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Microsoft Skype for Business voice demands IT due diligence

With Microsoft's Skype for Business voice posed as a serious option for the enterprise, businesses have to weigh the pros and cons of unplugging their traditional voice systems.

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- In its effort to win increasing numbers of enterprise voice customers, Microsoft is selling its Skype for Business unified communications platform in a variety of standard and customized service plans.  While Skype for Business prices may seem compelling, before buying monthly subscriber licenses, Gartner UCC research director Michael Fasciani said enterprise IT needs to take a hard look at the benefits and risks of switching to Skype for Business voice.

Fasciani walked a roomful of enterprise IT attendees at Gartner's IT Operations Strategies & Solutions Summit on Wednesday through the Skype for Business service bundles that were introduced in December 2015. The bundles, which include voice, IM, Web conferencing, voicemail and email, come with monthly list prices that range from $8 per user at the low end to $35 per user at the high end. The December announcement added PSTN Calling, which enables making calls through the public switched telephone network (PSTN) in North America, and a cloud private branch exchange (PBX) option that offers more advanced call control features. Microsoft's Skype for Business Server is its on-premises UC platform.

Microsoft isn't a traditional force in enterprise telephony, yet its Skype for Business UC suite is part of Microsoft's Office 365, which became the fastest growing cloud business application in 2015, Fasciani said. Microsoft is positioning Office 365 as an enterprise telephony option that can eliminate the need for a traditional phone system. Microsoft's influence is part of what's driving changes in how enterprises buy UC, especially now that Skype for Business users can now make calls through the PSTN.

Because people have changed the way they want to communicate, hard phones and PBX lines are being used less, so the usage and value of the private branch exchange  has dropped over time, Fasciani said, adding that newer IP-PBX's and VoIP servers will also become legacy options going forward.

By using Office 365, enterprises are already entitled to full suites of services, so the decision becomes whether to leverage all of the features that are bundled in including voice and try to actually achieve a unified communications approach rather than a multi-vendor approach, Fasciani said. 

While telecom engineers aren't necessarily comfortable using Skype for Business for enterprise voice over traditional offerings from a vendor like Cisco, most enterprise IT staffs are used to working with Windows Server-based applications, which makes a move to the Skype for Business suite a familiar option.

Microsoft has already captured reasonable market share, and we think that will only grow.
Michael Fasciano research director, Gartner

Fasciani offered an instant survey of session attendees that revealed more than 50% have already deployed Skype for Business or are in the process of deploying it, which mirrors the real-world enterprise UC market.

"Microsoft has already captured reasonable market share, and we think that will only grow now that Office 365 has such a large presence in the market," Fasciani said.

Microsoft has made moving to Skype for Business easy with its licensing options, which include a hybrid strategy that allows some employees to use cloud-based services while others use the on-premises option that has more features, he said. Many large enterprises, the public sector and higher-education will continue to go with a best-of-breed UC approach, while other businesses are starting to favor UC bundles, he added.

"Today only 20% of UC suites are purchased from large vendors like Cisco, Microsoft, Google and IBM," Fasciani said, projecting that UCC license purchases from large UC suite vendors will grow to 50% by 2020.

Skype for Business enterprise voice considerations

If thinking about a switch to Skype for Business for voice, Fasciani said enterprises should consider a number of factors before making the move.

If unified suites win the day, customers may be willing to accept a little bit less in terms of service and function in certain areas in order to get the best of breed in others, he said.

Among the considerations, enterprises need to rethink their contact center strategies if their call centers are already tightly integrated with equipment from other vendors like Cisco or Mitel, where plug-and-play won't be an option with Skype for Business voice. "You'll have to contract with a third party to make it integrate," Fasciani said.

IT also has to be sensitive to C-level problems when voice systems change. "If C-Level [executives] aren't able to get their calls, and the admins get frustrated that the new system doesn't act like the old telephony system, this will fall back on your shoulders," Fasciani said.

Verifying that issue, one attendee whose company switched to Skype for Business voice said the CEO of her company has always been supportive of all things Microsoft but now says all he ever hears from his admin is that his phone doesn't work.

Other Skype for Business voice concerns include how to manage analog devices, common area phones and E911 services. To ease some of those issues, Skype for Business can be hosted by a carrier like AT&T, Verizon or Bell Canada. With that option, providers take the Skype for Business Server edition and enhance it with their own value-add and solve some voice requirements, Fasciani said.

No matter what, enterprises will need to choose their partners carefully when moving to Skype for Business because "chances are this won't be a single vendor solution," Fasciani said.

Skype for Business voice customers have raised issues with the service quality because it is primarily a UC collaboration platform, he said, adding that voice quality expertise comes with maturity and exposure to all conditions that can happen on the network.

If you're thinking about switching to Skype for Business voice, "You have to make sure your network is rock solid if you can't tolerate error, Fasciani said.

The bottom line is that Skype for Business voice is an attractive option for the enterprise, Fasciani said, but there are challenges, and enterprises may have trust issues about whether they're really prepared to unplug their tried and true voice systems and hand them to Microsoft.

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