Hands-On with Microsoft's Office Communications Server 2007

I've been testing Microsoft's Office Communications Server 2007 in our San Francisco labs for the last couple of weeks. We will have a review online later this month, but in the meantime I've posted some screen shots here, to go with related coverage from Microsoft's launch event in San Francisco.

I've been testing Microsoft's Office Communications Server 2007 in our San Francisco labs for the last couple of weeks. We will have a review online later this month, but in the meantime I've posted some screen shots here, to go with related coverage from Microsoft's launch event in San Francisco.

My early impressions are that OCS provides a very intuitive platform for person-to-person integrated communications, as everything stems from the familiar (ribbon interface not withstanding) confines of Microsoft Office. Users should be able to quickly learn how to navigate between different communication channels, picking up how to take advantage of the new presence features to skillfully migrate communications from e-mail to IM to voice to video.

OCS is meant to be a PC-based experience, allowing the user full convergence between e-mail, IM, voice, video and conferencing, and as a result Microsoft hasn't done much to support most desktop or voice-over-Wi-Fi phones at this time. If you want to use more traditional telephony equipment, you will need to integrate OCS with it via SIP (Session Initiation Protocol trunks. Nortel is one telephony vendor that has bought in fully to Microsoft's Unified Communications strategy, and it has spent a lot of time fine-tuning interoperability between OCS and its IP PBX line. Nortel also has some interesting-looking desktop phones with large screens on the way that are tailored for OCS.

However, the overwhelming complexity of Microsoft's solution will be daunting for most companies, as the installation is pervasive, touching the central Active Directory, the Exchange deployment, (potentially) all desktop clients, and even SharePoint and SQL Server. A trusted partner will almost certainly be a must for this job, so implementers should be advised to look for channel partners with extensive experience both with Microsoft domains and their particular telephony providers (if the implementer is planning to integrate).

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Our test deployment was daunting enough that Microsoft needed to come to our labs for two days to facilitate the installation, and we weren't even trying to integrate with an existing phone system. Microsoft's engineers actually prepared the entire environment beforehand using virtual machines (a total of six Windows Server 2003 virtual clients), which were then deployed on eWEEK's hardware. I added all the client machines (a mix of Windows XP and Windows Vista machines, all running Office 2007 Professional) and desktop peripherals from there. Over time, I'll try to work legacy versions of Office into the mix as well.

Even with this pre-installation and pre-configuration, it took a lot of tinkering to get the system up and running. Most of the installation problems actually involved the analog trunk gateway, an AudioCodes four-port gateway (2 FXO/2 FXS) that we used for connectivity with the PSTN (Public Switched Telephony Network), where a slight misconfiguration was torpedoing our ability to process incoming calls.

One thing that is currently missing from my OCS testbed is Microsoft's analytics component. By default, Microsoft is using its own codecs for high-definition voice support, and it is also encrypting the comm traffic around the enterprise, which will severely limit the usefulness of voice quality assessment tools with OCS. Instead, Microsoft has opened a server-side API for communications analytics to plug in for call-logging details, and it has also released its own analytics engine. Unfortunately, I have yet to obtain this code (or virtual machine) from Microsoft, despite repeated requests.

Coming on the heels of the OCS launch, I expect to see numerous announcements from Microsoft partners in the next few days that could enhance Microsoft's base solution while adding to the overall noise about OCS. Among the ones that have crossed my desk in the last few hours:

Nortel -- phones, handsets, application switches, conferencing, Converged Office

CallRex -- IP recording

Communicado -- managed communications (for enterprises, SMBs or VARs)

AudioCodes -- hybrid gateways

Tandberg -- video

Foundry -- Applications Delivery Switches

NEC -- handsets, gateways, middleware

Securent -- management and enforcing of access control policies