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Affordable unified communications for SMEs: Cobweb's cloud-based Microsoft Lync

Successful business relies on communication. Decades ago, the typing pool was central to a letter and memo-based business communications, and since then email has taken over many of these functions. But a modern small- to medium-sized enterprise (SME) needs a wider array of integrated communications methods to compete successfully. Whilst this kind of unified communications system can be run entirely in-house, it has traditionally been a very expensive option only large companies could afford. Now, however, the increasing value of outsourced cloud-based alternatives means there could be a much more cost-effective option, and none offers you more for your money than Cobweb, Europe's largest cloud communications provider.

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Complementing its hosted Microsoft Exchange packages for your company's primary email needs, Cobweb also provides hosted Microsoft Lync in a variety of forms. Lync is Microsoft's real-time communications suite, bringing together instant messaging, availability awareness and virtual conferences for up to 250 attendees, and integrated IP telephony. Cobweb has been a Microsoft Gold Certified Partner since 2006, so is fully accredited to provide technical support on Microsoft products, giving Cobweb's clients total assurance that their businesses are in the hands of experts.

Cobweb offers Lync in four different packages, with monthly prices starting from as little as £1.69 per user. The basic package includes instant messaging with peer-to-peer audio and video, live presence awareness, clients for Mac and mobile users, file transfer, and integration with Cobweb's Exchange 2013 offerings, as well as federation with Skype so that users can communicate between the two systems. Setting up a federated connection of this type is entirely free, too. All connections are secured by hefty 2,048-bit encryption.

For £5.99 per month per user, the Professional Conferencing bundle increases the limit on multi-attendee instant message conversations from 10 to the full number supported by Lync. It adds the ability to schedule and host multi-attendee HD audio and video conferences, with content and desktop sharing. So this will be an ideal choice if conferencing is a primary business requirement for your company.

The Professional Voice option costs £7.99 per month per user, and provides a different set of additional abilities. This version allows you to call public telephone numbers, making it into a Voice over IP solution. It provides dynamic call control, so the voice stream will be automatically routed for most efficient and resilient service. A call can be set to ring through simultaneously on multiple devices, allowing users to pick it up with whichever device is closest to hand. Calls can be delegated so that they are temporarily routed to another user. Cobweb's Professional Voice option provides a complete cloud-based IP telephony solution for your company.

However, the Professional Voice bundle doesn't include the conferencing abilities of Professional Conference, and is limited to 10 attendees in a single instant message conversation like the basic package. For the feature sets of both Professional Conferencing and Professional Voice, there's the Advanced bundle for £11.99 per month per user. This provides the complete set of conferencing and telephony features in one integrated package. Cobweb can help you migrate your existing service over to Lync, too, with full consultancy services available to help you plan the move.

In today's increasingly mobile workplace, the utility of a integrated but multi-platform uniform messaging solution is clear. The ability to participate in a virtual meeting from any location, whether on site or remotely, empowers employees to work more flexibly. Lync allows users to join a meeting with a single click from Outlook, or a calendar entry in a Windows, Android or iOS device. They can then interact via instant message, audio or video, and share their files and desktop. The Presence ability will let employees know if the person they are trying to contact is available. As well as Windows, Android and iOS, there's a web app client, further enhancing the connection options.

Lync can also be purchased as part of a larger bundle. The Small Business Suite 2013 combines Lync with Exchange and SharePoint, with prices ranging from £6.19 to £16.49 per month, depending on the level of Lync features required. Cobweb's standalone Business Email Suite costs £8.50 per month per user, making the Small Business Suite 2013 particularly good value.

Outsourcing functions as mission critical as email might seem like an insecure activity. However, Cobweb delivers hosted communications to over 5,000 SMEs across Europe and for a huge range of industries. The company manages more than 120,000 mailboxes - five times as many as the nearest competitor - and has been an application service provider since 1996. Since communications are hosted in the cloud, they remain secure even if the device you use to access them is lost or stolen.

CloudPro magazine voted Cobweb the Best Hosted Exchange Service, and Symantec chose the company as UK Cloud Partner of the Year. Cobweb has ISO 9001:2008 and 27001:2005 accreditation, for quality management and information security management, respectively. So the company meets stringent international standards for its management and security. ISO 2007:2005 in particular accredits Cobweb's ability to keep the information it hosts secure, and there is a disaster recovery system in place for business critical services, fulfilling principles of confidentiality, integrity and availability.

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Technical support is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and is both UK-based and manned by real people. Cobweb's hosting platforms are divided between two of London's only ISO 27001-certified data centres, and a Tier 3 specified data centre in Segensworth. All three have 24/7 physical security, fully redundant uninterruptible power supplies with onsite generators, and multiple diverse Internet connections. So Cobweb can offer a 99.5 per cent uptime service level agreement, based on whole calendar months.

Unified communications used to be an expensive proposition that could only be afforded by large enterprises. But now if you want to empower your company with this workflow-enhancing communications system whilst maintaining affordability, no matter the size of your company, Europe's largest provider of hosted communications could be the answer, and you don't need to commit without trying the capabilities first. Cobweb is offering a 60-day trial of its services for free. Sign up for the trial here.