Enterprise Connect 2016: It’s All About the PaaS, Stupid

B. Shimmin
B. Shimmin

Summary Bullets:

• At Enterprise Connect, the unified communications (UC) market’s slow and painful transition from hardware to software and services took an interesting and sudden toward platform-as-a-service offerings.

• It’s unclear if this “platformification” of communications heralds a new wave of investment and innovation, or is it yet another attempt to sell collaboration-enabled business processes (CEBP).

Toss a pebble into a still, small pond, and the ripples left behind will spread outward, eventually touching upon each and every inch of the shore. An idea is the same – and sometimes, when there’s more than one idea or pebble, they interact and interfere with one another, creating beautifully complex patterns of interference. At this year’s Enterprise Connect Conference in Orlando, the pond of unified communications (UC) was roiling with patterns — patterns that coalesced into a single message. Forget about the slow and painful transition from hardware to software. Forget about trendy but troubled Web-only codecs or even the cloud itself. Platform-as-a-service (PaaS) offerings marked the path forward for UC vendors seeking to secure their future relevancy.

A quick and dirty laundry list of major PaaS announcements rippling throughout the show includes both disruptors (cloud players) and those looking to avoid disruption (that is, established voice/video hardware vendors). Just before the show, Vidyo returned to its tech-enabler roots, introducing a 4k Ultra HD-capable PaaS supporting everything from mobile to IoT devices. Cisco Systems announced the general availability of its Spark team-building service, trumpeting not only that it had opened upon APIs for said service, but also that it was going to invest $150 million dollars in partner developers looking to build on top of Spark. Avaya rolled out a nifty development framework and deployment platform called Breeze, and then followed that up with the introduction of a brand new (spun out), cloud-only collaboration PaaS company called Zang. Together, the moves finally bring Avaya’s much earlier DevConnect efforts to fruition, forming a compelling and complete vision that includes technology (APIs, SDKs, frameworks), tooling (Breeze), and the platform itself (Zang). And Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise (ALE) went a step further, actually declaring itself to be a cloud service provider with the introduction of ALE Rainbow, an overlay service that includes instant messaging, presence, voice, video, and file sharing.  These solutions will be joining those already disrupting the UC marketplace, namely Microsoft with Office 365/Skype for Business running on Azure, GENBAND Kandy, and Twilio.

As with any good pattern of interference, the numerous PaaS pebbles thrown into the UC pond this week revealed some interesting commonalities and shared objectives.

    • Utility: Most offerings employ a combined usage and per-user pricing structure, allowing customers to tailor billing according to customer need, deployment type, and partner contract.
    • Openness: This may be taken for granted in the marketplace today, but it’s important to note that most UC PaaS vendors tout how their partner developers have access to the same PIs as their internal engineers.
    • Freemium: To facilitate experimentation and proof-of-concept development, all vendors are offering freely available tools (e.g., APIs/SDKs), and many are offering free usage models for customers. Concerning the latter, limitations on transactions, storage, and user counts are the norm.
    • Vertical: In an effort to give channel partners some room to grow margins and add value within customer engagements, UC PaaS players emphasize the operationalization of collaborative business workflows across both industries and departments.
    • Hybrid: This is where the legacy, hardware-centric aspect of the UC vendor landscape comes into play. All UC PaaS vendors are pushing for both migration and coexistence between existing hardware investments and the wilds of the Internet.
    • Channel: Again, true to their roots, UC PaaS vendors don’t want to alienate their channel partners (be those SIs, VARs or SPs) and so are crafting both multi-tenant and managed hosted models that start and often end in the channel, with no direct-from-vendor option.
    • Apps: Given the channel-centricity and developer-friendly nature of these offerings, it’s a natural next step for vendors to open up an Apple iTunes-like app store on top of their PaaS. Depending on the size/health/nature of the emerging developer ecosystems specific to each vendor, this will either be a big hit or something quickly forgotten. Only time will tell.

That adage holds true for these emerging PaaS offerings as a whole. Time will tell whether each vendor can successfully evolve its channel, build a self-sustaining developer ecosystem, and retain/grow its customer base from upon high (namely the cloud). What’s clear is that no matter what you call it (PUCaaS, cPaaS, vPaaS, Zang), it’s all about the cloud. Oh, and RESTful APIs, of course.

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