Aculab Cloud – Executive Q&A

Over the past few months, Aculab has been a sponsor here, and to support their recent cloud-based offering, I have produced a monthly post highlighting their progress. Aside from shining some light on Aculab, my broader intent was to show how the cloud is impacting vendors from all ends of the communications spectrum.
This is my final post in that series, and features an executive Q&A interview with Faye McClenahan, Aculab’s Head of Strategic Marketing. I felt it would good for readers to hear directly from Aculab about how they view the cloud, not just as an evolution for their offerings, but how it provides new value for their customers. I hope you enjoy our conversation, and by all means, your comments are welcome.
JA  Let’s start with the most basic question – briefly explain Aculab Cloud, and tell us a bit about what’s behind your move in this direction?
FM  If you are familiar with Cloud jargon, the best way to describe Aculab Cloud in the first instance is as a platform-as-as-service (PaaS).  Our service is the availability of telephony resources (such as play, record, conferencing, live speaker detection, etc.) presenting the capability to deploy telephony applications that can make, receive and interact with calls, without having to purchase the telephony hardware or software typically required.
The application can remain premise-based, as can the data.  Aculab Cloud is there to execute the telephony functions and to ensure the calls are handled as required, and that there are enough telephony resources to accommodate fluctuating call volumes.  When the application isn’t in use – there is nothing to pay.
Whilst renowned for our hardware, Aculab has always been about telephony software.  Over the years, that has seen us add a whole range of telephony resources to our portfolio.  In addition, we have looked for alternative ways in which our technology could be used – from different card form factors, to software packaged for use on a host processor, to our latest venture whereby the resources are made available for use in the cloud. 
JA  The cloud trend seems almost de rigueur for vendors in the communications space now. Having such a strong legacy pedigree, what particular challenges did you face doing this, and conversely, what particular advantages does this confer on you compared to entries with little or no legacy history?
FM  Some interesting challenges included the management of the Aculab Development team as a ‘customer’ of one of our more traditional telephony platforms – Prosody S.  In addition, there is an element of restructuring required to offer a service rather than a product that you ship; however as mentioned previously, Aculab has always been about the telephony software – whether it is loaded onto cards, available to download onto a host processor, or through the cloud.  We know telephony, we know how businesses want to use the telephony, the challenges they face and the resources they require in order to achieve the call flows desired – that’s what sets us apart.
JA  Other companies in this space have cloud-based offerings; what is distinct about your architecture?
FM  Greater flexibility and greater choice.  In terms of your application, you are free to run it on a server on your own premises, your customer’s premises or indeed, you could choose to run it in the cloud (e.g., on Amazon or Rackspace).  In addition, we allow you to select, according to region, which Aculab Cloud you wish to use to maximize QoS and to provide an additional redundancy measure.
JA  Aculab talks about being a “true” cloud offering. To help our readers better understand how the cloud is a step forward in your business, how would you characterize that? Also, how is this different from a hosted or managed offering?
FM  Simply put, cloud should equate to a significant reduction in the CAPEX required to run a telephony application as well as for the telephony resources needed to scale on-demand.  These two factors combined, make the creation and deployment of telephony applications not only cheaper for small development houses, but it also reduces the costs for large providers who can handle fluctuating call volumes without having to purchase the capacity to handle the peaks.
Whether a service is hosted or cloud-based is probably of more interest to the hosted service provider than to the end ‘consumer’ of the service. To the end user, they probably wouldn’t be able to tell much difference (if any).  However, for the solution provider, they will have some service limitations in pursuing a hosted strategy rather than a cloud one. 
Offering a hosted service means that the solution provider will need to buy servers and telephony equipment, and have specialist staff programming, managing and supporting that equipment, power costs, the running costs of a data centre, etc.  Those costs will undoubtedly need to be passed onto/shared with the end user.
In addition, it won’t be as flexible or scalable.  To offer a hosted service again means you have made an upfront investment into a set number of servers (and therefore capacity).  This may result in either underutilised resources or having to turn away business because the capacity is not available.  The knock-on effect on customers is that the capacity may not be available when they need it, or they will have to book capacity in advance or they will simply have limitations placed on them as to how many concurrent calls can be made.  With Cloud based-deployments, there are no such issues.
JA  For your core served market, what are you finding to be the real value drivers and advantages? Is this different from what you expected prior to launching?
FM  Speed of development has been a big advantage – Aculab Cloud supports high-level programming languages (Python and .NET).  That, coupled with the corresponding telephony APIs, has enabled developers with limited telephony expertise to write applications that meet their business requirements in a matter of weeks. We always spoke in terms of users being able to reduce development time by orders of magnitude and to see real-world evidence of that is gratifying. 
JA  From the customer’s perspective, what are they gaining over legacy, and how quickly are the benefits being realized? Conversely, are they making any notable compromises with the cloud?
FM  To summarize, the main benefits include scalability of telephony resources (so they don’t have to provision for peaks), quick development times (no specialist telephony or low-level programming language expertise required), cost savings (pay for what they need, when they need it - OPEX not CAPEX).  Furthermore, customers can capitalise on these benefits pretty much from day one – cloud telephony is all about making it inexpensive and quick to develop and deploy.

The only drawbacks I can see concern the limitations of high-level programming languages, by nature they restrict capability in comparison to the use of low-level languages such as C, but complete control comes at a price – complexity, lots of code and the need for expertise.  The other compromise relates to ownership, not having anything physical to ‘sell’. But personally I think this is a cloud with a silver lining (excuse the pun) – as with ownership comes responsibility and undoubtedly costs.

JA  Serving existing customers is one thing, but what about growth opportunities? Where does the cloud take you in terms of new applications to extend your customer’s capabilities? How about new areas – either in terms of gaining new customers or entering markets you could not serve previously?
FM  For a long time, telephony has been somewhat restricted to the realm of C programmers and telephony experts. In turn, telephony applications have been very complex and taken many months to write.  With Aculab Cloud, we took the opportunity to provide higher-level programming languages, wrapping a number of tasks into simple call functions.  Not just to speed up the development time of existing customers, but also to allow a wider range of developers to add telephony to their toolkit. That step means a new market, encompassing, for example, vendors of broader-based business applications, rather than just telephony applications – the realm of existing customers – has opened up. The idea of telephony being inclusive to business processes through integration, similar to the concept of unified communications, is attractive on a wide market sense.
JA  You’ve been doing a number of things to educate the market about the cloud and its value proposition. In what regards have you been successful so far, and where do you see the biggest knowledge gaps or misconceptions?
FM  The biggest misconception for me is the idea that buying your own telephony equipment will be cheaper in the long run than a pay-as-you-go service. Consider the comparison between renting and buying a car. The argument goes that for short-term use, a car rental is cost-effective, because you only pay for what you consume. The clincher seems to be the statement that if you drive frequently and/or for longer, owning a vehicle makes better financial sense. Does it, indeed?
To buy the analogous car, you first need a deposit, typically thirty percent of the purchase price, which is a non-trivial investment, assuming you don’t have to borrow the cash in the first place, in which case the proposition becomes even less attractive. To retain ownership of the car, you are then committed to paying the balance of the price of the vehicle, in monthly instalments, over an extended period of time, not atypically several years.
During that hire purchase contract term, you are also likely to take up a maintenance or service package, which may or may not include provision for consumables e.g., tyres, and you may even extend the warranty for an extra monthly cost. All that sounds like pay-as-you-go masquerading as CAPEX, does it not.
At the end of the term, you own a car. However, the car is worth far less than you paid for it and probably no longer ideal for the task for which it was first procured. So you buy a new car and if you’re lucky, the residual value will suffice for the deposit on the new one. It’s exactly the same when it comes to telephony deployment choices – when looking at costs, you have to consider the true OPEX for the equipment/service you have purchased.
JA  Voice is at the core what you do, and the cloud does hold promise for exciting innovation. As your cloud offering matures, where do you envision the breakthroughs that will take voice in new directions?
FM  Voice is often portrayed as inferior, the poor relation, if you will, to other modes of communication – outdated perhaps.  Certainly, we have all become accustomed to and embraced SMS, IM, chat, even social media channels as an alternative, in some ways preferred, method of communicating.  But even with all these new forms of communication, there is no escaping the pre-eminent position voice enjoys when wishing to fully and properly convey meaning or to understand a nuanced message. VoIP and Skype were breakthroughs as was virtualisation, which led to cloud, but in terms of voice, the common element is people talking to each other, which is unlikely to change. We may use voice less, for some of the more mundane activities and where it’s socially acceptable to use other means, but ultimately, people will always want/need to talk. Future breakthroughs are likely to be in the realms of user devices and transport, with, perhaps, revolutionary set up times and call quality issues coming to the fore after years of suffering from poor quality cell-phone calls.
JA  What about the bigger picture; namely your vision for Aculab’s cloud roadmap? How much are you focusing on making the development of today’s applications faster and cheaper, as opposed to being more transformational, and pushing into new areas that legacy solutions simply cannot address?
FM  We have already pushed into new areas by providing high-level APIs – it has allowed a whole new generation of developers to add telephony to their tool kits.  Making it easier for people to add telephony or use telephony to aid their business work flows will always be an objective.  Easier means faster and faster means cheaper, and, in terms of ROI, the result is wholly satisfactory for the developer.
Reducing the cost of utilising telephony is also a key focus, where we understand that our volume customers are under price pressure from their competitors, which filters all the way through to the demands of their users and/or subscribers.  At present, we are focusing on a number of typically expensive and resource hungry technologies, such as TTS, ASR and Fax.  When you place these in a cloud context, where resources can be pooled, shared and utilised on demand, suddenly technology that may have been limited to large corporations becomes accessible – both viable and affordable – to SMBs.