Microsoft Lync: Ready for Unified Communications Primetime?

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A lot’s been said and written since Microsoft officially unveiled Lync, its successor to OCS. One of the particular areas of focus has been the significantly enhanced voice feature set with Microsoft themselves claiming the ‘PBX era is over’. For those of us working in the VoIP and IP Telephony arena for the last 10+ years, this is a familiar cry!

The focus from all communications vendors is now Unified Communications and Collaboration (UC&C). A bringing together of voice, messaging (voicemail, email, IM), video, conferencing (audio and video) and collaboration tools (web, desktop/document sharing).

 

I don’t think anyone can deny that Microsoft has fantastically strong offerings, particularly with Exchange for mail and OCS/Lync for IM, but are they ready to oust more traditional voice platforms and their legacy of phones, features and functions? Voice is still a major communication channel - both inside and outside any organisation.

Firstly, Microsoft has come a long way with Lync in addressing a number of concerns I had in being ready to deploy in large, enterprise, voice networks. For example, call admission control is essential is making sure that voice plays nicely with your other applications on the network, particularly at locations with low bandwidth - not everyone has a 100Mb/s Ethernet connection to an MPLS network!

That said, I still have a number of concerns. At the backend, the number and performance requirements of the servers can be very high, particularly if you require edge and mediation servers. If you require branch survivability in the event of network outages, you will need to deploy an SBA. Although, this is not a lot different from having a gateway, in the Cisco or Avaya worlds, at remote sites, it is an additional overhead.

At the front end, Lync is still very focussed on the PC. I have two issues with this. First, mobility. More and more workers are not tied to their desk. Smartphone and pad/slate use has rocketed. Mobile clients are slated for Lync, but not until later this year. I will be interested to see how functional the applications are, especially on the move away from in-house, corporate WiFi networks. This isn’t just a challenge for Microsoft. The industry as a whole still has a lot of work to do on Fixed-Mobile Convergence - and that includes the service providers.

The second issue is that not all workers have ready access to a PC. There are some ‘Optimised for Lync’ IP Phones - but not many (5 at the last count). And compared to the telephony feature set found on other systems, they seem quite limited. The biggest cost for most pure telephony deployments is the handset on the desk. Unless you’re planning on doing away with the deskphone (and giving all your staff USB headsets/handsets) - this must be considered.

So, is Lync ready for UC primetime? For some users - yes. The voice feature set is now mature enough to meet many requirements. If you’re a Microsoft house and have the skill set, it won’t be a major jump to Lync. You’ll get benefits of the new, integrated user interface for voice, presence, collaboration and video plus Exchange to handle your voice and emails. This will be a major step towards UC.

That said, there can be some challenges to any migration. Integrating Lync with any voice estate can be difficult. Hybrid operation (Lnyc for presence/IM, existing telephony for voice) will require a lot of integration and support from your PBX vendor.

I’d suggest anyone looking at Lync as part of their UC strategy considers the following:

* Understand Microsoft’s licensing model - eg you may require the Plus CAL for certain Enterprise voice features
* Understand the ecosystem - software, servers, phones and SBAs will all come from different suppliers - are you happy to support this?
* Speak to your service providers - can they support direct SIP trunking to Lync for in/outbound calls?Can they provide the full set of features, such as access to emergency services, through SIP trunks?
* Understand your voice users - operators, PAs and contact centres all have very specific requirements of their voice services. They are also some of the most vocal people in an organisation if things don’t work!
* Understand your global dial plan - particularly if you operate across geographic borders.
* Consider a pilot using a cross section of your user base. If possible, compare Lync only to an integrated solution with an IP Telephony platform.
* Take care if you’re considering using Lync (or any UC for that matter) with video. Your bandwidth demands can rocket!

As with any technology transition, keep your eyes and ears open, don’t believe everything the vendors tell you and you won’t go far wrong! If you’re thinking about switching to Lync, or have already done so, I’d be interested to hear your experiences. What went according to plan? What didn’t? What would you recommend?

Nicolas Jacquey
Justin Ayres

Justin Ayres has 15 years' experience as a Unified Communications instructor, designer and implementer. He has 10 years' experience as a CCIE and specialist in Cisco's IPT and Unified Communications product set.