Lync not enterprise-ready, claims Microsoft ISV-turned-rival

A gap between what Microsoft Corp. promises with Lync’s telephony and what it delivers makes Lync a poor choice as an IP PBX replacement for large organizations, according to a former Microsoft “Most Valuable Professional” who now works for Avaya. A current Microsoft MVP also says that Lync in its current form is a mediocre choice for a large enterprise, but that it works well for the SMB and is really geared toward smaller businesses anyway.

The former Microsoft MVP, Joe Schurman, has lobbed three big complaints against the collaboration platform’s telephony server: 1) Its support for mobile devices is atrocious. 2) It is sold as a software-only solution but really requires a lot of hardware. 3) Microsoft has stuffed Lync full of licensing gotchas.

Schurman currently works as director of Avaya’s Unified Communications; however, until recently, he was one of the more well-known advocates of Microsoft’s Unified Communications products and it is fair to say that Schurman knows Lync well. He is a six-time Microsoft UC MVP who penned two books on Microsoft’s unified communication technology. Microsoft’s MVP program recognizes individuals outside of the company who share their knowledge about Microsoft technologies.

Schurman’s company, Evangelyze Communications, launched in 2008 to sell add-on products for Microsoft’s Office Communications Server (OCS) and its successor, Lync, and is still a Microsoft Gold partner. However, earlier this year Schurman grew so frustrated with Lync’s telephony technology, as well as Microsoft’s SDK and other developer support, that he bailed on Microsoft altogether, he says. Evangelyze is now retooling its unified chat product, SmartChat, and its secure, HIPAA-compliant healthcare version, SmartCare, to support Avaya’s one-X Unified Communications Client instead. Shortly after that decision, Schurman also took a job with Avaya.

Note that Lync’s capabilities as an instant messaging server and a Web conferencing server are not disputed, particularly for companies using Microsoft products like Windows, Exchange, SharePoint and/or Office. However, for a company considering using Lync for voice, the debate centers on how suitable it is and how costly.

“If you’ve already got Lync for instant messaging and Web conferencing, you add one more service to it and you have voice. It is basically free in the sense that you’ve already set up 90 per cent of the stuff,” explains Rand Morimoto, Microsoft MVP, president of San Francisco-based consultant company Convergent Computing and a Lync user. “If you already own the Web conferencing piece, you already own the enterprise license for Lync to do voice.” (Morimoto also pens the Secrets of Windows Back Office Servers blog for Network World’s Microsoft Subnet.)

Yet Schurman contends that Lync is neither low-cost nor easy to implement at enterprise scale, and he makes some valid points, according to information sent to Network World by Microsoft.

Lync’s lack of support for mobile clients, and for platforms outside of Windows, is an issue for the enterprise, says Morimoto, though he doesn’t expect the issue to last. While Lync’s softphone can be implemented on Windows XP and higher, it can’t yet run on Windows Phone 7. Morimoto’s company uses Lync as its PBX to support Convergent Computing’s 100 employees, 70% of whom are road warriors.

Earlier this month, Microsoft announced that the long-awaited Macintosh client will be available in October. Morimoto expects a Lync client to ship for the Mango release of Windows Phone 7, too, and he’s seen demonstrations of iPhone/iPad clients. Regarding Android, BlackBerry and other platforms, a Microsoft spokesperson told Network World that “Lync will be available for WP7, Android, iPhone, Nokia, RIM and Symbian, as we described at our launch last year, at Enterprise Connect last March and at WPC in July. We are on track to deliver Lync mobile support by the end of the year.”

As for a large-scale Lync telephony deployment requiring access to a lot of hardware, this, too, can be true for some deployments. Microsoft says a typical small-scale deployment will use up to three servers while the company’s large-scale reference architecture uses 14 servers. However, these do not need to be dedicated machines. Lync’s servers can be run in virtual machines, Microsoft says, including Hyper-V, VMware and any other Microsoft-certified hypervisor. (Reference materials are available here.)

Morimoto points out that Lync in the SMB market can be rolled out with as few as two servers. The need for separate servers “depends on scale,” he says. “For your minimum configuration where you’re doing in-house instant messaging, Web conferencing, external IM/Web conferencing, your minimum buy is two servers. You have to have an internal server and a server on the edge. They can be virtualized. In our environment I have three servers running Lync. I have one internal server running IM/Webconf, an edge server and a voice server — all virtualized.”

If a customer runs Lync Standard Edition, “they need three servers total, two of which are optional: an edge server (optional, which is in the DMZ, and enables remote access) and the XMPP Gateway (which is optional), and Standard Edition Server (everything else),” says Microsoft.

Microsoft says that an enterprise can use a setup similar to Convergent Computing’s: one or more edge servers in the DMZ (although Microsoft says this separate server is optional), back end servers (SQL databases) and front end servers (for almost all the other features or “roles” that Lync offers).

But here’s the catch: With the Enterprise Edition, only some of Lync’s features, called “server roles,” can be colocated on the same physical servers (reference architecture is here). According to Microsoft, many specific server roles “must each be deployed on a separate computer.” This includes Director, Edge Server, Trusted Application Server, Group Chat and others. Using Microsoft’s reference architecture of 14 servers, Lync can support “upwards of 80,000 users,” Microsoft says.

But there’s another catch, too. For such large-scale deployments, Lync Enterprise Edition “requires the use of load balancers,” a Microsoft spokeserpon says. “Enterprise Edition Servers are deployed in ‘pools’ which support up to 10,000 users per server and 80,000 users per pool.” (Reference here.)

Plus, Microsoft recommends that Exchange be run on its own servers, too.

For the SMB, Microsoft says the Standard Edition supports up to 5,000 users. It also says that the Standard Edition supports failover, contrary to popular belief that it doesn’t. “This is new with Lync: users fail-over from one Standard Edition Server to a second and failover does not require load balancers.”

Morimoto points out that these support numbers don’t tell the whole story for telephony services, either. The configuration is really dependent on how many users can be expected to be on the phone concurrently. Morimoto will confidently put 5,000 users on a single Lync Instant Messaging server and 2,000 people on a single Web conferencing server.

For telephony, he says he typically figures on one server for every 100 concurrent users. On average, Morimoto estimates that for many companies, about 10 per cent of the employees are on the phone at any given time, meaning one server can likely handle 1,000 users. Ergo, a company with 5,000 people, would likely need five servers. On the other hand, with virtualization, this doesn’t necessarily mean purchasing a lot of new hardware. “A company with that many people is going to be in three or four buildings. So you will probably have a server in every building anyway,” he describes.

The upshot is that running a multitude of Lync’s features means needing access to a good number of physical servers, plus load balancers. Lync will also need Microsoft-approved optimized SIP phones or Windows desktops to function as full-featured phones (with Mac support coming soon).

Another legitimate complaint Schurman lobbed at Lync was that it was far more expensive than users expected. Like every other Microsoft product, a discussion about Lync licensing feels like falling down a rabbit hole. Lync has a reputation of being free because when Lync was introduced, users who had already had the Microsoft Office Communications Server Enterprise client access license and a Software Assurance agreement, got the Lync Plus CAL for free.

That deal no longer exists, although most Microsoft customers will not have to pay extra for the Lync Enterprise Edition CAL. It is included in the Enterprise CAL Suite, which covers Windows Server, Exchange, SharePoint, System Center and Forefront as well as Lync.

However, when using the Lync Enterprise Edition, other licensing may apply, such as a requirement to license SQL Server. Microsoft confirms that the Enterprise Edition uses SQL Server for the backend server and therefore Microsoft requires Lync users to have a valid SQL Server to cover that server.

Again, SMB could be spared as “Lync Server Standard Edition users need no separate SQL license,” a Microsoft spokesperson says.

In all fairness, these drawbacks in Enterprise Lync have caused many more untrue rumors to circulate about the product, too.

Microsoft has dismissed some of them: Lync does support site-to-site failover. In a well-planned system, if one server role goes down, the others need not be affected. And Direct SIP, Microsoft’s interconnection with PBX systems, supports multiple vendors’ products, Microsoft says. These include Cisco and Avaya.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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