What to look for when creating a Unified Communications RFP

Examining the Enterprise Connect Unified Communications RFP Results

nec-enterprise-connect-uc-rfp-david-stein-tcoEach year at Enterprise Connect, a mock Request for Proposal (RFP) session is held. The mock RFP is a simulation of the requests that enterprises and government agencies put out when looking for a new unified communications solution.

The session, led by independent consultant David Stein, Principal at Stein Consulting Group, assesses telephony products developed by communications vendors.  Each of the vendors that participate are required to answer questions related to their solutions’ architecture, features, and Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) over a 3-5 year period.  The goal of the session is three-fold:

  • Provide enterprises with an un-biased third party opinion of UC solutions on the market
  • To thoroughly assess and discuss the features of each solution
  • To monitor and report on burgeoning UC trends

Vendor Review

The UC RFP and Review: Enterprise Communications Platform–Premise vs. Cloud-Based IP Telephony session is the latest in the evolution of the “mock” RFP at Enterprise Connect. This session is a long running tradition and the ideal way to provide potential customers an objective way to learn about the top vendors in the industry.

The RFP was handed out in advance of the conference. Each participating vendor is required to answer questions related to their solutions’ architecture, features, and, new this year, Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) over a 5 year period. This year, seven vendors proposed ten solutions. The proposing vendors come from a variety of backgrounds ranging from over 100 years of telephony experience to very recent entrants into the market.

The RFP specifically includes stringent requirements for high availability, core voice functionality, voicemail, unified messaging, unified communications (e.g. presence, IM, voice, Web, video conferencing), and system administration.

This year’s vendor responses were submitted to Stein, who judged them based on a weighted scale. This year’s scale—same as years past—offered 50 percent of the score to functional/technical requirements, 25 percent to architecture requirements, and the final 25 percent to pricing.

This year also marked the first year that both on-premises and cloud solutions were combined for a sufficiently comprehensive UC solutions showcase. Also, included in this year’s session was a panel discussion that covered topics such as integration issues, deployment issues, and how vendors decide which solution—cloud or premises—to propose.

Evident Trends from the Session

The RFP placed emphasis on mobility, virtualization, integration of existing product sets, and improving user interfaces. The continuing trends from last year include:

  • Focus on the development of Android and iOS platforms for mobility offerings.
  • Significant focus on user experience and development of UC functionality as related there-in.
  • Emphasis on virtualization with most components available in virtual configurations.

New or changing trends that became evident from 2013-2014 include:

  • Vendor strengths are developing with particular features; i.e. not all vendors provide every feature often desired.
  • Gap in UC capabilities amongst respondents is still significant.
  • Significant differences still exist in vendor solutions.
  • “Average prices” decreased from 2013 to 2014.
  • Cloud vs. premises functionality differences more significant than previously thought.
  • Cloud vs. premises TCO differences remain significant.

Key Trends for Modern Communications Systems

This year’s session positioned as Premises vs. Cloud was a welcome addition to the conference.  For the first time, conference attendees had access to a more complete representation of the unified communications market.

There are three trends noted in David Stein’s own observations, that communications experts agree are foundational for modern Unified Communications systems. Each system must be/include:

  • Software-based—software-based communications solutions have re-defined the way businesses communicate. The most modern, agile, scalable solutions will deliver a fully functional IP-PBX along with a complete set of voice features and UC applications that can be tailored to individual needs. Software-based systems also offer simplified licensing and management features that make it easier for businesses to manage day-to-day communications needs.
  • Virtualization—communications systems that can be deployed across distributed architectural platforms offer ultimate flexibility, and improve business continuity and cost saving. Virtualized infrastructures offer benefits such as server consolidation, increased security, operational flexibility and greater application availability during downtime.
  • Mobility— Modern communications solutions offer enhanced user-mobility solutions that enable workers to stay connected and productive from any locale. These mobility solutions typically incorporate softphones, mobile applications, call-twinning, call transfer, and fixed mobile convergence options. These tools allow businesses to shorten the time it takes to move projects forward, and ultimately improve the service provided to customers.

NEC did very well, winning the highest total score of all vendors compared in the 2,000 user UC RFP. NEC’s UNIVERGE solution won top score both because of its technological strengths, and because it provides customers with a significant economic advantage in terms of TCO.

NEC’s response to the RFP is listed as “on-premises.” However, it’s interesting to note that its software based solution resides on a virtualized server and could easily exist as part of an organization’s private cloud.  Alternatively, this configuration could be hosted off-premises in a commercial data center.

5-year Total Cost of Ownership

Frequently, after organizations have made the decision to replace their existing phone system, a lot of time, energy, and effort go into evaluating and comparing the initial acquisition and installation costs of the vendors that make their short list. This focus on initial costs sometimes means that ongoing operation and maintenance costs are overlooked.  This year Stein added an extensive evaluation to the study that helps determine the “true” cost of a Unified Communications solution.

The addition of the 5-year Total Cost of Ownership section of the RFP gives businesses the opportunity to look beyond the initial costs of implementation, to the costs of operating the solution for five years. This evaluation helps businesses plan a comprehensive budget that takes the long-term operational and maintenance costs into consideration.

Bottom Line

There are a number of factors to consider in evaluating Unified Communications RFPs.  High availability, voicemail, unified messaging, and unified communications are just some of the features of modern communications technology. If your organization is starting the process of looking for a new UC solution to replace your existing IP/PBX, then taking a look at the UC RFP results would be a great place for you to start.

For a comprehensive look at weighting, factors and TCO evaluations included in the Enterprise Connect UC RFP, download the whitepaper by David Stein.