Unified Communications: Windows IT Pros Speak Out on Bringing It All Together

How hard is it to execute UC? Our readers who've gone before share their take on the challenges, benefits, pitfalls and gotchas, plus offer tips for those just getting started.

The Microsoft unified communications (UC) platform can radically transform how enterprises work. Those that make the transition can use its integrated presence, whiteboards, video conferencing and chat. It can also reduce telecommunications costs with cheaper end-user devices packed with more power and the potential to displace expensive proprietary private branch exchanges (PBXs).

UC can transform the economic and communication fundamentals of today's enterprises, but it takes a bit of work to get there. Redmond magazine reached out to more than a dozen readers to find out whether the theory of UC works in practice.

The Big Picture
UC entails a complex array of features, and can be done on a big or small basis. Currently, the ultimate Microsoft vision brings together a bevy of software tools and offers an abundance of new features. Here's the scenario: A customer ponies up for Office 2010 with Outlook 2010, SharePoint 2010, Exchange Server, SQL Server and Office Communications Server (OCS) -- or the most recent version of OCS, Lync Server. IT pros and their partners can make all of this work together.

UC seems complex at first, but with a little work, the picture becomes clearer. That's what Redmond reader Ian Guyer found. Guyer spent two years researching, testing, and later planning and installing Microsoft UC software. Now he totally gets it.

"Initially it's difficult to work with," recalls Guyer. "The offerings and deployment were confusing. If you've never seen the product, you only know what it does and how it does it by what you read. As always, Microsoft created its own language for the product, making it more difficult to understand. If you don't install it and overcome all the problems, you'll probably never really understand what it is, what it does or how it does it," he concludes.

Lincoln Penton has a simple way of looking at Microsoft UC. Penton breaks it down between OCS or Lync installed on-premises, or moving to the cloud with the Microsoft Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS) or its follow-on, Office 365. "If your requirements include VoIP [Voice over Internet Protocol] integration or you don't want to outsource -- meaning move to the cloud -- your SharePoint and Exchange, you're quickly limited to an on-premises solution," says Penton.

Another reader cautions that one should toss the UC moniker around carefully: "The term 'unified messaging,' used in the Exchange context, is a little grandiose. It would be better to call it integrated voicemail with optional third-party fax. Lync Server requires a bit more effort to understand. Like Ragu, it's all in there," says Trey Shaffer. Shaffer then breaks the functionality down into three levels. On the low end is presence and instant messaging (IM), which offer a nice return and are easy to get going. Move up the stack a notch, and you get conferencing. At the top of the heap is voice for the enterprise, Shaffer explains.

Picking from the UC Menu
Some users nibble a small portion of the full UC meal, while others munch on the whole buffet. Alec Spyrou, an enterprise IT architect in Australia, chose a full, hearty UC meal. His company uses Exchange for general messaging such as "e-mail, fax, voicemail, SMS and RSS." The company uses OCS 2007 R2 for "real-time messaging, including IM and presence; Web conferencing; desktop sharing; click-to-call [remote control of desktop handset]; and federation with B2B [business to business] for IM and presence," Spyrou explains. Spyrou's company is now looking at video conferencing, is interested in telepresence systems that cover the desktop as well as meeting rooms, and is also exploring OCS softphones.

Starting Small
Most readers we interviewed started small, and then embraced higher-level functions. "Once OCS was installed, basic IM and presence went viral very quickly. We then added click-to-call, Web conferencing and desktop sharing," Spyrou says.

Others also have a full suite of UC functions in operation. "We're using all of the UC modalities, and they're well-ingrained in the way we work. We don't have any desk phones or PBXs outside of our product-development labs," says Steven Daugherty, lead UC solutions architect for Aspect Software Inc.

It took time for Aspect to embrace all that UC has to offer. First, it adopted Live Communications Server (LCS) to gain presence and IM. That was where things stood for several years. Then the company moved to OCS 2007 R2. That was a big move. "We replaced all our PBX infrastructure globally. We also participated in the Lync TAP [Technology Adoption Program] and migrated North America -- about 1,000 users -- less than two weeks after RTM [release to manufacturing]," says Daugherty.

IM was also a driver for systems integrator Doug Kinzinger, MCITP EA, who focuses on small and midsize businesses (SMBs). At first, Kinzinger looked at OCS 2005, but instead went for OCS 2007 when it shipped. "We integrated our hybrid-VoIP PBX into OCS and it was great. Sadly, the vendor, Toshiba, has not yet introduced Lync support," reports Kinzinger.

Guyer, who installs UC for clients, is moving from one UC tool to the next and the next. He started with Live Communications Server 2005 with OCS 2007, then upgraded to OCS 2007 R2. Now he's a happy Lync Server 2010 customer.

Again, IM led the charge. Once that was running, Guyer embraced desktop and file sharing. One of Guyer's clients has already moved onto the higher level -- PBX replacement. "When they were looking for a new VoIP phone system, I told them that the IM system was now advertised as a PBX solution. In the process of implementing the OCS solution, the old 3Com VoIP died. They said bring it up, and do it now," he says.

This all happened last summer, and the UC platform has been humming along ever since. In fact, it received a top endorsement recently when Guyer's client's board of directors used OCS to host a board meeting allowing remote directors to tie in.

"It worked so well, they want to have all but the annual meetings done with UC from now on," says Guyer. "This alone will save the company thousands of dollars per year in travel and expenses. And they can record it, so meeting minutes will never be the same again."

Shaffer also did a staged rollout. "After deciding to deploy Lync Server, the first feature deployed was Exchange Unified Messaging [UM]. This was enabled by the gateway device used for Lync. They rolled out voicemail while Lync Server was finishing its beta period. Next came Lync IM and presence. Finally came telephony services," says Shaffer.

App Integration
One aspect that makes UC so confusing is the fact that you can choose from the core menu that includes IM, presence, Web and video conferencing, and voice. But one can also tie in core Microsoft apps such as Office (and Outlook in particular), SQL Server and SharePoint.

At first blush, this application integration seems daunting -- but it turns out that's only rarely the case. Spyrou's company, for instance, has now integrated UC with SharePoint, Office and SQL Server. The benefits are enormous, he argues, "because the real benefits of UC are the optimization of process -- it can't be served by many disparate and disconnected tools. Once unified, the communication system benefits become ubiquitous and seamless."

Some of these benefits are based on specific business processes. Some processes are done by individuals in relative isolation. UC is best for processes that require people to work closely together.

Spyrou's best example is the help desk. With UC, help desk employees can see who has expertise, if they're available and how to connect. These experts can be reached from the desktop, or through telephony and IM. And help desk operators can easily take over remote desktops for troubleshooting. Because the help desk interacts with so many people, the efficiencies of UC shine through. "Enabling UC has increased customer satisfaction, reduced call-clear statistics and helped our staff deliver a more satisfying result faster with significantly less effort," Spyrou notes.

Guyer has found application integration, at least some of it, to be child's play. "All Microsoft products integrate into UC. For SharePoint and Office -- most importantly Outlook -- integration is automatic and seamless. There's not much to do. It just happens," he says.

Here's how it works for Guyer. He simply loads the Lync Server 2010 client, and ties it to the server. After that, Outlook, SharePoint and Office instantly gain access to the UC data. But not all apps are so easy to integrate. "Exchange UM and Auto Attendant are a handful. I struggled with interfacing OCS to Exchange," he says.

Guyer blames this on the fact that UC was designed for large enterprises, not the SMBs he serves. Where enterprises have large IT staffs and healthy budgets, SMBs generally don't. "To interface with Windows Small Business Server [SBS] 2008, you need to upgrade to Exchange 2007 to SP2, which SBS 2008 doesn't do easily. SBS 2011 with Exchange 2010 should be easier. You also need to buy Exchange enterprise licenses, which Microsoft was willing to sell -- but it didn't have a SKU for that particular product. Frankly, bringing UC to the SMB world has been a struggle, but Microsoft, to its credit, never said no, even though it could have," Guyer says.

Penton had an easier time. "It's not that complicated as long as we use Microsoft. We're implementing Session Initiation Protocol [SIP] for our voice integration, which we'd need to do anyway as Avaya is moving in that direction for its infrastructure. For the Microsoft products, the features are built into the products and visible when enabled using OCS or Lync. Limited or no client software is needed," says Penton.

Shaffer was also pleasantly surprised. "It was deceptively simple. Windows/Exchange admins and engineers should be able to dig in and pick up the products and concepts, right up to the telephony integration. The architecture is similar to other distributed application systems," he explains.

Making It All Work
When you look at what UC can ultimately do, making all these tools work seems quite the challenge. For some it is. Randall Melton, executive director of IT for Lake Michigan College, found it too complex to implement. Melton did a pilot OCS project hoping to swap out his legacy PBX. "While the solution is promising, it requires the integration of a diverse number of components with different levels of maturity and from different vendors. It also requires a new level of support and skills from internal resources," Melton explains.

Cost wasn't the issue. Under Melton's campus license, OCS is pretty inexpensive. "At this point, I'm not willing to bet my job on using OCS because of the inherent risk," he says. "Perhaps two years from now the product will have proven itself."

Most others had the opposite experience. Spyrou found getting the core pieces to work easy. Two things make it a snap to tie apps with real-time communications: free APIs and snippets of code. "You can code your own Web page using presence and IM with a simple control and a couple of lines of HTML tags. Enabling this in fat applications is more difficult, but that's usually not a technology issue; it's more trying to convince the developers, whether internal or external, to add the code," Spyrou says.

Daugherty started with the built-in integration with SharePoint, an application his company uses internally, and then began adding more application integration for clients. Client integration now includes "customer IM from a Web site, collaboration on real-time streaming video feeds and embedding of UC functionality into Microsoft's own intranet," says Daugherty.

Daugherty found some integration tasks simple, and others complex. He uses the Microsoft .NET Framework and the Lync SDK, and claims this development is far easier than developing computer telephony integration (CTI) apps for PBXs.

For Guyer, picking the right hardware and underlying infrastructure software is key to making it all work. Because he serves SMBs, Guyer uses the standard editions of OCS and Lync Server. For these, either Windows Server 2008 SP2 or the 64-bit version of Windows Server 2008 R2 is required.

For hardware, Guyer recommends 8GB to 16GB of RAM and a dual-processor server. The UC software itself is a bit more complicated, as there are various server roles represented by Lync. "At a minimum you need a Lync Server front-end, and a Director. These can both be on one server, but for larger organizations, it's best to use two. These two products give you IM, voice, video, desktop sharing and more," says Guyer.

If you want to add voice for the enterprise, you'll need an IP-based PBX as well as a Mediation Server. "The Mediation Server can co-locate with the front-end server in smaller organizations, but it can also be put on its own server or be virtualized," Guyer explains.

Implementation Glitches and Gotchas
In an area this rich and complex, there are bound to be bugs, kludges, glitches and gotchas. For Spyrou, the toughest task was integrating UC with the phone system, mostly because Microsoft and Cisco Systems Inc. -- Spyrou's voice technology provider -- aren't 100 percent in sync. Besides being cautious about Cisco/Microsoft integration, identity management is another concern.

"You need to ensure your identity framework is in good shape, as you require an identity source of truth. You then need to ensure the data is consistent. We converted all phone numbers in Active Directory to the E.164 numbering standard so OCS could consistently dial users internally and externally -- usually their cell phone. This is not a simple task if you have an immature identity framework," Spyrou explains.

Guyer's main problem was documentation. When contacted by Redmond, Guyer was in the process of installing Lync Server 2010. But there was a problem: The documentation shipped about a month after the product. Once in hand, the documentation was good, but not perfect. "In many instances, without experience, the documentation is almost useless. Only after you get an OCS/Lync system running do you understand the documentation," says Guyer. "The first system can be a battle. I recommend that anybody who's interested in UC set up a lab system they can destroy over and over again."

Guyer also recommends making sure end-user PCs are up to snuff with generous memory and processing speed. If not, video and audio will be beset by annoying pauses.

Lync Web Conferencing also needs proper set up. Guyer says you need an extra firewall, and that firewall must support reverse proxies. "I'm using Forefront TMG -- ISA Server has been rebranded, too -- because Microsoft provides the configuration info for it, and I don't want to go through making it work with any other brands until I have it working as advertised by Redmond," says Guyer.

User Response
All this technology sounds pretty cool, but if end users don't understand or appreciate it, all is for naught.

Spyrou, who has been through it all, advises UC newcomers in IT to sell end users on the fact that they'll have central control over a broad array of previously discrete communication tools.

UC made Daugherty a bit of a hero with his users. "Our users universally love ync. None of our employees, who range across ages and cultures, would trade their Lync client for a traditional desk phone," says Daugherty.

That's a common sentiment. "You couldn't tear UC out of their cold, dead hands. With the integration of Exchange UM, SharePoint for internal information gathering and Lync tying it all together, they've not only accepted the technology, they wouldn't be able to do what they do without it," observes Guyer. The only thing his users miss is that the Microsoft UC solution doesn't record calls easily, "but this is available through third parties," Guyer says. He's also heard that "reporting is difficult -- but again, it's available from third parties."

Another glowing end-user report comes from Shaffer. "What took so long? How did we do business before we had this?" he says.

Then there are the naysayers. "There will always be entrenched resistance to change. Those users will find themselves slipping 'out of the loop' with the new communication modes. But there are users who can live without IM and presence and still perform. Give them a simple desk phone and tell them they don't have to dial 9 to call out anymore," Shaffer adds.

Competing Competitors
Microsoft isn't the only car blasting down the UC speedway. Legacy telecommunications, hardware and networking companies such as IBM Corp. and Cisco are on the track as well. Cisco is one competitor Spyrou looked at, but he went with Microsoft instead. "We see most of UC as a software solution, and most of the Cisco solutions in this space are made up of acquisitions, which at the time had yet to be consolidated into a coherent strategy, or have a heavy hardware approach that we didn't find appropriate," he says.

Daugherty's company also looked at hardware vendors, and opted for a purer Microsoft software solution. "Our IT department looked at the Cisco and Avaya offerings, and from both a cost and capability perspective, Microsoft won," he says.

Guyer thinks Microsoft got UC right. In his view, Lync Server 2010 is the core of the strategy, and most key Microsoft applications tie directly in. This, Guyer believes, is an advantage over companies like Cisco. "The seamless interface to Outlook -- and SharePoint in particular -- puts Microsoft miles ahead of all other UC providers. The not-so-seamless but extraordinarily powerful integration to Exchange is icing on the cake. Incorporating UC into Active Directory is also a plus that's not available to any other UC vendors I'm aware of," says Guyer. "The strategy is clear. Build UC into every product that makes sense, and make it as simple and consistent as possible for the end user. Microsoft may own the telephony marketplace down the road."

Working Well with Others?
There's competition and there's co-opetition. While IT likes the innovation and low prices that come from competition, when installing complex, multivendor solutions, IT prefers co-opetition. The UC market includes plenty of rivals and not enough teamwork. "Nobody works very well at a deep level with any other UC vendor. They're all after a slice of a multimillion-dollar cake. You need to navigate these waters carefully," Spyrou believes.

His company tackled the least-risky areas of UC first, and held back on areas where "vendor wars" could bog the project down.

Spyrou suggests clearly defining requirements and just as clearly setting priorities. "We stayed away from video conferencing until recently because the market in UC wasn't mature enough to allow a simple solution across the network," he says. "Now with a good level of call-access control in Lync, this is a palatable option for the network groups."

Daugherty also wants to see more cooperation, especially with Cisco. "Cisco hasn't certified anything, leaving Microsoft to test integration on its own. And Avaya is no longer supporting Direct SIP to Lync. The glaring exception is Polycom, which creates competing products but has a solid joint roadmap with Microsoft," says Daugherty.

Many competitors don't see Microsoft as a rival, but rather as a disruptive force, customers say. "Microsoft changed the game. Cisco, and most others, follow the SIP RFC specifications. Therefore, they use User Datagram Protocol [UDP] to negotiate SIP connections. Microsoft didn't like the unreliability of UDP, so it uses Transmission Control Protocol [TCP] to negotiate SIP connections; it uses UDP for Real-time Transport Protocol [RTP] and SRTP -- or streaming data -- connections," Guyer explains.

"This makes more sense, but you can see the problem. To create an SIP connection with a Cisco system, you need an adapter to convert the TCP-based SIP negotiation from Microsoft to the UDP-based SIP of Cisco," Guyer continues. "I found the same is true with most SIP trunk providers. The Qwest SIP Trunk uses UDP and is designed to work with Cisco. The solution is a Cisco router programmed and featured to convert the SIP Trunk into TCP/IP packets [IP-PBX functions] to communicate with the Lync Server 2010 Mediation Server."

UC Economics 101
Moving to UC clearly costs money. There are software licenses, hardware, networks and admins to support it all. But if done right, productivity can vastly improve and ultimately telco costs can plummet as you move to more and more IP telephony and softphones, and maybe get rid of that PBX at last.

For Aspect, the ROI is terrific. "Aspect expected to save 80 percent on conferencing -- about $1 million -- and ended up saving 99 percent instead. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are saved annually through trunk consolidation, maintenance and support as well," Daugherty says. "Our customers have enjoyed similar results, especially when they already own Lync licenses. This is particularly true of Lync, which has a much lower server count requirement."

Spyrou agrees with others that the economics of UC are sound, but advises IT to carefully look at the infrastructure service costs and business processes covered by UC. "For example, deploying voicemail on Exchange removes the need for an ongoing investment in a dedicated voicemail system from our telco. Why have one system running e-mail and the other running voicemail? On top of this, the voicemail in Exchange enables data-management capabilities such as e-discovery," he says. "UC will change organizations the way the PC changed them 30 years ago."

One of Spyrou's clients examined the economics after UC was installed last summer. "From increased productivity -- less people able to do more work with less overtime -- and decreases in operating costs due to less long distance and no travel meetings, they calculated it improved the bottom line by $183,000," he notes.

Shaffer has a simpler equation. "You can justify it based on telephony cost only -- then all the other benefits are free," he says.

The Politics of UC
Back in the 1980s, the rise of microcomputers and LANs led many companies to downsize from mainframe apps. Naturally this created tension and turf wars between mainframe-loving management information systems directors and the new breed of micro-computing mavens. The same is happening with the move to IP telephony. Those in charge of voice infrastructure aren't always happy when IT suggests a move to cheaper and more flexible IP-based voice systems.

UC can give great power to Windows-savvy IT pros. "From a management perspective, traditional telephony and network groups don't know how to deal with the desktop. The group that manages the Windows platform is well-positioned to support a UC solution," argues Daugherty.

The best approach is cooperation between both groups in the best interest of the enterprise, some say. Fortunately, Spyrou didn't run into a lot of conflict when his company moved to UC. "We combined our network and messaging team to come up with a UC team. We've now matured the UC practice and have the UC team as part of the collaboration group. The network team runs core network priorities to ensure good service quality and delivery," he says.

Telephony traditionalists may be well-advised to get some fresh IT-centric training, as UC can actually get rid of old-style phone managers. That kind of adaptation isn't always easy. "The politics are terrible at first, then they go away. As soon as they see 'Prep the Schema,' they're toast. And they're none too happy about it," Guyer says. "But we won't need them. 3Com VoIP vendors charged $250 per hour and brought boxes of expensive proprietary hardware and software. Most of them won't be around in 10 years, maybe less."

But telephony pros presumably can, and probably should, change. "This technology isn't kind to traditional telephony teams that aren't open to the transition to Microsoft. A Microsoft Exchange admin has a significantly shorter learning curve to add telephony basics to his repertoire than a telecom expert trying to add Microsoft server to his," Daugherty says.

But Windows gurus shouldn't get too haughty without support. "The Microsoft side of the house fighting with telecom on the communications roadmap is unproductive without executive sponsorship," cautions Daugherty.

Kinzinger has run into problems with both telephony firms and telephony personnel. He argues that the old-style telephony firms don't truly understand UC and its computer- and network-based underpinnings, and are often put off by computer-savvy IT pros.

That's not always the case, though. "One great example of collaboration was working directly with Toshiba engineers on OCS integration to our new phone system. As the Toshiba Remote Call Control [RCC] software was in beta, I spent a couple days with two Toshiba techs who were incredibly well-versed with UM, UC, SIP, RCC and OCS. It was a pleasure working with them," says Kinzinger.

IT loves this power shift from telephony to IT. "By leveraging this division between software, Lync and hardware, the gateway -- a significant piece of administration -- is shifted from the telephone staff/partner to the network/messaging/collaboration staff. This is a good thing," says Shaffer.

Shaffer believes that UC may ultimately cut telephony partners and even vendors out of the equation as IT itself more fully supports the UC infrastructure. But that may take awhile. "A partner is still needed to navigate the arcane world of acquiring and configuring telephone services and gateway hardware. As in selecting any service provider, due diligence is required to assure reasonable cost and agreed-upon and expected levels of service," he says.

Charting the UC Future
IP telephony has been around for years, with mixed results. Voice quality in particular held it back -- it just didn't sound right. UC is also an old concept. More than a decade ago, companies such as Novell pitched a single client for e-mail and voice messaging. Now, years later, UC is halfway here. It works well for the pioneers, but is still waiting to gain mass appeal.

Now these pioneers are plotting their next moves. For Spyrou, it means merging UC more fully into his company's business apps. One item: making it so that a Web visitor gets a click-to-call request and a company consultant can tap into the CRM software to find the closest employee that can respond.

Kinzinger plans more "phone integration, eventual PBX virtual machine replacement -- likely through Exchange UM -- and presence. I doubt we'd ever do public federation between networks regarding IM, but I know some will," he says.

Shaffer wants to integrate UC with Exchange to gain better conference scheduling through Outlook. Not just that, but with UC, end users don't need a bridge number -- they can just click and go. He also wants to integrate UC with his Avaya VoIP platform, and integrate SharePoint to gain "remote presence and chat from collaboration portals," he says.

Lync Lessons
OCS 2007 planted a major Microsoft UC flag. The latest and greatest, Lync Server 2010, shipped last November and replants that same flag in tons of cement.

Lync is a bold enough advance that Redmond saw fit to rename OCS to Lync -- definitely catchier. So what do customers see as major Lync advances? For Spyrou, Lync integrates far better with his core telephony systems. And "the ability to provide granular and powerful network control for audio and video is a big plus. This will help get people responsible for the management and health of the network onboard, as it answers many of their requirements," he believes.

Guyer sees Lync as one step closer to offering full PBX function. "It's closing the core-capabilities gap with the traditional PBX world, such as E911, branch survivability and the 'basic dozen' phone features. As a UC platform, Microsoft is the only truly unified approach for both the user side and management and provisioning," Guyer claims.

UC has a great potential payoff, and if you drive the process you may just become an IT hero. But it may take more than a fair bit of learning. "Find a good guide online, or start using a major product such as Lync during the beta phase. Accessing blogs and forums used by other beta testers is helpful when testing," advises Kinzinger.


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