Unified Communications: Microsoft Partners Are Lyncing Up

As Microsoft's sustained efforts in unified communications are starting to draw customers' attention, partners are finding ways to use Lync and related UC technologies to transform the way those customers communicate.

The Microsoft unified communications (UC) platform can radically transform how enterprises work. Partners who put their muscle behind UC are offering customers integrated presence, whiteboards, video conferencing and chat. UC can also reduce client 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's taking a bit of work and smart, dedicated partners to get there.

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. Ian Guyer, principle of Cetified Partner Guyer Consulting, 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," Guyer says. "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 says.

That complexity, of course, is exactly what the channel thrives on -- both in showing potential customers how the products can transform their businesses and in putting all the pieces together after the sale to make the transformation happen.

Getting a Foot in the Door
The word of mouth around Microsoft UC products is improving, but partners are finding a few business scenarios provide the best openings for getting a customer into a Lync system.

"When we walk into an environment where the customer already owns the ECAL, 90 percent of the licensing is already purchased."

Ben Tosado, Vice President of Professional Services, Conquest Technology Services

"One is a really aging telephone system," says Ben Tosado, vice president of professional services at Conquest Technology Services. "Lync can provide a bunch of new functionality at a pretty low cost."

Joe Schurman, founder of Gold Certified Parnter Evangelyze Communications, a UC ISV and consultancy, says the state of an existing telephony contract is crucial. "Based on what I have 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," he says. "If a customer decides to deploy, the time frame can be as short as six months and as long as one year for most enterprise organizations."

Another thing to watch for is customers that already have a Microsoft Enterprise Client Access License (ECAL). "When we walk into an environment where the customer already owns the ECAL, 90 percent of the licensing is already purchased," Tosado says. "I'm in a compete situation right now with Avaya, with a company that has ECALs. Avaya's proposal all-in is about $1.4 million, ours is $800,000. The reason we're able to be so drastic is that the customer has already purchased the ECAL suite," he says.

Tosado says a third factor driving enterprises to Lync right now is an increase in corporate mandates for teleconferencing to cut down on travel. "Depending on the customer, that can be anywhere from a couple of thousand to tens of thousands in savings," he says.

Small Customers Need Not Apply?
Microsoft aimed Lync at customers of a certain size and didn't intend it for small organizations.

"You need multiple servers, you need licensing, telephones," Tosado says. "For right now, I think that Lync is going to be more widely adopted in companies that are larger than 150 or 200 computers. Eventually, I think that there are going to be more and more cloud offerings that include Lync that are going to be more and more accessible to small businesses."

That said, some partners are making OCS and Lync work at smaller organizations. When Guyer started looking into OCS, he heard directly from the Microsoft engineering team that it wasn't intended for small organizations. "They said the product was not really thought of as a product to use in the Windows Small Business Server [SBS] environment and they tried to discourage me," Guyer says. He pressed on.

"I can install a 15-user SBS 2008 R2 Premium with Lync Server 2010 for about $50,000. A 30-user system costs about $60,000," he says.

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 and is interested in telepresence systems that cover the desktop as well as meeting rooms, and is also exploring OCS soft phones.

Starting Small
Most clients start small, and then embrace higher-level functions.

"Microsoft Exchange Server is typically already deployed and in use, so really the main tool first adopted is enterprise instant messaging," Schurman says. "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 migrate over time."

Guyer led his customers along that path. Once IM 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 [Voice over IP] 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."

"Microsoft Exchange Server is typically already deployed and in use so really the main tool first adopted is enterprise instant messaging."

Joe Schurman, Founder, Evangelyze Communication

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.

"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," Guyer says.

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.

Those that have taken the UC plunge have no regrets. "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."

Communications Competitors
Microsoft isn't the only car blasting down the UC speedway. Legacy telecommunications, hardware and networking companies such as IBM Corp. and Cisco Systems Inc. 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.

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."

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 soft phones, and maybe get rid of that PBX at last.

For Registered Member Aspect Software Inc., 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," says Steven Daugherty, lead UC solutions architect for Aspect. "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 notes that further savings can be found in less obvious places. "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 over time -- and decreases in operating costs due to less long distance and no travel meetings, they calculated it improved the bottom line by $183,000."

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.

Doug Kinzinger, a senior network engineer with Certified Partner MCS Office Technologies, 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.

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 partners 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 functionality. "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 says.

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.

Scott Bekker contributed to this report.