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Lync Online UCaaS debuts, but some question if it's enterprise-ready

UC pros have been edgy about UC as a Service (UCaaS), citing concerns around limited customization and features—and even Microsoft may not change their minds with Lync Online.

Unified communications (UC) pros have been edgy about adopting UC as a Service (UCaaS), citing concerns around the lack of rich feature sets and limited customization available to them in cloud-based UC and collaboration services. Even a heavyweight like Microsoft doesn't appear poised to change the minds of large enterprises with the recent release of Lync Online, its Office 365 public cloud services suite.

"When you talk about most of these corporate environments and their concerns about going to the cloud, most of those concerns are centered on customization," said Kevin Rice, global network architect at A.T. Kearney, a global management consulting firm headquartered in Chicago. "The customization that most companies do is not available to you via the cloud offering."

Although Microsoft Corp. is marketing Office 365 for businesses of all sizes, it has acknowledged that small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) with scant IT staff will likely see the most benefits from its public cloud UCaaS suite. Microsoft expects most large enterprises that have already deployed Lync Server—or those that demand rich feature sets and customization—to be less interested in the cloud offering, according to Ziv Fass, a Lync Online product manager at Microsoft.

The customization that most companies do is not available to you via the cloud offering.

Kevin Rice
Global Network Architect, A.T. Kearney

"Definitely, when you're running your own Lync Server deployment on-premises or in a private cloud ... you get much more control and customization, versus a much more standardized Lync Online deployment," Fass said. "Where Lync Online really shines [is in] the midmarket and smaller businesses [that] didn't really have these tools available to them in a compelling way before."

Lack of customization means UCaaS 'not ready for primetime'

However, there's no sign that businesses of any size are eager to adopt cloud-based UC, as only 10% of more than 100 U.S.-based IT pros reported that they plan to adopt public cloud UCaaS within the next year, according to a recent survey sponsored by Azaleos Corp., a managed service provider for Microsoft UC and collaboration applications.

The majority of respondents (58%) cited lack of customization and control as one of the key reasons not to adopt public cloud UCaaS.

"The biggest thing—and this is borne out not only by the survey, but by what we hear from [customers] we're working with—is this lack of customization," said Scott Gode, vice president of product management and marketing at Azaleos. "Companies, especially the big ones, are used to having customization."

Rice is currently migrating A.T. Kearney from a customized Cisco Systems CallManager to the Lync Server 2010, which he has deployed to 3,300 users around the world. He wouldn't expect to achieve the same level of customization he has engineered for audio conferencing and authentication policies with Lync Online.

"It's not ready for primetime, in our opinion, [given] how we use it today," Rice said.

Conversely, Lync Online and SharePoint 2010 Online will make UC and collaboration tools financially feasible for Alex Ivkovic, IT manager at CDF Corp. He plans to deploy both services for the first time to his 175 users within the next three to six months at CDF—a manufacturer of packaging, industrial storage and shipping products based in Plymouth, Mass. He has few concerns around customization and control.

"We didn't have [those services deployed] in the first place, so I don't feel like I'm losing anything," Ivkovic said.

Microsoft: Lync Online not a full PBX replacement for Lync Server

As part of its initial launch, Lync Online will support most of the core UC services: IM, presence, Web conferencing, point-to-point desktop video conferencing. But a major sticking point for large enterprises will be the lack of support for IP telephony—outside of point-to-point calls between two Lync Online users—according to T.J. Keitt, an analyst at Forrester Research.

By contrast, Lync Server is designed to replace dedicated PBXs with its soft PBX capabilities. 

"There's a lot missing from the telephony side that would hinder its usefulness as a UC solution for large enterprises," Keitt said. "It's just a matter of how robust of a Lync implementation the IT department needs because Lync Online isn't a feature-for-feature replacement for Lync on-premises."

Microsoft plans to add PC-to PSTN capabilities "in the near term," but Lync Online voice services will not be as feature-rich as Lync Server, Fass acknowledged. He declined to comment on any possibility of integration with Skype, which Microsoft announced its intention to acquire in May. 

Lync Online and Lync Server can be federated to enable a hybrid deployment model, but the user groups would have to be separated into two different domains. In a hybrid deployment, Lync Online and Lync Server users could participate in point-to-point voice or video calls, but the directories would not be shared across both domains, Fass said. Users who want to communicate across domains must know the other party's email or SIP address, he said.

"Even when we have these [additional voice] capabilities in Lync Online, they're not going to be the full PBX replacement capabilities that are available with Lync Server," Fass said.

What about UCaaS uptime and outages?

Uptime is a concern with any cloud offering, but UC pros are particularly sensitive about the possibility of a mission-critical communications going down—with limited knowledge about and no control over the cause or resolution.

Microsoft's Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS), which Office 365 will replace, suffered a series of widespread outages around the world in May. Scores of frustrated IT pros vented on Microsoft's forums about the lack of support and responsiveness they received, many threatening to drop the service entirely. Microsoft apologized and explained the cause of the outage two days after the first reports.

Although the wounds are still fresh, Forrester's Keitt said Microsoft has learned from the experience and is unlikely to repeat it.

"BPOS was Microsoft's first real foray into delivering things as a service, so it's a learning curve," Keitt said. "They'll continue to learn, just as their most prominent competitor in this space, Google, has learned over time. I wouldn't necessarily say this would be a consistent and ongoing problem for Microsoft."

However, Rice said he saw the BPOS outages as validation for an ongoing initiative to bring more IT services at A.T. Kearney in-house.

"We've insourced a lot of the technologies that were once outsourced or serviced by a different group, and we found the savings were greater and our response times were greater," Rice said. "When we saw that [news about the BPOS outages], that was just confirmation that we're going to continue doing what we're doing until that technology is more mature."

The service-level agreement (SLA) Microsoft is offering with Lync Online and the rest of the Office 365 suite has partially eased Ivkovic's concerns about uptime for CDF Corp. His SLA states that if the uptime is under 99.9%, or 43 minutes per month, he receives a 25% refund; if uptime is below 99%, or 7.2 hours, he receives a 50% refund; and if uptime drops below 95%, or 36 hours, he is completely reimbursed for the month.

"Not that the money is really enough to make up for the downtime, but you know [the magnitude of reimbursements means] Microsoft ... really can't afford do to that very often," Ivkovic said.

Microsoft offers 24x7 support for administrators, but Ivkovic chose to deploy the cloud suite with systems integrator En Pointe Technologies partly because it offered 24x5 support for end users as well. As part of a midsized company, he also feels there is less risk.

"That's one of the reasons I'm rolling this out slowly because I want to see how they do," Ivkovic said. "For a company our size, if we go down for an hour, it's not the end of the universe. I don't like it, but it's not like we lose millions of dollars an hour."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer.

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