Microsoft Corp. is about to release a long-awaited threat to the biggest office telephony makers in the world.
On Nov. 17, Lync Server, the new family name of what had been known as Office Communications Server (OCS), with be available for purchase with improved IP-PBX (private branch exchange) features to finally challenge Cisco Systems Inc., Avaya Inc., Ottawa’s Mitel Networks and others for control of corporate communications.
“Microsoft has been fighting with one hand behind its back,” says Robert Helm, managing director of research at analyst firm Directions on Microsoft, “and that hand has now come out.”
OCS has had PBX features for several years. However, it was missing two key features that kept IT managers away: Branch office survivability in case the wide area network failed, and support for Enhanced 911 calls.
Those omissions have been fixed. A ‘survivable branch appliance’ can be created that combines a PSTN gateway with a Lync Server Registrar and Mediation Server. Microsoft says this combo gives 5-nine reliability for voice.
“The way we’re hearing a number of companies talk, this is the version they’re willing to test and rolll out as a PBX replacement,” said Brent Kelly, senior analyst and partner at Wainhouse Research.
“If it works the way Microsoft claims it will, and the way we’ve heard some end users who have already gotten it, then our sense is it will truly become a PBX contender.”
Expect many organizations to test the heck out of it internally first in 2011, he added, as well as do trials with trunking providers. Actual implementations will likely start in 2012.
What will be telling, says Helm, will be how many corporate customers Microsoft unveils when Lync officially launches who are running the suite in production, for that will convince buyers more than sales brochures.
Until now, Microsoft has had to market OCS as an add-on to existing PBX systems, said Helm, which he said put a “significant dent in its ability to deliver voice to the enterprise.” Most organizations use it for instant messaging and presence extensions to the Office Communicator client.
For its part, Microsoft isn’t sparing how it feels.
“This is a transformational release,” said Vineet Parmar, Microsoft Canada’s senior product manager for unified communications, “primarily because of the investments we’ve made in enterprise voice.”
In addition to a strong product for replacing existing PBXs, he said, Microsoft will also assure organizations that aren’t ready yet to dump their systems Lync will be a good addition through its instant messaging and conferencing features.
Microsoft is also counting on its extensive network of technology and independent software and integration partners to leverage Lync as they have with OCS to assemble IP telephony solutions.
The company believes it is in a good position to win customers, Parmar said, arguing that organizations using Cisco Call Manager are due for a refresh of what he called a “legacy” PBX, while many users of Nortel Networks’ PBXs – now part of Avaya — are abandoning platform. “Therefore it’s a big opportunity for us,” Parmar said.
Cisco and Avaya refused to comment on Lync’s imminent release. However, when Lync ships they are expected to mention that it still integrates with their products, as OCS does.
Meanwhile, competitors haven’t been idle. In July, for example, Avaya updated what had been Nortel Contact Center and Nortel Communications Server 1000, as well as its flagship Aura unified communications platform for large enterprises.
Although it doesn’t apply to Canada, a new partnership with Skype’s Connect service for IP unified communications systems is another way Avaya is seeking to distinguish itself from Microsoft.
In a bid to beat Microsoft, in August Mitel announced its complete lineup of unified communications applications now runs as virtual appliances in VMware environments. Lync will also be able to be virtualized, particularly on Microsoft’s hypervisor.
One question is how IBM’s Lotus Sametime unified communications suite, marketed so far as a front end to PBXs, will respond.
Lync Server has more than enterprise voice improvements. Changes have been made to make management easier, according to a company blog. For example, Lync has added role-based access control (RBAC) with 11 predefined roles said to cover many common administrative tasks. The server has its own control panel, which replaces the MMC (Microsoft Management Console) used in previous OCS releases.
It also includes DNS load balancing for load balancing for SIP and media traffic.
The Lync desktop client has also been strengthened, merging Office Communicator and Live Communications. Microsoft says it will be easier to embed the Lync client into business applications than before thanks to a new software development kit.
While there is a Microsoft Web site listing U.S. licence prices for Lync, Canadian pricing hasn’t been announced.