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Three Microsoft collaboration tools all Exchange admins should know

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Microsoft Lync: The next big thing in unified communications

Lync 2010 is the third release of Microsoft's unified communications portfolio, and this time the company got it right. Many of the shortcomings in Live Communications Server and Office Communications Server have been addressed. This article introduces four of those improvements in detail and provides an overview of many more, as well as voice deployment options.

The old adage is it takes Microsoft three releases to nail a product. Lync 2010 is the third release of Microsoft's unified communications portfolio -- and it's impressive. Microsoft originally released the product under the name Live Communications Server (LCS), followed by Office Communications Server (OCS). OCS got some traction in the enterprise, but has numerous restrictions limiting broader appeal. With this third release, Microsoft...

addresses many of those shortcomings.

Microsoft Lync 2010 is the client that connects to Lync Server 2010; the hosted version will be known as Lync Online. It is a suite of unified communications tools that includes IM/presence, voice calls, video calls and collaboration tools such as conferencing and sharing content. It tightly integrates with a Microsoft architecture including Exchange, Office and SharePoint.

Lync's unified communications tools tightly integrate together and with other Microsoft applications. The solution is intended to simplify and unify the various communications tools, often a collection of disparate technologies, used in organizations today. In many ways, it does to unified communications what Outlook did to email in the 1990s. Outlook and Exchange were among the first mainstream solutions that combined email, calendaring and contacts into a single integrated application.

Lync is more robust than its predecessors and includes new UC features. Improvements are found in every aspect of the product, including improved integration with both Exchange and SharePoint, support for location awareness, improved unified messaging with transcription, improved contact cards with support for photos, HD video conferencing and call recording. Administrators will find improvements in the management interface, resiliency/high availability features and also in that server virtualization is now also supported. These improvements are very broad, but the following four improvements are among the most significant:

Lync 2010 client: Clients are supported for Windows and Mac, plus there is Web browser access. A Windows Phone 7 release is inevitable. This new client replaces two by combining the Communicator client (used with OCS) and the Microsoft Live client associated with Microsoft's Live online services. This single client can move a simple IM conversation to a voice call to a video call and/or include desktop sharing or a whiteboarding session.

New endpoints: Initially, it seemed Microsoft was determined to kill the telephone. Phones are a big part of the cost of a phone system, and switching to headsets saves a lot of money. But, virtually all VoIP phone systems support softphones, so that didn't really help justifications, plus it turned out people like phones. So now Microsoft Lync users have a greater choice than before when it comes to new endpoints.

Polycom will add new models, including a conference saucer, to its CX line of phones. Aastra will be joining in with new Lync-optimized phones. These companies make two types of devices; USB phones and IP phones. The USB phones look and act like phones but require connection to a Lync licensed desktop. IP phones, slightly more expensive, are stand alone IP phones. Snom offers a third alternative; the company wrote its own software to enable existing Snom phones to work in a Lync deployment.

Branch office appliance: Branch offices were always supported, but if the link went down between offices there was no simple way to provide voice services at the remote office (even extension-to-extension dialing). Lync solves this by specifying a survivable branch appliance (SBA) option that will be initially available from five manufacturers. The SBA integrates with the data center servers including its administration and management. It also interconnects with local trunks and can automatically route calls in or out should the link between sites fail.

Improved telephony features: Lync 2010 will support several new voice features common in most phone systems. Key specific features include call park, malicious call trace and executive private line. A common complaint of OCS was that it didn't support these common features.

Lync isn't a minor upgrade to OCS; it's the release that makes Microsoft a real contender for comprehensive enterprise unified communications services. An online version will also be available in Office 365, Microsoft's new hosted portfolio, though initially voice won't be fully supported in that offering.

About the author:
Dave Michels, Principal Analyst at Verge1, is an independent industry analyst and consultant focusing on IP PBX UC strategies and solutions, particularly covering emerging trends such as cloud telephony, endpoints, mobility, and channel strategies. Dave has a background in enterprise IT and networks and a passion for IP telephony. He is an active blogger on telecom and related topics at www.pindropsoup.com.


This was first published in November 2010

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Essential Guide

Three Microsoft collaboration tools all Exchange admins should know

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