the current cost of internal IT and telecoms against the services and costs of what a hoster can provide to see if going "hosted" is a viable option.
"Hosted UC services are becoming the way of the future, as they offer a more cost effective and affordable option for organisations, especially those in the SMB space, than purchasing expensive equipment and managing it themselves," concludes Holt.
"This will allow smaller organisations to take advantage of technology which was previously out of reach, allowing them to compete more effectively with their larger counterparts and access greater market opportunity."