Q&A

Microsoft Enlists Unify Square for Skype Management

Microsoft makes a lot of software tools, but when it needed help with its Lync unified communications solution (now known as "Skype for Business"), it turned to startup company Unify Square.

Microsoft first sought Unify Square's help after deploying Lync internally for use by its thousands of employees. The internal Lync rollout was overseen by Mark Achzenick, a 21-year Microsoft veteran who handled all of Microsoft's internal IT deployments for its employees, including Exchange and SharePoint, plus Lync for telephony, conferencing and videoconferencing. Achzenick was impressed enough with Unify Square to later join it as vice president of IT innovation and support. Microsoft itself later became an investor in Unify Square.

Bellevue, Wash.-based Unify Square currently has about 100 employees, with offices worldwide. It got started around eight years ago by four Microsoft employees working in Microsoft's Lync business unit. Those employees came from Microsoft's tech side of the house and got involved in consulting work. They developed the monitoring and management tools that later became full-fledged Unify Square products, according to Scott Gode, Unify Square's vice president of product marketing. Unify Square also provides managed services in addition to consulting and tools. It currently provides managed services in conjunction with British Telecom for Nestlé's worldwide Skype for Business deployments, according to Gode.

Today, Unify Square sells its solutions and expertise to large enterprises using Lync or Microsoft's successor product, Skype for Business. Unify Square's tools can be used to monitor Lync or Skype availability, the voice quality of "Enterprise Voice," which is Microsoft's voice-over-IP solution, and they can be used to monitor user satisfaction, a potentially problematic assessment. Enterprises mostly use the server products currently and have a "go-slow" attitude about tapping Microsoft's cloud-based Skype for Business Online solution right now, Gode said, but he added that Microsoft likely will adding to its online voice capabilities sometime "this year and next year."

I spoke with Gode and Achzenick late last month about Unify Square and where Microsoft may be heading with its unified communications products. What follows is an edited Q&A.

Q: Why did Microsoft to turn to Unify Square for managing Lync?
Achzenick: When we kind of ran out of gas in our ability to run it [Lync] with the out-of-box tools, we said, "Should we build out our own?" We tried to do that in a couple of situations and it didn't work so well, so we went and bought."

Gode: Microsoft is actually one of our largest investors in Unify Square. Even though we're only 100 employees, we have global coverage with our offices. We've got a broad geographic representation.

Are Unify Square products being used today internally at Microsoft?
Achzenick: Specifically, Microsoft uses our PowerMon product, which adds to the capability to actively monitor Lync end to end. It does basically synthetic conference calls. It periodically creates the conference, joins it, passes audio, and reports back on the overall experience, both from a success and quality perspective. And that really does kind of basically mirror the user experience with the system. In this way, you are really getting the user availability and performance perspective on a synthetic basis vs. trusting the system self-reporting of availability, which can be somewhat problematic in deployments as large as Microsoft's. That was something we were having real trouble with. We would be surprised by outages and issues, and that's why we brought in Unify Square at the time, so we would stop being surprised.

How do organizations implement Microsoft's unified communications solutions?
Achzenick: From a general perspective with the market, we typically see, especially enterprises, looking to deploy workloads in a phased approach. They start with the IM and presence and they kind of move to conferencing. There's a lot of ROI that revolves around adopting it from a conferencing perspective. And then they start their EV [Enterprise Voice] deployments. We're seeing a lot more customers hit that phase where they are doing EV beyond pilots, starting new deployments. They've got conferencing out there, and they're looking at the potential of the cloud to help augment those things. They're not going to wait until Microsoft has a [voice] cloud offering globally, which will be many years from now. Typically, enterprises are still going to do hybrid.

Gode: The majority of the customers that we work with come to us after they have already installed Skype for Business or Lync in some fashion. And then they come to us for assistance in doing a better job monitoring and managing it, or they may have set it up and are using it for instant messaging or conferencing but they are somewhat uncertain on how to take it to its next level and do the full Enterprise Voice. We have a consulting program called the Global Voice Deployment Program, which is really a methodology that helps them plan out exactly how to do that migration from the PBX world to the Skype for Business Enterprise Voice world. That's in terms of rolling out, office by office and subsidiary by subsidiary, the various Enterprise Voice workloads and decommissioning PBXs and/or synchronizing the existing PBXs with the Skype for Business Servers and the mediation servers, etc.

We've seen a lag in the past with Lync's Enterprise Voice feature getting up to speed, but is that the case today?
Gode: Even before the Skype for Business release in May, the Lync 2013 platform was already -- as it relates to on-premises Lync and unified communications and Enterprise Voice -- pretty robust in what it could do in the UC space. All of the sort of swirling question marks that one would hear in the industry space around Enterprise Voice were more do to with just some understandable hesitancy about some of the complexity of migrating away from the standard PBX arrangement and dealing with the staging of that migration and the costs associated with that migration if done incorrectly or without the proper amount of planning. And back to this issue of user adoption, if you don't really train the users and prepare the users, the technology could be working beautifully, but for one reason or another the users could be interacting with it in an immature or not entirely well-trained manner. Certainly, our tools can help to facilitate all of those things, but the Enterprise Voice piece wasn't as much of a big push as it related to Skype for Business as the Enterprise Voice in the cloud pieces. We are expecting to see a pretty big release of various pieces for that puzzle [from Microsoft] in the December time frame.

What's the progress with Enterprise Voice and Microsoft's work with telcos globally?
Achzenick: It's telecom regulatory blockage for them. They [Microsoft] are basically becoming a telecom, and to do that you have to go through all of those regulatory bodies, country by country.

Could there be some future tension between the telcos and Microsoft because it provides unified communications services?
Gode: I think up to now there really hasn't been that much tension between Microsoft and the carriers and the telcos because they've had separate pieces of the puzzle that all feeds into the greater UC finished product. But Microsoft, over the last two to three months, has started to be more public about saying, "You know what, we are going to become a carrier. We are going to offer these PBX in the cloud services." And the announcement and launch that we expect to see in the December-January time frame is when all of this is going to sort of go live, albeit it's not going to go live for all countries from the get-go. But I think that you're going to start to see a lot more tension between the telcos and Microsoft when that happens because they are going to be competing for the same customer in the same sphere.

Achzenick: It is going to be a situation that is going to create some "coopetition" between Microsoft and these carriers. They both need each other because Microsoft isn't necessarily becoming an Internet service provider directly. They are not handling your MPLS trunking. They are offering to make a PSTN call. You are still buying a carrier's connectivity back to their datacenter. And it's likely to create a situation where, by working with Microsoft and those carriers, you are able to still go the cloud, and it may be one of the carrier's clouds running Microsoft's services or to Microsoft directly, but it still should be a competitive thing that benefits the customer in the end in its entirety. Keep in mind that for a lot of countries, the telco is the governor, so it's going to be complex.

Are Microsoft's unified communications solutions still maturing and should organizations wait on deploying them?
Gode: If you look at Skype for Business and Lync, about 80 percent of the issues that would crop up that are problematic with respect to that platform actually have nothing to do with Skype for Business at all. They have to do with ancillary issues of the infrastructure around Skype for Business. So they might have to do with the network, the gateways, or some security protocols with Active Directory -- you name it. So, there's value in not only having tools that monitor and manage the Skype for Business platform itself, but that also go beyond Skype for Business in looking at the gateways, the SBCs, the network and the ancillary environment and even the endpoint devices in understanding what is really influencing the success or failure of that whole Skype system.

Achzenick: Microsoft's partners have certified programs -- with AT&T and all over the world -- to make a Lync deployment or Skype for Business deployment successful. That takes place now and there's really no reason for any enterprise-scale business to wait. There's nothing new coming that is going to change the paradigm so significantly that their business processes should stay on hold in the old world of telephony until something significant changes. Feature sets in the cloud will catch up.

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