A hard look at Microsoft’s Office Communications Server 2007

SAN FRANCISCO – We’ve been watching the romance develop between OCS (Office Communications Server 2007) and Exchange Server 2007 since OCS became available in beta earlier this year. When OCS finally came of age last month, we brought the mature couple together for a Hawaiian wedding.

To conduct this ceremony, Oliver donned his floral print shirt and straw hat and headed off to Honolulu and the Advanced Network Computing Lab at the University of Hawaii. There, lab director Brian Chee set up the testbed, and Microsoft flew in two capable representatives to manage the installation and run us through the new features before OCS and Exchange were joined in VoIP union.

Overall, our upbeat view of Exchange Server 2007 hasn’t changed since we examined Beta 2 back in August of 2006. For both users and admins, Exchange 2007 is a good upgrade, and Service Pack 1 makes it even better (see “Exchange Server 2007 Service Pack 1 packs plenty”). OCS has matured noticeably from our early-beta look. Blending Web and video conferencing, instant messaging, and VoIP telephony, this communications platform is very slick, but has significant back-end requirements, especially in large deployments.

There’s an element of confusion surrounding exactly how Exchange 2007 and OCS play together — who brings what to the sandbox. Exchange boasts several new features under its Unified Messaging banner, and OCS waves flags like IM, Web conferencing, and enterprise VoIP. There’s some overlap, so let’s get that out of the way.

Exchange 2007’s Unified Messaging capabilities revolve around the term “anywhere access.” Have a Web connection? Exchange can serve up the OWA (Outlook Web Access) works with a dollop of sour cream. Have a cell phone? Exchange can connect you to your Exchange data via mobile Web or as a direct client. Stuck with an ordinary phone? Exchange can read your e-mail to you in an electronic voice.

On the flip side, your inbox can pretty much suck in anything anyone is likely to send you save for snail mail and IMs. E-mail, voice mail, video mail, faxes … Exchange can handle it all, and serve it up to Outlook or Office Communicator (the OCS client) or their mobile equivalents.

Naturally, with the exception of e-mail, Exchange is just the target, not the source. Voice mail requires appropriate PBX connectivity as does fax reception. That’s where OCS comes in.

Provided your Exchange 2007 server farm includes at least one server running the Unified Messaging role, Exchange can serve as the voicemail repository for OCS users. Otherwise, Exchange’s features and functions remain the same whether OCS is a neighbor or not — a good thing considering Exchange administrators moving to Exchange 2007 have enough to worry about.

Office Communications Server 2007 serves up everything you’ve come to expect from Live Communications Server 2005 and takes it to that logical conclusion we all wished Redmond had gotten to earlier. The succinct list of new features and improvements goes like this: VoIP telephony (with a caveat or two), group IM, in-house Web conferencing (as opposed to hosted Live Meeting), better presence management (meaning more presencing options, and more control over who can contact you and when), new federation features (for connecting with external OCS and IM networks), better support for audio and video, enterprise-class management features, and support for a Star Trek-like addition to your conference room called RoundTable. Compared to LCS 2005, you’ll also find significant differences in OCS 2007’s deployment architecture.

We’ll start with the brief 411 on as many of OCS’ new features as we can fit. VoIP is the obvious big news, though Microsoft plays this down in favor of integration with Exchange, SharePoint, and especially the Office clients. Bottom line: Behind your firewall and POTS lines, OCS can serve as a full-blown IP PBX with all the fancy call features you can imagine. All you need do is make sure your desks are equipped with SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) handsets supporting Real Time Protocol or that your clients are using Office Communicator 2007 in softphone mode. Users telephoning this way get all the IP PBX features we’ve come to expect, including forwarding, conferencing, deflection (to mobile phone, for example), and call logging on both the server and the client (stored in Outlook).

In fact OCS delivers some clever call features you won’t find in third-party IP PBXes, at least not yet. One of those is the ability to assign rankings to calls. For example, before you dial, you could assign a call an importance ranking — a great way to make sure that folks ignoring calls at their desk know they have to answer this one. Or, once a call is in progress, you could assign a call-sensitivity rating that might prevent other callers from joining in — to prevent co-workers from hearing you get chewed out by the boss, for example.

You can also add other features to an OCS phone call. A call may start out as a voice conversation between two parties, then one of the two parties could spark an IM with a third guy to into the conference — that’s about three clicks in Office Communicator. That third guy could IM a couple of other people, at which point the whole group could be moved into a Live Meeting-style Web conference — again, just a few mouse clicks from Office Communicator. Naturally, OCS tracks whether users are available or not, the lofty term here being “presence management.” This is similar to an away message from a chat client, but extends not only to Communicator but also to Outlook 2007 and the other Office clients. Users scheduling an in-house Web conference can easily jump to Exchange 2007’s advanced shared calendaring, giving them a quick view of when everyone they want to invite is available.

Once the conference starts, it can happen entirely on the Web, with users joining from their desktops, or a few folks could gather in a RoundTable-equipped conference room, while others tune in from other locations. RoundTable brings all attendees in the conference room into a videoconference through a special extension to the Live Meeting client, projecting the entire conference room in a ribbon-style view at the bottom of the screen (so folks logging in from the outside can see everyone) while presenting the active speaker in a larger view on the side. The new LiveMeeting client even enables meeting managers to record entire meetings or just snippets, both audio and video, to an external server hosted by Microsoft or an internal one should you have a friendly IT administrator with a lot of spare hard disks. All of the communications options are just a few mouse clicks away, and the results are very, very slick.

But the requirements on the back end are substantial. First off, you’ll need to prep your existing Microsoft servers for OCS’ arrival. The short list includes Windows Server 2003 SP1 running as a baseline, Active Directory running in DNS mode, Exchange Server 2007 Unified Messaging for voice users, a SQL Server behind the OCS installation, and a Certificate Server running for full security with the outside world. And check those advanced features for additional server requirements, such as Speech Server for voice translation. Shops aiming to use OCS as a PBX will need a SIP gateway to connect to the outside world. Active Directory integration is, frankly, crucial.

Accessing OCS features without Active Directory is likely possible, but you’d lose most of the slickness that makes OCS so attractive in the first place. With Active Directory running in the background, OCS administrators can quickly assign OCS capabilities to users and groups, manage federation between organizations, map IP to POTS settings, and more. The nice part is that most of these management features can be accessed via a new Communications tab that suddenly appears within the Active Directory screen once OCS rears its head in the server farm.

Exchange 2007 Unified Messaging allows that sexy integration of voice and e-mail. On the Exchange side, administrators only have to define a unified messaging mailbox policy and then enable the users who are affected.

On the desktop, it’s all about Office Communicator 2007, though Outlook 2007 and the rest of the Office 2007 suite are a good idea, too. Someone running a call via Communicator, for example, might pop open OneNote to jot down some notes. OneNote will automatically grab the OCS call information from Communicator, including the subject, date and time, and even the other users on the call. All of a sudden you have to try to lose your meeting notes. This kind of cross-app communication is OCS’ real reason to live.

Communicator is the main client interface, but Microsoft’s design goal for OCS was to enable one-click communication from as many places within the Office client/server suite as possible. For the most part, Microsoft has succeeded. The price tag is a little high for our taste (especially when you consider all the secondary servers a full OCS implementation will require in an enterprise setting), but for companies that will truly make use of this level of communication flexibility, the greenbacks are well worth it. If you’re already running chunks of the Office server suite, then don’t buy a SIP PBX or a conferencing platform without trying your hand at OCS first.

Exchange Server 2007

Since our test of the Exchange 2007 beta last August, we’ve encountered the new e-mail platform in the course of several other tests, sometimes with mixed results. During this period, Exchange went from beta 2 all the way to shipping code and now has a service pack pecking its way to final release.

One key point from the beta preview bears repeating: Exchange 2007 is a big change from Exchange 2003. Deploying Exchange 2007 will make your mail server management life easier in the long run, but it will have short-term impacts on your physical server budget, the number of servers in your racks, your day-to-day management tools, and even the way your users access their messaging and scheduling data. You’ll have better security, better redundancy, easier management overall, but even experienced Exchange administrators will have to learn new ways of doing things. Furthermore, if you buy into several critical new capabilities, you will probably need to run more instances of the server to support the same number of users, and that means more points of potential failure. For example, Exchange 2007 gives Windows Mobile smartphones full network citizenship, with their own mail accounts, which can add a whole new dimension of desktop management headaches if you’re not careful.

Exchange 2007’s new hardware requirements aren’t limited to the 64-bit-only support. Industry feathers were ruffled when Microsoft announced that Exchange was going 64-bit only (and that it wasn’t going to be the only server in Redmond’s family to go that route), but after a year of reflection, we think the 64-bit move was a solid choice on Microsoft’s part. First, most servers sold during the past two years are already 64-bit capable and that trend is only going to increase. Second, moving to a 64-bit CPU means that more RAM can be used to cache the message database and that means faster performance and less strain on the server’s disk system. It’s the future, deal with it.

What will be a hardware consideration as well as your most important initial planning criteria is Exchange 2007’s updated server roles. Microsoft has expanded the number of Exchange server roles available to five, and that will most likely expand the number of physical Exchange servers you’ll be running. Your meat is the Mailbox server role, but a close second in importance is the CAS (Client Access Server), which manages all the proxied client connections, including Outlook Web Access, something you most certainly want.

There are also two transport roles, one internal and one external. On the outside, it’s the Edge Transport server, which is not so much a router as a DMZ-safe filtering instance. A good move, but SMBs might do better to forego the DMZ-based filtering strategy and instead look to an externally hosted solution such as Microsoft’s own Forefront line or something from a competitor such as MessageLabs. Internally, your transport role is the Hub Transport server, basically an e-mail router for large, distributed enterprise deployments. Sub-1,000 user installations need not apply.

The last server role is that of Unified Messaging. This one routes all the required data between CAS and Mailbox roles and external communications platforms including IP PBX systems and, yes, Office Communications Server 2007. Microsoft has made the actual user configuration of OCS/Exchange surprisingly straightforward, but you’ll need a Unified Messaging server running and it needs to be updated with Windows Server 2003 SP1. Postdeployment, administrators will be working with the new face of Exchange management, Exchange 2007’s ESM (Exchange System Manager).

ESM’s tree-style view is quite different from the 2003 manager. Once you get the hang of it, ESM is more efficient than the previous generation, but getting the hang of it is not a trivial exercise. ESM is also different under the hood. This version has been built entirely on the Exchange Management Shell, which is an extension of the Windows PowerShell scripting environment.

The upside is that folks willing to dig into EMS will be able to write their own scripts to automate tasks. The downside is that Microsoft has made every facet of Exchange management functional within the command-line EMS environment, but not quite every facet functions within ESM. Parts of Exchange Server 2007 SP1 are supposed to address this inequality and make both views equal in terms of management muscle (here again, see “Exchange Server 2007 Service Pack 1 packs plenty”).

Another weakness of the new management scheme is that Microsoft has placed everything inside Exchange itself. Exchange 2003 and earlier versions had MMC (Microsoft Management Console) snap-ins one could deploy to take care of frequent management tasks (including user creation and account management) from a central console outside of Exchange. That’s gone. To manage that stuff going forward, you’ll be using MMC’s Active Directory snap-ins and then clicking back to ESM to finish the job. Not our favorite admin model, and we hope Microsoft figures out a way to keep those often-used functions in a single console somewhere.

On a more positive note, high availability features are hugely improved in Exchange 2007. You’ve got an LCR (Local Continuous Replication) option that simply copies the entire Exchange message store database again on the same machine. However, Microsoft says that LCR isn’t an exact mirror of the repository, as it would be if you used disk mirroring, for example. Instead, LCR uses Exchange APIs so that corrupted data isn’t copied over. This is a decent option for small businesses, and SP1 improves on it by supporting replication to a separate server without requiring clustering.

Enterprises will want to examine CCR (Clustered Continuous Replication), which allows full message store replication to another server node on the network. What’s nice about this feature is that building distributed fail-over architectures now comes with Exchange out of the box. You can even combine LCR and CCR to double-protect critical servers. Frankly, being able to build this kind of reliability straight out of the box makes the 2007 upgrade worthwhile all by itself.

Now for our favorite Exchange 2007 feature: Outlook Web Access 2007. Forget your Daddy’s OWA, because 2007’s version is the one to beat. The new OWA uses Microsoft’s new Web service development tricks to excellent advantage, providing a UI that’s the functional and (almost) visual equivalent of Outlook 2003. Microsoft’s stated design goal was that users would be able to employ every aspect of the Exchange-Outlook relationship via OWA, not just critical features. Admittedly, opening that much of the internal workings of Exchange to Web service developers might give some admins the security willies, but Microsoft claims that controls are in place to protect back-end data. Time will tell on that one.

The space-time continuum has limited us here to only a brief look at Exchange 2007’s large new features array. We’ve discussed the admin goodies and the new Unified Messaging capabilities, but that still leaves out new spam filtering features, compliance reporting features, and more. For those thinking about upgrading to Exchange 2007 from 2003 or even 2000, we suggest heading over to the TechNet knowledge vault and obtaining a trial license as soon as possible. Or hit the TechNet Virtual Labs for some browser-based, hands-on experience. Exchange 2007’s biggest hurdle is its steep learning curve, and most folks need to eat at least part of that before they can effectively plan for an upgrade. Early hands-on evaluation will be key with this one.

Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007 is a breakout communications system for Windows shops, featuring smooth integration of IM, conferencing, and voice telephony. It has great potential to streamline worker interactions within the enterprise, particularly if you’re also running Exchange Server 2007 and SharePoint Server 2007 in the server room and Office 2007 on users’ desktops. Its weaknesses are a substantial price and a full-on assumption that the world runs on Windows.

Other client platforms aren’t much use with OCS, and even organizations that have already installed a SIP PBX will still need to invest in a media gateway to integrate OCS with the existing phone system and to talk to the outside world.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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