That voice you hear from the cloud is Microsoft’s
Unified communications as a service
Unified communications (UC) is the joining up of email, instant messaging, voice, video and whatever else we can come up with.
Singing in harmony
From a technology standpoint, I find Microsoft’s offering compelling. Lync, Exchange and Office are mature products. When you put them together you have a product (Lync) that is a full-blown IP PBX in its own right, able to talk to SIP trunks like a real boy and thus interface with the everyday public switched telephone network.
As a SIP PBX, Lync can also provide voice, video and instant messaging between any Lync clients – desktops, notebook, mobiles, tablets, phones with the Lync client installed or whatever flavour of wearable computing happens to rear its head tomorrow.
Given that many devices on the horizon are Android-based, it would not shock me to see a Lync client there as well. (There is an excellent Lync client for Android.)
Lync also provides presence. For those not up on communications lingo, “presence” is the term for “knowing you are using a device, which device you are using and are you busy while using it". Anyone who uses instant messaging is familiar with the concept – being marked as “online”, “away”, “in a meeting”, and so on.
Presence in Lync ties in to Exchange and Outlook to include calendar information: this marks you busy during meetings or while on a phone call.
By the same token, Exchange and Outlook can tie back into Lync. When sending an email you can easily see if the contact you are addressing is present, away, or what have you.
Outlook talks to your email, and also to your social networks. Whatever is not built into the application can be expanded through apps. Properly configured, Microsoft’s unified communications suite is as simple as modern technology can make it.
Work in progress
Delivering these applications through Office 365 is mostly a matter of some intricate development work, bashing scripts and templates into shape. A new administrative interface has to be written to lash the various servers together into something approaching a seamless whole, but they are all PowerShell-driven and designed for just such a scenario.
There is somewhere a group of systems administrators whose jobs are so high pressure that I am really glad I am not one of them. They do some great work, because the rough edges that were the hallmark of many early attempts at Office 365 are being sanded off.
Exchange, for example, has made quantum leaps in ease of use and reliability over the past few iterations.
It is easy to complain when something takes time or goes wrong with a cloud service. It is perhaps harder for me in this one instance because I have deployed and maintained Microsoft’s UC suite more than a dozen times as on-premises installs.
Despite my experience, my knowledge of the products barely scratches the surface. Truly mastering Microsoft’s UC suite would take a commitment roughly equivalent to earning both a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree.
Bringing Microsoft’s unified communications to the cloud is thus an enormous deal. When it works right, you can deploy a fully functional implementation in under 10 minutes. I can’t even run the installer for Exchange in under 10 minutes on most machines.
What’s more, the installations provided are secure by default. Experts who have the equivalent of a Bachelor’s, Masters and more in the products whose gold templates they are designing have made sure they are better configured from the first button push than most of my setups are likely to be even after years of work. That is impressive, even to a cynic like me.
Calm after the storm
You will note that I said “when it works". It doesn’t always.
The intense glowing light you see from the general direction of my Twitter account is the fallout from a week’s worth of nuclear vitriol spewed onto the internet as I ran into one miserable problem after another while trying to get a fully functional Office 365 implementation off the ground. Mostly this was to do with being in Canada, so I will spare you the details.
Suffice to say that at time of writing the fully hosted Office 365 UC instances are US and UK only. You need a UK or US credit card or a deal with a service provider. (In the UK there are resellers such as Outsourcery, Sipcom and InterCall).
I ran into a couple of glitches in installation. There were replication issues within the virtual machines in my instance. The upshot was that I could dial in to my hosted phone number, but not out from Lync.
After that was sorted, a disconnect between the front-end Lync server and the back-end Lync server still had things out of whack. Eventually, replication seems to have restored itself and 48 hours after the Office 365 instance was created everything magically started working.
For all the frustration this caused while I was trying to meet a deadline, I do not begrudge Microsoft a few bugs. The issues were identified, they were analysed and will be fixed so that they don’t occur for others.
It happens, that’s life, something that as a systems administrator I understand all too well.
My bad experience here has to be balanced against the fact that I watched Office 365’s Exchange evolve from enragingly awful to bordering on tempting enough to overcome my laziness in a matter of months. Most things in Microsoft’s cloud offerings get better with time.
Microsoft has fantastic technology and many bright people to keep it moving forward. Every now and again it falls short in one area while focusing on another, but its core strengths lie in technology.
Microsoft is not a phone company. Despite this, the UC package is, in combination with a hosting company, a fully fledged corporate phone system.
A voice service outage – such as me not being able to call outbound from my Lync client office phone – is a critical emergency. I don’t care if we are dealing with one user down or 100,000, a lack of voice services is a big deal.
With voice communications down, users cannot call 911, a mandatory service in North America. The rigid requirements surrounding service levels for telecommunications providers in Canada centre around this concept. It is one reason why services such as Google Voice tend not to make it up here.
This is before we touch on the impact on businesses that operate 24/7. Office 365 support has to be fully staffed at all hours or it is a deal-breaker.
In the UK, Microsoft says 24/7 support is available and points to more front-line options for premium accounts, as well as a financially backed service level agreement underpinning its 99.9 per cent uptime guarantee. But as always the proof of the pudding is in the eating.
Organisations that are using Lync to replace PBX voice include Volvo and Aston Martin
I look at my wife, asleep on the couch after a long day’s work, and realise that as my co-worker she is directly affected by my choice of office communications service. Am I willing to bet her life on Office 365’s ability to be up and resolve issues in a timely fashion? No. Microsoft is not there yet.
Microsoft has some evolving to do before I would consider it to replace my fixed-line provider. But it could make this transition fairly easily, and indeed Microsoft has drummed up a clutch of case studies about organisations that are already using Lync to replace PBX voice. Early adopters include Volvo and Aston Martin.
Microsoft needs to identify a few individuals who are capable of recognising the flaws in its offering, who have the ability to direct groups of people to solve them and have enough authority to enact change.
Given that Microsoft is all in on the cloud, I see this as somewhat inevitable. Microsoft insiders say they recognise some of the shortcomings of voice in the cloud and the company is addressing this with enterprise-class voice available “soon”.
Despite my grousing about services, the technology is good enough to merit serious consideration. So long as I still have a hard line at all offices for emergency calls, I am seriously considering bringing Office 365 in for use.
Hype about Skype
Microsoft inherited a massive worldwide user base when it bought Skype in 2011. The company then merged Skype with the MSN instant messaging network because the hard work of making Lync talk to MSN had already been done.
And this year Microsoft threw the switch enabling the wildly popular consumer telecommunications product that is Skype, with more than 600 million users, to talk to Microsoft’s UC, a futuristic enterprise communications network.
This will help convince enterprises to fork out the money for subscriptions and cement Outlook (and thus Office) as the foundation of corporate communications for the foreseeable future.
If I were in charge of a company remotely invested in telecommunications I would be running scared right now. Microsoft’s problems with the technology and support can be solved in relatively short order.
At that point Microsoft will be sitting on top of a rock-solid offering whose technology is so far ahead of what anyone else can bring to bear that it may well dominate the communications market – enterprise and consumer, unified and joined up – for decades to come.
In one form or another UC is the inevitable reality for business. The technology battle is already over: what’s on the table is more than good enough.
Whether or not that future of UC truly belongs to Microsoft depends both on the company’s ability to adapt its support and on the ability of competitors to fight back. ®