Enterprise Voice Gaining Ground with Lync 2013

Microsoft is set to make a corporate case for its unified communications offerings at next week's Lync Conference in San Diego.

Microsoft likely will talk more about "enterprise voice" at its Lync Conference next week.

The event, to be held in San Diego on February 19, will be a "first" for Lync, according to Microsoft. The server was previously marketed as "Microsoft Office Communicator," but Lync 2013, the latest server version of the product that Microsoft released back in October, will get aired in multiple deep-dive technical discussions at the San Diego event. Microsoft also sells Lync Online through its Office 365 services. Lync 2013 is a unified communications solution for organizations offering capabilities such as voice over IP (VoIP), instant messaging, presence and conferencing.

In general, Microsoft is seeing more of its Lync customers use enterprise voice, which is Microsoft's VoIP solution, according to Scott Gode, senior director at Avanade. Gode formerly served with Azaleos, a major IT services partner that Avanade announced it was acquiring in November. Seattle-based Avanade also announced this month that it bought Opstera, which offers a management solution for public clouds, such as Windows Azure, that will complement Azaleos' private cloud management solutions.

Avanade is a somewhat unique business solutions company that was formed in 2000 from investments by Microsoft and Andersen Consulting, later known as Accenture. At the time, ownership was split about 51 percent to 49 percent between Accenture and Microsoft, respectively, but today Accenture owns about 75 percent of Avanade, according to Gode.

VoIP Gains Ground
Gode speculated that the increased use of VoIP could get echoed at the Lync 2013 event.

"A year ago only 10 percent [of companies used] enterprise voice," Gode explained in a phone interview. "Now, over 50 percent of the new Lync business that's coming our way is enterprise voice related. So, there's a renewed confidence in Lync as a very viable voice platform. And especially with this 2013 release, [there's] very much a bullishness on the part of enterprise IT and the telephony folks in that enterprise space that Lync is alive."

One plus is that Lync 2013 is now in its fourth version. Gode noted that some think it's conventional wisdom to wait for a third version before a Microsoft server product can be considered viable.

The low enterprise voice use with Lync was partly due to customer skepticism, Gode said, but consulting companies also had advised a gradual approach. For instance, Azaleos, which had provided consulting advice and server monitoring services for Lync, Exchange and SharePoint before those capabilities were wrapped into Avanade Managed Services, had advised its customers to go slow on deploying enterprise voice.

"Part of it was based on our own recommendations to customers that when implementing Lync they should perhaps not start with voice piece out of the gate because that's the most complicated piece," Gode said. "But start with just instant messaging only, or conferencing only, or instant messaging plus conferencing."

That approach can help train end users in working with the "new modality of unified communications," Gode explained. "Because, certainly there is a portion of the consumer base population who have gotten used to things like Skype, and are gradually getting comfortable with that notion of VoIP, but it's different thing when you bring it into the enterprise." He added that organizations just need to be careful on how VoIP gets rolled out, and that the help desk calls will diminish as users become more confident.

Bringing unified communications into an organization is both a technical challenge and a cultural shift for workers. Gode's term to describe that shift is enabling "communications-enabled business practices" -- something that Avanade supports by providing application development services to extend Lync.

Engineering Lync
On the technical side, best practices can sometimes be too short sighted. Azaleos early on learned that engineering a "golden" Lync environment and putting it into dynamic environment can have limitations.

"We would go and architect the perfect pristine golden Lync environment," Gode said, "and we'd then put that into a corporate environment. What we found was that the network we were putting that Lync environment into either was stable when we first examined it and then became unstable later because…the company added some other bandwidth-sucking application or we didn't properly assess the network to begin with. So the end result was that, regardless of the brilliant Lync architecture, the customer experience was bad as it relates to the quality of the voice calls and the quality of the conferencing."

Avanade uses Accenture tools to do network assessments and perform a comprehensive study before installing Lync. It allows Avanade to make recommendations about how the network needs to change and how to keep that network static so there's no change in quality, Gode explained.

Microsoft has already published Lync 2013 network requirements that are fairly detailed but they currently lack details on some new requirements for video, which are still forthcoming, Gode said. Microsoft recently released its own Lync Connectivity Analyzer tool to troubleshoot mobile device connectivity issues. Avanade, in addition to offering its tools support, provides Lync experts and network monitoring support, Gode added. Avanade bought Azaleos in part to acquire that company's managed services platform. Gode said that Avanade can install Lync and leave it at that but "our value proposition is around managed services."

Kinks still exist in getting VoIP to work with Microsoft's public cloud.

"There are still complexities for voice in the public cloud that either have not been quite figured out or which a CIO of a 100,000-person company is not yet ready to entrust to the public cloud yet," Gode said. "If you look objectively at the Microsoft architecture, in order to run Lync for enterprise voice, it's simply not doable using Office 365. So a customer would have to invest in Office 365 for SharePoint and Exchange, but they'd actually have to put servers on premise to enable enterprise voice the way Microsoft has architected it today."

The Skype Question
Skype, the VoIP service that Microsoft acquired in May of 2011, is still somewhat of a mystery in terms of how it will connect with Lync. However, in a Microsoft press conference conducted late last year, Jamie Stark, senior product marketing manager on Microsoft's Lync team, offered a glimpse.

"Skype federation works much the same way as the existing Lync and public IM federation does today," Stark said. "So, Lync users will be able to add Skype contacts to their contact list -- you don't need to have the Skype client running to make this happen. The user's Lync identity would be used to communicate to the Skype user. So, from the user's perspective, it's always their corporate identity from Lync."

Lync Server currently supports VoIP connections to the public switched telephone network via Session Initiation Protocol trunking, without having to use an IP telephony service provider, according to Stark. However, it's a different picture when using Lync Online.

"With Office 365 and Lync Online, there is PSTN connectivity for both inbound and outbound," Stark explained. "Today, that's [done] with Jajah, and the offer is very much designed for the SMB [small-to-medium business]. Additionally, there are other carriers in process to offer this capability with Lync Online in the future."

Mountain View, Calif.-based Jajah is an integrated communications operator supporting IP communications services in 200-plus countries. Still, the Jajah support for Lync Online seems relegated to smaller deployments at this point, according to Gode.

"The Jajah thing is an important and interesting first foray in how to connect the network telephony provider with the Lync experience to try to get a certain amount of synergy that can be passed on to the end customer, but today that solution is really only viable for a smaller business-type situation and really doesn't scale to larger enterprises where we're doing most of our work today. Could that scenario be viable for larger businesses? Possibly… but let's face it, you've got Skype for consumers (100 percent VoIP solution), and Microsoft owns that and they've been very cagey about exactly what the future of Skype is as it relates to that Lync platform and the Microsoft voice story overall."

Gode speculated that Microsoft was mostly interested in gaining branding, as well as customers who were comfortable with Skype, when it bought the VoIP company. Microsoft may also have acquired Skype to gain intellectual property and personnel expertise. "And we'll see how that manifests down the road," he added.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for 1105 Media's Converge360 group.


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