Q&A: Unified Communications Guru Joe Schurman

This Microsoft MVP talks all aspects of UC, from Microsoft's offerings like Lync to those of its competitors, plus cost considerations, team organization and more.

Joe Schurman has been working in unified communications (UC) in one way or another for a dozen years. A Microsoft MVP, Schurman started Evangelyze Communications, a UC ISV and consultancy. We caught up with Schurman, author of the book "Microsoft Voice and Unified Communications" (Addison-Wesley Professional, 2009) to get the skinny on where Redmond is and where it's going.

How long have you been working in UC?
I started working with unified communications technologies in 1999 at IBM with IBM Sametime, focusing on instant messaging and integration with e-mail for real-time messaging. Starting in 2002, I began to work with Microsoft in deploying a brand-new enterprise instant messaging server that was still in early incubation stage, released as Microsoft Office Live Communications Server 2003. Beginning with large-scale global deployments, I provided technical architecture and configuration while understanding organizations' strategy and direction for moving to a UC platform.

"Bottom line, deploying a UC platform is an up-front cost that results in short-term and long-term savings."

Joe Schurman, Microsoft MVP, Founder and CEO (R&D, Marketing) of Evangelyze Communications

Fast forward eight years with experience in integrating audio/video, enterprise voice, and collaboration, and working with customers and providers such as Microsoft, IBM and Avaya, including a two-year stint at prestigious Microsoft Research, I've experienced the massive shift in technology and the future of UC capabilities.

Microsoft UC offerings are confusing at first blush because there are so many tools and ways to deploy them. What's the simplest way to describe Redmond's strategy? How have the offerings changed? It seems there used to be a ton of discrete products that had to be stitched together. Now there's one main client and one main server. What happened?
Microsoft has gone through an evolution of lifecycle development in their creation of a UC platform. They started with enterprise instant messaging in 2002/2003, then added VoIP and remote call control in 2005 through 2007, working closely and partnering with giants like Avaya, Cisco, NEC, Siemens and others. In 2007, the Microsoft Real-Time Communications Group finally merged with the Microsoft Exchange Server Group, creating a formal Microsoft Unified Communications Group [UCG] offering everything short of a PBX. Then starting with a combination of development at Microsoft Research and within the Microsoft UCG, additional functionality was added to include IVR, and yes, a software-based PBX. Throughout this process, product names were changed with each release starting with Microsoft Office Live Communications Server to Microsoft Office Communications Server to the newly released Microsoft Lync platform offering customers enterprise communications, Microsoft Exchange to support enterprise e-mail, and with Microsoft SharePoint, unified collaboration.

These server platforms combined together forming the Microsoft Unified Communications Platform. Through this platform, users leverage each server's client application, such as Microsoft Office Outlook for Exchange for enterprise e-mail, unified messaging, contacts and calendaring; the Microsoft Lync Client for enterprise instant messaging, enterprise voice, and audio/video communication, and a browser for Microsoft SharePoint external and internal sites.

In working with customers, what is the most common app or tool first adopted? Do you see customers starting small and then adding more functions, and if so, what is a normal trajectory?
From an enterprise e-mail standpoint, Microsoft Exchange Server is typically already deployed and in use, so really the main tool first adopted is enterprise instant messaging. First of all, it's a much easier project to engage in and does not affect the global communication of an organization's personnel. Moving to Microsoft Lync for enterprise voice—as with any other new enterprise voice solution—requires a company to either rip and replace or start with an augmented solution and then migrating over time. It's a much bigger bullet to bite especially when you consider integrated solutions such as IVR, hunt group and other voice-specific configurations that have been in place for decades that will need to be migrated to a new platform.

Based on what I've seen, unless the project is co-funded, a customer will wait until the contract terms are up for renewal with their existing telephony provider before even considering a switch. If a customer decides to deploy, the timeframe can be as short as six months and as long as one year for most enterprise organizations. This really has nothing to do with the technology; this has to do with process, testing, migration and release.

I've worked with many large enterprise financial institutions over the past 11 years and sometimes just updating Active Directory takes several months due to changing control policies. You also have to realize what an enterprise voice deployment entails. In order to deploy any enterprise voice solution, you have to account for communication line configuration (VoIP and/or telephony), IVR configuration, dial plans, branch services, scalability, security and permissions, Group Policy rules [and so on]. It's a massive undertaking, especially for a global organization, so these projects are not completed in short order. Most commonly I see customers establishing a foundation knowing that all UC platforms now and in the future are software-based. Establishing a beach head with Microsoft Lync for enterprise instant messaging enables an organization with Microsoft's core UC focus, Presence. Allowing users to start leveraging the Lync client will enable the ability for easier integration of future modalities that the Microsoft Lync Server offers.

It's a good starting point. This also establishes the ability to create CEBP [Communications-Enabled Business Process] applications in that Microsoft Lync Server offers a Unified Communications Managed API [UCMA API] and both server and client SDKs enabling application developers to add UC capabilities such as Presence, IM, audio/video, and voice to existing applications or create new and unique applications. From there, organizations can migrate and integrate enterprise voice capabilities into the existing Lync platform and with users already familiar with the Microsoft Lync client, it's a much easier transition than doing everything all at once.

In addition, one can integrate UC with SharePoint, SQL Server, Office and more. What are the advantages?
Microsoft's advantage in this space is definitely integration with the Office and SharePoint product line. Microsoft realizes the dominance of the Microsoft Office system and by providing out-of-the-box integration with Outlook, Word, Excel, OneNote, and SharePoint for portal and Web site, users benefit by being able to click-to-communicate directly from within these applications, view presence of their contacts and dramatically increase productivity. Microsoft Outlook is definitely the premier Microsoft UC application and acts almost as a launching pad for all Microsoft UC communication. Within Outlook users can see contact information and presence of each of their contacts and directly communicate with those contacts from within the same application leveraging the Lync client. Adding Unified Messaging, users can see missed calls, voicemail messages using speech-to-text translation along with the play-by-play audio of the voicemail message, and are able to call the contact back directly via click-to-call. The advantage is increased speed in a user's daily working schedule, being able to quickly communicate and collaborate without interruption.

How complex is this kind of integration?
Microsoft is one of two vendors I know of that makes the process of deploying a unified communications platform as least complicated as possible, but as you mentioned before, this is not a light deployment and there are many factors that supply complexity to a UC deployment. These result in high initial cost, but the result is a massive savings within a short time frame. I know a case study from the provider isn't always the best case study, but Microsoft is releasing a case study showing a savings of $215M annually by deploying Microsoft Lync for its vast 80 thousand-plus employee global organization.

What happened to the PBX replacement approach? It seems to have turned more into adding value to existing telephony infrastructure.
This was the approach throughout the release of the Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007 R2 platform. With Microsoft Lync, customers would replace their existing PBX with Microsoft Lync Server.

Who are Microsoft's biggest competitors and what are their strengths?
I'm a software guy so I'm more tuned into IBM and Avaya as competitors than Cisco, although Cisco is a leader in communications technology. From my perspective, Avaya and IBM offer the strongest competition as they're both software based. While I bet that IBM will come to market with a full software-based UC platform within the next three years, Avaya is already there and is currently ahead of Microsoft in many areas as they were first to market. The advantage to the Avaya Aura platform and the Avaya Flare experience is that Avaya offers customers choice while Microsoft focuses on Microsoft. Avaya also has a contact center solution, which Microsoft is void of, which is a critical component in my mind when you talk about an overall UC offering for enterprise organizations.

Avaya also provides Avaya ACE [Agile Communications Environment], which allows application developers to enable all UC modalities—not just instant messaging—in their applications. From a platform perspective, Avaya offers all of their UC platform services through Avaya. Microsoft relies heavily on third-party vendors to complete the overall UC solution, which is good and bad as customers have a choice in solution, but this also adds general and technical complexity to the environment, making the overall Microsoft solution less "unified." Lastly, Avaya offers end users a choice of operating system and mobile platform, which is critical in today's market.

With the emergence of iPads, iPhones, Android devices and non-Microsoft operating system environments, enterprise organizations have to provide solutions that are end-user agnostic. Microsoft will eventually get there, but they currently do not offer a mobile solution on their own platform, which is odd for a multi-billion dollar software manufacturer. I think IBM scares everyone though. They have deep pockets to make strategic investments and acquisitions to complete their solution and they've been watching intensely and partnering for several decades in this space. IBM has already made huge strides with the new Lotus suite. The only thing missing is voice, which I have a funny feeling that we'll see a dramatic release in the near term, offering IBM's existing global customer base a choice of offerings.

Having worked with IBM, Avaya and Microsoft, all three vendors are definitely going head to head and I think that competition is healthy to provide a choice of services to organizations worldwide. As the CEO of an application development firm, this is great for us, as we focus on delivering unique and integrated CEBP solutions and the best IDE on the planet is Microsoft Visual Studio, so it's much easier for our team to deliver solutions to our customers leveraging solutions with rich APIs and SDKs to unleash innovative UC solutions.

It seems like Microsoft is focused on coopetition. With whom and how does this work?
Microsoft partnered closely with all PBX vendors because they had to. In order to set a foundation for the Microsoft Lync release, the goal was simple, deploy, deploy, deploy. Get the server out there and the client in users' hands. Once you enable a user with an enterprise instant messaging client, it spreads like wildfire. Add Remote Call Control to that solution and you have an all-in-one UC client. The end user doesn't care who is providing dial tone in that case. They just use the client application or the phone and expect the call or conference to complete. Now that Microsoft has a PBX that provides dial tone and integration with enterprise voice carriers, it's over and their "coopetition" partners know this and you'll start seeing it you haven't already seen direct combat.

Coopetition still exists in areas where Microsoft doesn't offer a solution, such as with contact center. This is a sensitive spot for me as my firm developed a contact center solution, starting light and now diving in hardcore with our SmartChat application. I feel that a UC platform is not complete without a contact center solution and Microsoft, as with other areas of the UC platform, currently doesn't agree, so they invest in other providers in this space who have some very nice solutions. But when you add another solution from another provider and it's not really integrated, the customer is left with all of this complexity and cost, which defeats the purpose of the Microsoft UC offering.

The same thing occurs with telepresence and enterprise voice devices. Microsoft depends on third-party vendors such as Aastra and Polycom to complete these solutions. Polycom for both voice equipment and telepresence, Aastra for voice equipment only. Both Aastra and Polycom are awesome companies and they offer innovative and cool devices, but again, this adds third-party cost and services to the overall deployment and, realistically, enterprise customers aren't replacing their phones until they absolutely have to.

Avaya has a huge advantage here when comparing software-based UC platforms in that they offer their own phone devices and conferencing equipment, as well as telepresence solutions [in addition to] an appliance-based architecture that protects it's voice software without interference of other services and applications running on a Windows Server. Moving forward, Microsoft will need to consider how much coopetition they'll need and will quickly understand this as they deploy Lync into the marketplace.

Are the economics of UC sound and provable?
Bottom line, deploying a UC platform is an up-front cost that results in short-term and long-term savings. There are plenty of metrics and reports available online via a simple search and I would also encourage readers of this article to attend key UC industry events, as well as online events, to review and research additional information. The real risk is in choosing the right platform. An organization had better think hard about the future of communications and choose a solution that offers choice, flexibility and the features that they need.

The future of UC is in applications, mobility, social networking and cloud-based services. Find a software-based platform that will offer solutions for each and you have your foundation. Microsoft offers a software-based platform that already offers simplicity in its design, global support, and integration with an office suite that customers depend on and leverage on a daily basis They'll continue to invest in UC technologies in the future as the Microsoft Unified Communications Group is a major business unit for the organization. The Microsoft UC development platform team is also making strides to offer developers to quickly ramp up and deliver unique CEBP applications showing even broader reach and innovation with case studies mounting on a monthly basis.

Does UC bring together IT and telephony teams? What kind of politics is involved here?
Yes and no. I remember sitting in many meetings when our firm deployed over 60-plus enterprise voice pilot projects to customers across the U.S. and noticed how seething mad almost every telephony representative was in those meetings. They saw the writing on the wall and immediately, and justly so, went into protective mode. Looking across the table at a bunch of software guys definitely separates the room quickly! What software consultants didn't understand was the complexity involved in dial plans, routing, IVR, and all of the ancillary services related to completing and managing voice calls within a global organization.

It's out of their braincase altogether. What telephony technicians couldn't grasp is managing all of these services using a user interface and software-based routing on an application server running other services, applications, anti-virus software [and so on]. It's frightening to them and to the organization and still is. Regardless, moving to a software-based UC platform requires both for some parts and then only the software consultant moving forward as most consultants don't realize that you don't have to copy and paste an existing routing and IVR structure.

You can simply ask groups how they want calls managed and quickly set up the process using the user interface. When you add SIP Trunking integration to the process, it's even easier for the software consultant, as you're really just adding a route, again using the same user interface. Microsoft provides a nice UI and management console to enable UC engineering consultants to build these routes easily with good training and instruction. To be honest, politics come into play more with respect to security. In my experience, when deploying any application server to the enterprise, especially in my experience with DoD [Department of Defense]-related projects, security and policy concerns can halt an entire project due to permissions issues, account creation, firewall and DMZ configuration, and most importantly security baseline policies allowing only certain approved protocols and ports for communication of which any SIP-based communications solution uses many.

The most important advice here—and I wrote this eight years ago in a white paper for Microsoft for field consultants—is to identify and organize your project team first, and then engage. Make sure to include representatives from all groups including telephony, security (firewall, policy, directory), server and client deployment and management teams, operations, and end-user training to enable efficient communication and collaboration throughout the project lifecycle.

What is the major breakthrough that Lync brings to the table?
Application integration. Microsoft Lync brings an elegant and integrated suite of solutions, but enabling the ability to create CEBP applications is why I invested three years of my life, my life savings, and time away from my family in starting my firm, Evangelyze Communications. Our start-up firm is focused on the development of CEBP applications and Microsoft has enabled our firm to create a suite of these applications and already sell two of these applications by way of IP acquisition. My vision is to create unique CEBP-based applications in contact center/customer service, education and health care, as well as provide integrated solutions for unique line-of-business applications. Leveraging the UCMA API and Lync Server/client SDKs, we can deliver highly innovative solutions to the marketplace. I am blessed to have seen so much change and evolution in unified communications technologies over the past decade and am extremely excited about the future of this market and hope to continue to help pioneer the next evolution of unified communications solutions for both personal and enterprise communities.


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