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Sysadmin blog Office Communications Server (OCS) is one of Microsoft’s hidden gems. Everyone hears about Windows, Exchange and SQL Server, but you could be excused for never having heard of OCS, the evolution of Microsoft’s corporate instant messaging service. There are a lot of competitors, but OCS has excellent integration with Microsoft Office products.

Some history: go all the way back to Microsoft Exchange 2000 and there was a feature called Exchange Instant Messenger. It was such a success that Microsoft decided to license it separately. Thus Live Communication Server (LCS) 2003.

One reason many people have not heard of OCS is because - until its latest incarnation - this software had issues. LCS 2003 had to be installed in an exact order, in a pristine environment, and half the documentation didn’t exist. The half that did was functionally worthless. LCS 2005 had all sorts of new features designed to make integration with SIP VoIP and conferencing possible. While setting up the core IM was less of a chore, the new features were rough and difficult to configure.

LCS 2005 begat LCS 2005 SP1: more stable, easier to use - and more or less incompatible with its predecessors. It did, however, help to create a public IM federation. You could pay Microsoft a tithe so you could add public IM contacts from Windows Live, AOL and Yahoo! to your corporate instant messenger.

A massive overhaul and a rename gave us OCS 2007, bringing enhanced SIP PBX and PSTN trunking features, presence, decent audio and video conferencing, as well as more reliable federation between IMs.

OCS started getting serious and Microsoft started marketing it that way. OCS 2007 R2’s console meant that, with a compatible PBX, you could reliably and straightforwardly run an entire call center using OCS.

The Office Communicator client for LCS 2005 included the reason I deployed OCS: Office Communicator Tabs. Definable tabs appear at the bottom of your instant messenger client. When you click they launch a pre-defined web page in a small browser window within the Communicator client. Communicator will pass your SIP URI to the website as part of the request, which enables all sorts of integration if you have your own web programmer.

At its simplest you can use this to generate a small intranet page that offers up customized links or information. I have lots of PHP that talks to my active directory based solely on the SIP URI in those tabs. OCS 2007 R2 offers the ability to integrate response groups, which allows many people to receive the same incoming call, and does things with auto-attendant workflows that I barely comprehend.

This is pretty cool. OCS and Communicator also integrates neatly with Windows, Outlook, Exchange and SharePoint; from sharing contacts or files between the services with groups of your colleagues to desktop or application sharing. It will set your status to "busy" if you are scheduled to be in a meeting, and you can configure it to post who you are in a meeting with, and on what topic (on a personal note, I am very pleased this is optional).

If you are a Microsoft shop looking for a corporate communications server, look at OCS.

But don’t forget OCS is also just a decent IM server. I use the option to save IMs as e-mails, and if compliance is a concern, you have IM archiving. So if you aren’t a Microsoft shop, but still use Windows on the desktop, it’s still worth a look - because while the telephony stuff and the Windows or Office integration is a selling point in the future, I think a nifty IM with useful tabs is a good place to start. ®

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