Microsoft’s Azure Communication Services Launch Challenges OTT/CPaaS Vendors & MSPs and Gives Enterprises New Options

Gary Barton – Analyst, Business Network and IT Services

Summary Bullets:

  • Enterprises should be aware that Azure Communication Services will let them plug features such as SMS and voice and video calling into other applications and services.
  • Azure Communication Services offers security through its layered structure and can be integrated with Azure AI features.

What Is Azure Communication Services?

Azure Communications Services (ACS) is Microsoft’s decision to open up the platform that underpins services such as Microsoft Teams and Dynamics 365 as a managed service/API and SDK library. ACS is launching with a set of features that closely mirrors the core capabilities of Microsoft Teams. This is essentially because the features being offered are the blocks used to build the Teams platform. Customers will be able to integrate PSTN calling, IP voice and video, SMS, and individual and group chat functionality which includes content sharing and message history.

Microsoft is making security a key element of ACS at launch. For example, it is highlighting that the platform will offer the same data security and compliance functionality (e.g., for GDPR) of both Teams and Dynamics 365. The software giant is also highlighting that its platform and APIs are built in a layered structure. This approach (which has been standardized within the REST API methodology) offers security benefits because more sensitive layers can sit behind strict firewalls.

Microsoft is also keen to point out that its platform is designed to be seamlessly integrated with the Azure Cognitive Services AI platform, which offers a strong range of features such as real-time translation, sentiment analysis, and speech-to-text as well as upcoming new features such as voice recognition for authentication purposes.

What Kind of Customers Is ACS Targeting?

The service is similar to Amazon Connect and platforms offered by CPaaS specialists such as Twilio and Vonage. It can also be seen as a response to the API and SDK libraries that have helped companies such as 8×8 and Ring Central to gain traction in the cloud collaboration services market through their ability to integrate easily with other platforms and services. The service also competes with managed service providers and SIs such as Orange, Vodafone, Verizon, AT&T, IBM, and Atos.

Microsoft has pre-trialed its service with a range of businesses in the US across key verticals such as healthcare, education, security, and automotive for use cases such as remote assistance, telehealth, and home security services, as well as in contact center environments. Essentially, Microsoft is targeting an enterprise looking to deliver an application or service with embedded communications functions. It has also launched with a number of tutorial videos, and while all features are not yet live, all key documentation for the APIs and SDKs are available.

Buying Considerations

This is a new platform, and while trials have been conducted, it is reasonable to expect minor teething problems. Enterprises should be aware that features will be released over the remainder of 2020 and into 2021, although most core functionality will be available from October 2020, and international availability will vary.

The key advantage Microsoft ACS offers is that it is built on the same foundations as Microsoft Teams and Dynamics 365. Enterprises which are already Microsoft houses for their collaboration services may well benefit from continuing along the Microsoft path. Also, although the platform as a commercial proposition is new, most of the individual features are tried and tested. The Microsoft brand will also carry credibility for its customer-facing solutions.

Microsoft states that is offering a fully managed service, but the exact nature of this service is not yet clear. Enterprises with strong in-house developer capabilities are likely to find ACS an easy platform to work with. Those looking for help may consider that an MSP will offer a more guided process. MSPs can also offer a stronger choice when it comes to the communications networks (fixed and mobile) that underpin many of the communications features.

Microsoft’s platform/APIs can be used in a multi-vendor scenario, and working with a third-party service provider may offer advantages when it comes to understanding the options available on the market. One thing enterprises should certainly know is that Microsoft has added a highly credible option to the integrated communications market.

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