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Microsoft Seeks to Replace PBXs

New Office Communications Server planned for year-end release promises to address deficiencies in existing offering.

While the new version of Microsoft Office, which is due out this month, will make it easier for individuals to collaborate and communicate, the company is also hoping the new Outlook and Communicator clients will help replace the telephone -- or at least tie the communications software more closely to it. Microsoft aims to do this with a new release of Office Communications Server (OCS), code-named "Communications Server 14," which is slated to ship later this year.

Office 2010 was designed to be a key front-end interface to SharePoint 2010, both of which Microsoft will launch on May 12. The pairing will be crucial to enabling enterprise social networking and document sharing. Later this year, though, Microsoft is taking a step toward enabling Office 2010 to function as a more viable telephony platform.

This is not a new effort for Microsoft. The company has long evangelized its goal of creating unified communications (UC). It has released several versions of OCS, designed to let Office interface with business telephone systems including private branch exchange (PBX) and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services.

Largely Untested
More than 100 million Office users are connected to OCS, said Gurdeep Singh Pall, corporate VP of the Microsoft Office Communications Group, speaking in a keynote address at the recent VoiceCon show in Orlando, Fla.

Still, usage has been scattered and few organizations have replaced their existing PBX services with OCS, says IDC analyst Jonathan Edwards. "OCS has not been enterprise-ready for the majority of organizations," he explains. Edwards adds that OCS lacks key features such as Enhanced 911 support, caller admission control and branch-office resiliency -- all deal-breakers for OCS as an enterprise communications platform.

Communications Server 14 promises to address those deficiencies. Pall took the wraps off of Communications Server 14 during his VoiceCon keynote. Though Microsoft hasn't officially said what it will be called, most observers expect Redmond to use the name Communications Server 2010, in keeping with the naming of the rest of the product releases that are part of the company's 2010 roadmap.

The new release will offer a new Communicator client that ties to the forthcoming 2010 releases of Office, SharePoint and Exchange.

Communications Server 14 will offer location-based presence support, meaning the interface will allow others to know if someone is in their office, is mobile or is in some other setting.

A user's location can be detected based on the network's subnet -- or wireless access point, if mobile -- and published based on policies selected.

"This system is designed to work from anywhere," Pall said. "It's designed to be simple both from an end-user perspective and from an IT-management perspective, and the system is designed to be cost-effective."

In the demo, he showcased a feature that will allow the Communicator client to use the new search capabilities in SharePoint 2010 to find users with specific knowledge or skills. Communications Server 14 will support 911 capabilities, which will detect a caller's location and direct a caller to the proper dispatch site. The new Office Communicator client will also support social networking and activity streams that are being added to the forthcoming Office 2010 and SharePoint 2010 releases.

Promising Partnerships
Pall said Communications Server 14 -- the APIs for which were made available at the Microsoft Professional Developers Conference in November -- will be more extensible and interoperable than prior releases, though company officials declined to elaborate on that statement. Pall predicted that within three years, 75 percent of applications will be enabled to have UC capabilities embedded in them.

Office Communicator will also be better suited for branch offices, Pall added. Built-in "branch office survivability" means that if a connection between a remote location and a headquarters is severed, the branch will still have communications capability. Several partners also say they're developing products to support the Communications Server 14 "branch survivability" capability, including Ferrari Electronics AG and Hewlett-Packard Co.

Last year, HP and Microsoft agreed to tie together Communications Server and HP ProCurve networking switches. At VoiceCon, HP said its Survivable Branch Communication zl module will enable Communications Server 14 to work with the HP ProCurve 8200zl and 5400zl switches.

About the Author

Jeffrey Schwartz is editor of Redmond magazine and also covers cloud computing for Virtualization Review's Cloud Report. In addition, he writes the Channeling the Cloud column for Redmond Channel Partner. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreySchwartz.

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