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In-Depth

Forging a Lync in the Unified Communications Chain

Microsoft has a tradition of making a market breakthrough with the third release of a product. For that pattern to hold true in unified communications and collaboration, the channel will have to play a critical role.

With the general availability this month of Microsoft Lync Server 2010, Microsoft is laying the groundwork for a new ecosystem of unified communications (UC) software, hardware and solutions that Redmond is betting will transform the ways in which businesses communicate.

Already, partners are heeding Microsoft's call to UC, designing new Lync-enabled hardware devices and custom-built apps, and integrating Lync into PBX-based UC systems across enterprises. From vertical-specific solutions for hospitals, government agencies and the mentally disadvantaged, to horizontal applications that replace expensive PBXes that integrate calendaring tools and provide presence capabilities, partners are rapidly embracing Lync and the opportunities it provides.

"Microsoft, with its online proposition, is really going to open up the market. It suits a lot of companies and it suits a lot of needs," says Danny Burlage, founder and CTO of Wortell, a Netherlands-based Gold Certified Partner that specializes in UC.

Predicting a wave of new business opportunities, some partners are devoting extensive resources to Lync. Hewlett-Packard Co., for example, in May 2009 inked a four-year strategic global initiative to provide clients with a complete UC and collaboration solution, says John Carlstrom, initiative director, Unified Communication and Collaboration, Microsoft Alliance at HP.

"This joint agreement offers clients an enterprise communications option that improves productivity and lowers costs," Carlstrom says. "This is achieved by streamlining communications across messaging, voice and video with connected devices and applications. In addition, HP channel partners are able to build on existing certification and competencies to deliver new value-added services as well as support options for their clients."

Already, HP offers nine UC-qualified laptops, as well as the HP Survivable Branch Communications zl Module, powered by Lync, which lets branch office users make external phone calls and internal peer-to-peer communications such as instant messaging (IM), voice, video and desktop sharing if a wide-area network (WAN) fails.

Open Lines
Lync leverages Voice over IP (VoIP) to eliminate costly long-distance charges, and integrates audio, video and Web conferencing to reduce travel costs and the purchase, integration and maintenance costs associated with third-party conferencing solutions. The unified Microsoft Lync messaging client delivers access to enterprise voice, enterprise messaging and conferencing from one simplified interface, and mobile workers get access to UC via an Internet connection, without the need for an expensive virual private network (VPN). Lync includes built-in security, encryption-, archiving- and call-detail records to help businesses meet regulatory requirements.

"I can't imagine a geographically dispersed company working well without these technologies," says Mark Roberts, vice president of partner marketing at Polycom Inc., which offers Lync-enabled phones and UC devices, including an upcoming line of conference-room hardware specifically designed for Lync software. "These technologies are having a pretty significant impact on businesses. They've become much more pervasive in our day-to-day work than we realize."

Industry executives say the tight economy, a focus on the environment and most organizations' requirement to do more with less is encouraging many to consider UC. In fact, by 2013, UC services revenues will be worth more than $17 billion, according to market research firm In-Stat LLC. Product revenue will almost triple between 2009 and 2013, In-Stat estimates.

"The market is shifting to UC as a cloud service," says David Lemelin, an In-Stat analyst. "Infrastructure providers, like Avaya, Cisco, BroadSoft and Microsoft, are working closely with hosted VoIP service providers to enable this shift."

New and Improved
Formerly known as Microsoft Office Communications Server (OCS), Lync is a third-generation product that, coupled with Microsoft Exchange Server, makes up the Microsoft UC portfolio, says Ashima Singhal, group product manager of UC partner marketing at Microsoft. Because Microsoft developed Lync, the software-based UC platform integrates with Microsoft Office, SharePoint and Exchange, allowing users to work across all the popular applications, she says.

"What you get is an experience that's really integrated, and it works across all our different Office applications in the same way," says Singhal. "This is one of the key reasons customers are very excited about Lync."

When the Lync 2010 beta was released, almost 20,000 people inside Microsoft and more than 120 enterprise users were using it, according to Microsoft. In addition, 400-plus UC partners are involved in readiness activities.

"Clients benefit from a broad portfolio of products and services that will accelerate the replacement of costly telecom equipment. This improves the efficiency of operations and lowers costs, which can be measured in both top and bottom lines of growth of a company," says HP's Carlstrom. "Partners also benefit by having a new set of offerings that can replace older, more-costly technologies by removing them from the value chain. The integration of voice with other communication products and workplace services will continue to grow in demand."

Beyond the name change, Lync delivers substantive changes. Feature additions include the ability to switch between headset and laptop or speakerphone mid-call, using device switching; selecting multiple individuals in a contact list and initiating a group call; leaving the office and taking a desk-phone call along on a cell phone; having Lync test a network connection prior to starting a video call or meeting; and the ability to go from IM to voice to video to app sharing within the same client.

Because Lync is so integrated and expandable, the solution works well with the way in which businesses typically approach UC. Businesses take a phased-in approach to deploying collaboration software -- starting with e-mail, moving to document-collaboration technologies and typically ending with UC, says TJ Keitt, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc.

"There's a big chance they're not going to have an integrated communications platform worldwide. The challenge is, if we're going to take the step from a small-scale deployment to worldwide, they're not going to want to rip and replace," says Mark Summerson, general manager, UC, at BT Global Services, a telecom and systems integrator that's partnered with Microsoft for more than five years. "They can all be integrated into the Lync platform."

Loud and Clear
The market for UC is healthy -- and solution providers predict Lync will enhance the outlook, say partners.

Indeed, 30 percent of respondents plan to adopt Lync Server 2010 within 12 months of its release, according to a September study conducted by Osterman Research Inc. for systems integrator and Gold Certified Partner Azaleos Corp. Of those businesses that already have UC systems installed, 23 percent will "probably or definitely" consider deploying Lync, the report says.

Microsoft has addressed one big factor that, previously, deterred some companies from investing in UC: cost. In fact, 57 percent of those polled expect that Lync virtualization support -- which allows almost all Lync server roles to be run as virtual machines (VMs) -- will make Lync more attractive to decision makers. Additionally, 54 percent anticipate that the requirement for fewer physical servers -- because many configurations will require one, not the four needed by OCS 2007 -- will make it a better, more-affordable choice, the study finds. Also, 51 percent of those queried say the use of a single client for every service in Lync is more desirable than the OCS 2007 requirement for separation between the Communicator client and the LiveMeeting client.

In October, Microsoft took the wraps off Office 365, which delivers Microsoft Office 2010 Online, SharePoint Online, Exchange Online and Lync Online as cloud-based services. The release marks the first time all these applications are being made available as a single offering, according to Microsoft.

A growing number of businesses are willing to invest in UC solutions that are based on open standards such as Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) and SIP for Instant Messaging and Presence Leveraging Extensions (SIMPLE), according to Forrester. In addition, manufacturers need the cooperation of channel partners, particularly those that offer a range of UC-management capabilities, from simple on-site management to cloud-based UC solutions, says Henry Dewing, a principal analyst at Forrester.

"We take over the management of that server, becoming a remote, outsourced IT department for those servers," says Scott Gode, vice president of product management and marketing for Azaleos.

Ringing up ROI
In the early days of UC, VARs pitched it as an alternative to long lines at airports and the high costs of hotel rooms. Today, solution providers are more likely to address how prospective clients can save money by using collaboration, presence and UC to reduce or maintain headcounts or boost productivity, say industry executives.

"The integration of communication as well as content will reinforce traditional higher margin business lines from consulting to IT, and integration architectures that are built with the future in mind. With technology driving new services and the companies that offer them, there's a correlation of increased opportunities to move to new markets without exorbitant costs," says HP's Carlstrom. "Improved productivity is also a result of leveraging the existing technical certification and knowledge base in this area, which has traditionally been a demarcation point for those who had a background in networking, applications or telecom. Those disciplines become blended, and the winners are the traditional workers that will easily up-tool to Lync competencies."

When BT integrated Lync into a financial services organization's contact center, agents could more easily get in touch with team leaders, says Summerson. By collaborating better on calls and being better informed, agents saw loan conversions increase by 15 percent, he says. "Putting the tools into the contact center was simply better," says Summerson. "It's cheaper than putting 15 percent more people in."

[Click on image for larger view.]
Figure 1. New Lync 2010 client lets users set their status and control the use of their office and mobile phones.

Saving the environment, which typically also saves money, continues to be a benefit of UC. Microsoft customer Telefonica O2 UK Ltd., for example, wanted to improve communications, reduce travel costs and reduce the company's carbon footprint when it invested in a UC solution, the Scottish telecommunications firm says. As a result of the UC solution, many employees now can work from home, decision making is faster and travel is reduced.

Lines of Communication
Microsoft expects its growing ranks of hardware, software and channel partners to continue building upon Lync's capabilities. The company's Web site features a list of partners and products optimized for Lync compatibility, as well as a resource center for channel partners looking for information and tools to assist them in their Lync initiatives.

"We expect that a lot of traditional systems integrators are also going to take advantage of the platform," says Singhal. "We're seeing so many partners develop such cool applications in such innovative ways. I'd love to see how our partners are taking the platform and what it's doing for their business, how they're creating the market and how they're creating the opportunity for themselves."

Headset supplier Jabra has been working closely with Microsoft to educate solution providers about the add-on sales opportunity of hardware, says Travis Hatmaker, director of UC at GN Netcom, which owns the Jabra brand. The market for UC is growing, and solution providers can garner healthy margins by recommending wired and wireless headsets to complete a UC implementation, he says.

"Customers have been waiting for this version. There's a lot of pent-up demand. We're certainly riding that wave, and it's been a very good business for us," says Hatmaker. "If your voice quality is poor, the user experience of UC overall is going to be poor. We're spending a lot of time working with the Microsoft partner community, making sure they understand how easy it is to pre- and post-sell the hardware. We're working hard to leverage our content center background to get these partners engaged in the process because there's a lot of money to be made."

He continues: "If I'm a channel partner, I want to look at the peripheral or ancillary products that go with Lync. I want to be able to sell as much as possible, as many tools as possible. I want to make sure I'm getting as much wallet share as possible."

Polycom and Microsoft are working together to educate each other's partners about cross-sales opportunities, says Polycom's Roberts. "Both companies are going to upskill their channels," he says.

Solution providers have plenty of other add-on possibilities, too. ClearOne Communications, for example, offers the Chat 70, a personal speakerphone that connects to PCs and laptops for audio communication via Lync, while its Chat 170 addresses the needs of single or small groups of users, according to the company. Several leading headset designers -- including Plantronics Inc. and Jabra -- created models specifically for Lync, and a host of ISVs such as AltiGen Communications Inc., Convergent Media Systems Corp., Quest Software Inc. and Telrex wrote applications that leverage Lync's capabilities.

Bidding Bye to Big Boxes
The PBX -- long at the heart of the traditional telecommunications network -- is losing ground as competitors such as Lync make a play for this lucrative and large space. Of course, few businesses will toss out their existing infrastructures. But technological advances mean they may not need to ever buy another one. Nor will they need to spend a small fortune to integrate disparate systems after a merger or acquisition.

Several Microsoft partners already offer SIP-based PBX solutions. For example, Snom Technology AG unveiled a family of IP PBX systems that runs on standard servers and integrates seamlessly with Snom desktop and DECT phones. Additionally, the family features the functionality of standards-based IP PBX platforms, including simultaneous ringing of desktop and cell phones, multiple extension aliases, a centralized address book, voicemail, shared line emulation and a Web interface for provisioning and management, according to Snom.

Qualified SIP trunking services providers such as Verizon Wireless, Interoute Communications Ltd., ThinkTel and Global Crossing offer solutions that extend VoIP calls from Lync to Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) over IP trunks, a move that saves businesses money and simplifies management. Other available offerings include survivable branch appliances from vendors such as AudioCodes Ltd., Brocade Communications Systems Inc., Dialogic Inc., Juniper Networks Inc., HP, Ferrari Electronic AG and Network Equipment Technologies (NET).

To ensure compliance with U.S. regulatory requirements and maintain safety, enhanced safety providers such as 911 Enable (Connexon) and Intrado Inc. have developed solutions that route Lync users' emergency calls to the appropriate public safety answering point.

Solution providers also are targeting niche markets. Wortell, for example, created a Lync application that allows mentally challenged people to make phone calls to family members and friends, says Burlage.

"They were not able to do that through ordinary devices. Right now they touch the picture of their parents, guardians or friends, and immediately a voice connection starts up with their parents," he says.

Wortell also designed a Lync presence app that helps citizens calling a government agency connect not only with a live person, but with an individual able to answer their question based on the agent's skill sets, says Burlage.

Partners are expected to continue rolling out applications and products that leverage Lync's capabilities, turning up the volume on UC and expanding Lync's evolving ecosystem into a thriving, bustling world of collaboration.