Microsoft Lync telephony: Ready to be a PBX replacement?

Microsoft Lync telephony features have advanced to the point where the company is touting the UC platform as a potential PBX replacement. Are enterprises buying in?

Without question, Microsoft Lync 2010 is a great conversation starter, but opinions vary on whether it’s great for conversations. Microsoft boldly announced Lync nearly a year ago as, among other things, a PBX replacement, but at its heart it remains a presence and IM solution.

Lync may be a new brand, but the product goes back to 2003, when Microsoft originally released it as Live Communications Server (LCS), and then renamed it several years later as Office Communications Server (OCS). The product has seen major improvements with each release, to the point where some tout Microsoft Lync telephony features as a potential PBX replacement.

As with most Microsoft business solutions, Lync uses a server and client access license (CAL) architecture. It has a standard CAL for its IM and core features, and then offers two additional CALs to expand its feature functionality. The Plus CAL introduces enterprise-class Microsoft Lync telephony into the platform. Additionally, complete solutions typically involve multiple servers and various devices from a growing network of Lync certified products that include IP phones, headsets, webcams, gateways and even laptops.

On its TechNet blog, Microsoft claimed that Lync is gaining recognition as a leading UC and telephony vendor by analysts, specifically from Gartner, which has rated Lync very favorably in three separate reports. It is a shame that Microsoft did not use this blog post to address the cautions Gartner identifies in these reports. Gartner also recently published new research that shows that adopters rarely rely upon Lync as their sole solution for telephony.  

Microsoft Lync telephony: No track record as a PBX replacement

Microsoft and the CIO have enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship over the years, but that trust is not automatically extended to voice. Microsoft needs to earn that trust, and there are some concerns around Lync. Each of the upgrades -- from LCS to OCS to Lync -- required considerable effort.  Each version of the product involves some changes to the architecture. Once the product matures, upgrades will be fairly simple. But right now, an upgrade requires a major rethink typically followed by design changes such as server roles, features, licensing and the number of servers. Many organizations are still running OCS because the upgrade to Lync is nontrivial. 

Lync requires quality, reliable and inexpensive broadband, which isn’t always available. Key applications such as contact center solutions are not part of the core product. The endpoint selection, though growing, is still limited, particularly around wireless options and specialized consoles. Also, Lync is competitively behind when it comes to smartphone clients -- still no support for the iPhone, Android or even Windows Phone 7.  

But Microsoft Lync telephony is only one option on the platform. If it isn’t the right option for an enterprise today, that’s OK with Microsoft. It is quick to talk about how Lync integrates with existing voice solutions and promises major productivity gains with IM and collaboration. For the CIO, it might be the right call financially, as the incumbent voice solution may still have time left on the books. Microsoft doesn’t mind this strategy as it is confident in Lync’s improvements. Lync for Mac recently went GA, and the Lync team promised that exciting updates are coming soon. Lync sans voice could be the proverbial camel’s nose in the tent.

Microsoft Lync telephony: Microsoft-centric approach a liability to multi-vendor UC approach

Lync’s key strength is its liability. It is part of a Microsoft-centric solution. Unified messaging is centered on Exchange. Skills search is centered on SharePoint. The security structure relies on Active Directory, and the client derives much of its value from Office. For many, this complete integration into Microsoft business solutions makes Lync so powerful and intuitive for many customers. Other companies that prefer using a heterogeneous vendor environment to achieve superior functionality in unified communications reject Lync’s reliance on a Microsoft-centric architecture. Particularly with so many new cloud based offerings, IT organizations need to understand how the pieces all interconnect.

Many enterprises are exploring Microsoft Lync as a way to consolidate telephony spending.

 “Our customers are concerned that ongoing investments in their [VoIP] telecommunications infrastructure no longer make sense. They want to learn more about Lync,” said Michael Nelson, principal of Integrated Access, a UC solution provider in California that partners with Avaya, Interactive Intelligence, Cisco, AudioCodes and Microsoft. Nelson said his company is seeing a major increase in activity around Microsoft Lync: “Microsoft has the attention of the C-Levels, and they are asking about Lync”.

For organizations with Microsoft infrastructure, Lync pilots are very simple and inexpensive to perform. The Lync client is included in the Office Professional Plus 2010 suite, and the Server CALs are included in the Enterprise CAL Suite. UC managers can set up pilot Lync servers on spare hardware and leverage their existing Microsoft infrastructure -- including Office, Exchange, SharePoint and Active Directory --to evaluate the solution.  UC managers will find pilot projects with other UC vendors tricky because they often require several new components for a complete evaluation.

From a marketing or sales point of view, Microsoft has several advantages over its competitors, especially with its bundling options. Providing the majority of the licensing in popular bundles puts pressure on organizations to at least evaluate Lync. Even easier, some Office365 options include Lync Online. This hosted version is not positioned as a PBX replacement, but does provide rich conferencing capabilities and a fairly inexpensive way to explore what Lync offers.

If the organization communicates with other firms that also use Lync, they can easily federate, or interconnect, their systems. Most federation solutions, including Lync, support like-to-like federation, but Lync federates with other Lync systems without additional license requirements. It allows two organizations to immediately communicate via IM, voice or video -- including conferencing and collaboration sessions.

Conferencing, both audio and Web, is a particularly strong area for Lync. That pocket also tends to offer a big part of the ROI.  Even without the Plus CALs, voice is supported between Lync clients, and it offers an effective solution for collaboration. Lync conferences are tightly integrated with the Outlook Calendar and Office. Plus, Lync conferences supports a larger number of concurrent users without any direct incremental charge.

Using Lync for enterprise voice requires the Plus CALs. Users upgrading from OCS R2 with software assurance are given a “grandfather” right to Lync’s Plus CALs, but only temporarily. Additionally, customers piloting voice will need endpoints and usually gateways. Lync requires multiple -- physical or logical -- servers.

About the author:

David Michels holds 20 years of hands-on experience in telecom. As president of Verge1 Consulting, Michels specializes in PBX strategies for the end user and manufacturer, as well as cloud services, SMB voice, channel development, unified communications and social media. Michels has appeared at hundreds of industry trade shows, including VoiceCon, Interop, and TCA. He maintains a personal blog at www.pindropsoup.com.

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