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Microsoft Announces Skype 'Cloud Connector' and 'Project Rigel'

Microsoft is readying some new features in its Skype for Business product, including a new "Cloud Connector" edition and "Project Rigel," which will shift gears for Microsoft's Skype for Business hardware partners.

The improvements, which are expected to become available this year, also include an expansion of the PSTN conferencing and calling capabilities of the Skype for Business Online service. Microsoft is promising that new diagnostic tools will be coming for IT pros managing Skype for Business systems, as well.

On the last point, Microsoft's announcement didn't describe these diagnostic and reporting tools in any great detail, but they will be centralized in the Office 365 admin portal. IT pros will be able to use the portal to "troubleshoot issues in both cloud and hybrid Skype for Business deployments," the announcement indicated. The new tools will appear "in the second half of this year."

Possibly, Microsoft is referring to its incorporation of Event Zero's reporting technology into the Office 365 Administration Center management portal. Microsoft announced it was acquiring that technology to beef up Skype for Business tooling back in January.

Cloud Connector Edition
A new Cloud Connector Edition of Skype for Business Server will be "generally available starting in April," Microsoft announced. General availability means commercial release, which is surprising since the Cloud Connector Edition hasn't been described much by Microsoft.

The Cloud Connector Edition is currently at the preview stage. It doesn't show up at Microsoft's Office 365 Roadmap page, so it's hard to tell when it was first launched.

Skype for Business Cloud Connector Edition is a package of virtual machines for deployment within an organization's infrastructure that enables public switched telephone network (PSTN) connections with Microsoft's Cloud PBX service, according to this TechNet article. It works with Skype for Business Server 2015 or Lync Server 2013 products.

However, the TechNet article also recommends the use of the Cloud Connector Edition for organizations that don't use those servers. It can be used just with Skype for Business Online, which is an Office 365 service offering.

The Cloud Connector Edition has four components, per the TechNet article:

With Cloud Connector Edition, you deploy a set of packaged VMs that contain a minimal Skype for Business Server topology -- consisting of an Edge component, Mediation component, and a Central Management Store (CMS) role. You will also install a domain controller, which is required for the internal functioning of Cloud Connector. These services are configured for hybrid with your Office 365 tenant that includes Skype for Business Online services.

Apparently, the Cloud Connector Edition is needed to link up with Microsoft's Cloud PBX service or it facilitates those connections. Microsoft offered this statement in its announcement:

"All versions of Skype for Business Server allow customers worldwide to use Office 365 Cloud PBX with the carrier calling services of their choice, and the new Cloud Connector Edition allows customers to quickly connect existing phone lines and phone numbers to Office 365 by delivering these proven hybrid capabilities as optimized, pre-configured virtual machine images."

Microsoft rolled out its Cloud PBX service, which is available as part of Office 365 E5 subscriptions, in November. Cloud PBX lets organizations assign phone numbers in bulk for conference calls.

Project Rigel
Microsoft also announced a major shift for its hardware partners building equipment that integrates with Skype for Business. This shift is an effort called "Project Rigel," which may be referring to the brightest star in the Orion constellation, which is named Rigel.

Project Rigel aims to better integrate Skype for Business with the meeting rooms currently found in organizations, which may lack the latest equipment. Microsoft's announcement promised that "Project Rigel will bring a Skype Meeting experience pioneered on Microsoft Surface Hub to nearly any meeting room with a display or projector." The Surface Hub is Microsoft's big-screen device that runs on Windows 10. It provides video and audio links for meetings, plus white-boarding capabilities.

Microsoft's partners Logitech and Polycom currently are building Project Rigel-type products. Delivery of those products could occur in the second half of this year. They include:

  • Logitech's ConferenceCam Connect, ConferenceCam Group and PTZ Pro Camera, along with a new "smart dock"
  • Polycom's RealPresence Trio and CX5100 products, along with "complete Project Rigel systems"

Video Teleconferencing
Microsoft also announced two video teleconferencing improvements in collaboration with Polycom. Polycom's RealPresence products will integrate with Office 365 services and support the Skype Meeting interface. Next, Polycom will "provide a Cloud Video Interoperability service, hosted in the Microsoft cloud," to other video teleconferencing products. Both capabilities are expected to arrive "in the second half of 2016."

Auto Call Attendant
In April, Microsoft is planning to augment the Cloud PBX service with "a new virtual Organizational Auto Attendant." This feature isn't described too well in Microsoft's announcement, but it will let organizations "use Office 365 for automated handling of business calls and using speech recognition."

The lack of this Organizational Auto Attendant feature apparently has been a stumbling block for adopting Microsoft's Cloud PBX service, according to comments in this November Microsoft blog post.

PSTN Feature Expansions
Microsoft's PSTN Conferencing feature for its Skype for Business Online service lets users with landline or mobile phones join conferences using PSTN connections. The PSTN Conferencing feature rolled out in November, although Microsoft didn't describe market availability at that time. This month, Microsoft indicated that PSTN Conferencing had expanded to a total of 32 countries. It lets organizations take advantage of using "flat-rate, per-user, per-month pricing" via the use of local phone numbers. However, local number availability depends on the country involved. Microsoft expects local numbers will be available "in more than 60 countries by the end of this month and nearly 100 countries by the end of June."

Microsoft also plans to bring its PSTN Calling services to the United Kingdom, with a preview "starting in May." This feature, which permits organizations to assign numbers that will work across different phone device types, was rolled out by Microsoft in November, but market availability wasn't described.

Skype for Business is Microsoft's ever evolving unified communications product for organizations, supporting voice-over-IP phone calls, videoconferences, instant messaging and presence capabilities. It's sold either as an Office 365 service, which is called "Skype for Business Online," or it's available as a Skype for Business Server product for deployment by organizations. It previously was called "Lync Online" and "Lync Server." Microsoft also operates a Skype consumer voice and video service.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for the 1105 Enterprise Computing Group.

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