Microsoft Unified Communications Ready to Debut

By Peter Galli  |  Posted 2007-10-03

Microsoft Unified Communications Ready to Debut

Microsoft will announce that its integrated Unified Communications products are ready for delivery at an event in San Francisco on Oct. 16.

The software maker, based in Redmond, Wash, will also use the event to tout how its offering is distinct from others because of the investment it has made in communications as a platform, and the opportunities this brings for a broad set of its partner ecosystem.

The event also marks the availability of two products that are core to the offering: Office Communications Server 2007 and Office Communicator 2007.

"They are on our price list as of the launch and so customers will be able to start buying them. We will also announce the availability of the products in most other localized languages at the event," Kim Akers, the general manager for Microsofts UC group, told eWEEK.

There have been 80,000 downloads of the beta software for Office Communications Server 2007 and Office Communicator 2007, while 170,000 media kits were shipped. "This is significant demand for a product that requires a fair amount of IT involvement in setting it up and keeping it running," she said.

Some 155 customers across 30 countries are also participating in the early adopter program called TAP (technology adopter program), most of which are large enterprises. They were chosen because of their large, complex infrastructures and their ability to test the technology in that environment and provide feedback.

The code for Office Communications Server 2007 and Office Communicator 2007 was released to manufacturing July 27.

Click here to read more about the public betas for Office Communications Server 2007 and Office Communicator 2007.

Many of those customers also have groups of workers inside the organization that hit the "sweet spot" for the technology: they are mobile, out-and-about and not connected to a desk, Akers said.

"However, we are seeing that, from a selling cycle, it is much easier to get the midmarket to implement this solution as there are fewer people who have to sign off on the decision. So I do expect there to be a fair amount of midmarket interest. But, from an R&D perspective, we did focus more on large enterprises," she said.

But while some, like analyst Rob Enderle of the Enderle Group, believe Microsofts move into the unified communications space is "potentially a major game changer," it will be limited by historic PBX vendor practices of being closed and resisting technology that is externally sourced, he told eWEEK.

"Historically stuff like this takes decades to change. While this will go faster, expecting much change in even five years will likely be setting expectations too high," he said.

Microsoft executives, including chairman Bill Gates, will also talk about the work they have done with a number of core segments of its diverse partner and vendor ecosystem, from the device and hardware side to those ISVs looking to build presence into their line of business applications.

They will also discuss the work the company is doing with the PBX vendors on interoperability, as well as with those system integrators investing in building practices around unified communications that include Microsofts solution.

Click here to read more about Exchange 2007 SP1.

"You will hear us talk at the event about the new deals and work we are doing with additional PBX vendors, as well as how we are addressing the ISV and system integrator components," Akers said.

Microsofts Unified Communications stack has Active Directory and presence at its core, with the different modes of communications above that—the messaging infrastructure, instant messaging, voice and conferencing—integrated together rather than being siloed as has been the case previously. This lets customers use any of these modes of communication from any application.

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Microsoft Exchange provides the core messaging infrastructure from mobile messaging to the unified messaging found in Exchange 2007, which gives users their e-mail, voice mail and faxes in a single inbox.

That unified messaging then integrates with components of OCS (Office Communications Server) to give a complete voice solution, while OCS delivers conferencing through audio, video, the Web, IM and the VOIP capabilities.

"So, between those two products, you get the full solution set for UC, which is all built on Active Directory and presence," Akers said. "So, IT departments now no longer have two disparate communications infrastructures, but rather a common set of management tools for provisioning a user, changing plans and the like."

Those users who want to stay with Exchange 2003 will get the same presence, messaging and conferencing experiences, but the pieces that will be missing will be rich voice mail integration and some of the richer functionality around mobile e-mail.

"While we do integrate with other voice mail systems, the best experience comes through the integration with Exchange 2007," Akers said.

The Microsoft, Nortel VOIP alliance has yielded results. Click here to read more.

But Directions on Microsoft analyst Rob Horwitz believes that there is a lot of caution with regard to replacing traditional phones that have a long tradition of reliability with a PC-based system.

"In the short term, that will be a tough sell. And, some organizations will be interested in bringing Web conferencing in-house rather than relying on a hoster, for tighter security, user-convenience features and other reasons," he told eWEEK.

Using the Microsoft voice and Web conferencing platform also currently requires considerable IT expertise, especially when a user needs to accommodate workers outside the firewall, engineer for fault tolerance through redundancy and integrate with audio conference providers, he said.

"For a large organization with tens of thousands of users, were talking about Communications Server implementations that involve several dozen machines. So I think that reality will put a temporary damper on things," Horwitz said.

But Ackers says that many customers have also already made the decision to move across to VOIP (voice over IP) and are expected to quickly move into pilots where they can test the software in their environment and against competitive solutions.

A lot of customers are also planning to take a phased approach, first installing the messaging and presence infrastructure and then looking at how to enable the rest of unified communications without having to take out their existing PBX infrastructure and, ultimately, deciding what to replace that PBX with, she said.

Horwitz agrees with this, noting that when an organization is ready to replace its old PBXs, implementing a new system that runs its voice communications over an IP network is the obvious choice as it eliminates the need to maintain a separate set of telephony-only wiring and makes moving people between offices much easier.

To read more about how Microsoft and Cisco are collaborating on IT infrastructure, click here.

"With respect to VOIP, Microsoft is certainly the beneficiary of years of concept selling by other telephony providers," he said.

But Ackers acknowledges that many customers may have to upgrade their networks so that they can handle the extra load that comes with the Unified Communications functionality.

Microsoft has minimum requirement guidelines for the bandwidth needed for customers to get the performance they want, and is working with Cisco and Avaya to help them optimize their network.

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Ackers is also adamant that the benefits of its Unified Communications solution outweigh the costs, even for those customers who need to upgrade their networks.

"From an IT perspective, you do start to realize significant savings as you consolidate your infrastructure onto a single platform and a single set of management tools," she said, citing the fact that Microsoft has saved the $5 million a year it used to spend on a voice mail product, which is now built into Exchange 2007.

These "concrete IT savings" are independent of those that came from moving to VOIP. On the productivity side, the ability to reach someone at the time you need to communicate with them did result in quantifiable time savings. "Presence ends up being a critical component of actually delivering that productivity gain," she said.

There were also three distinct groups of customers contemplating Unified Communications: those that were fine being entirely on the Microsoft platform as they saw the value of that; those who wanted multiple platforms and interoperability between them; and those who wanted pieces from each competitor.

"That is why you have seen a big push around interoperability from us, and we have been working closely with all of the PBX vendors to make sure that we have that interoperability scenario in place and working," Ackers said.

Click here to read more about how Microsoft moved the Unified Communications ball forward.

Analyst Enderle agrees that Microsoft has done all it can with interoperability with the PBX vendors, which, he notes, tend to be "incredibly closed."

"It is those related practices and a lack of common standards which have been the biggest problem. There were strong solutions like this in test 20 years ago, but the lack of common standards and cooperation between vendors, IT and telephony groups, and no common software framework, killed it, even though both IBM and AT&T spent billions on the project," Enderle said.

With regard to the challenges faced by early adopters and those on the TAP program, Akers said that one of the challenges is changing user behavior, such as getting people to use the Communicator software as their phone rather than the physical handset.

Another potential issue was voice quality, particularly when people were connected to networks other than at their workplace, which could be less than optimal.

To address this, Microsoft built adaptive codecs, which adjust based on the type of network a user is running on so as to maintain the voice quality, she said.

Along with these codecs is a quality of experience monitoring server, which gives IT the ability to understand what is happening from a quality experience perspective and do the diagnostics for it.

"This was one place where the TAP feedback was really useful to us in terms of helping us come up with new functionality that we needed to build into the product before it was released," Ackers said.

Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest news, views and analysis on voice over IP and telephony.

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