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Microsoft's OCS R2 has powerful UC features but won't replace a PBX

Microsoft's latest UC platform, Office Communications Server (OCS) R2, has received good reviews for improved application integration and better features. Though it offers a solid return on investment, it won't replace your PBX anytime soon.

The latest version of Microsoft's unified communications platform, Office Communications Server (OCS) R2, has plenty of impressive new features, but reviews have been mixed. Many industry experts agree that while OCS is a good complementary communications tool, it is still not ready to replace the corporate PBX.

"I love the fact that with OCS ... you're able to control and integrate it with application hooks," said Nick Lippis, president of Hingham, Mass.-based Lippis Enterprises Inc., referring to the ability of the platform to integrate with first- and third-party applications, such as embedding instant messaging or VoIP into a CRM application. "And Microsoft is leading that charge with [its] products."

Lippis said the customer case studies were the highlights of Microsoft's OCS R2 launch day last week. British Telecom (BT) is using those "application hooks" to their potential by integrating OCS with in-house tools used to connect a global team working on locating new avenues for energy development.

The ability to collaborate seamlessly, even in highly specialized software, was impressive, Lippis said.

He added, however, that the customer case studies that Microsoft offered highlight a weakness of OCS: The product is limited to mostly small deployments, even within a global company like BT, because it is not scalable.

A question of size

"The OCS server platform has a scale issue," Lippis said, pointing to the weak hardware partnerships and lower-scale appliances that Microsoft has so far unveiled.

The strong points of OCS -- flexibility, integration, and cost efficiency -- might make it ideal for the SMB market, he said, but larger enterprises simply need a more robust system.

"You can't find 20,000 or 10,000 seats where companies are using this for their communications," Lippis said. The appliances Microsoft is offering are just not yet up to par with offerings from more entrenched vendors like Cisco and Avaya.

This is not entirely unexpected, given that Microsoft's release is only in its second iteration.

After all, said Menalie Turek, principal analyst for Frost & Sullivan, it's usually only on the R3 release that things tend to get solid for Microsoft.

"On a technical level, it's a good R2," she said. "I was pretty impressed by the customer stories, taken with a grain of salt."

OCS R2's New Features
Advanced group call forwarding Instant Message forwarding Conference call hosting
One-click screen sharing Improved application integration and APIs
Better call center routing rules Agent presence
Conference attendant console
Single number calling

Turek was particularly impressed by the broadened feature set, which covered not only what most day-to-day users would need but also more advanced tools for power users and more powerful administration options.

"[Microsoft is] applying the thinking of IM world to voice world," she said. New features include hosted conference calls, group call answering for help centers, and one-click screen sharing.

As that feature set expands, it makes the cost justification for OCS licenses more appealing. Not having a dedicated external conference call host, for example, can save a company thousands over the course of a year, as can any number of other OCS features.

This makes the aforementioned scale issue a bit easier to swallow: An OCS deployment can still pay for itself even if it's used as complementary to -- rather than as a replacement for -- an existing enterprise PBX.

For the typical enterprise, that strategy makes a lot of sense, particularly if its PBX has five or even 10 years until its expected end of life.

"Most companies with thousands of people don't just reach end of life for their PBX," Turek said. "They have a huge infrastructure there. While running two different systems always adds a layer of complexity, the cost savings of running OCS ... are numerous."

That also gives the Microsoft team plenty of leeway to build some mindshare, even as they prepare to scale into the tens of thousands.

"R2 is viewed as complementary to the PBX," said Mike Stacy, former Microsoft employee and director of services for Evangelyze Communications. "With [the next version], I don't think it's a secret that Microsoft wants to replace the PBX."

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