Lync squeezes gap between Microsoft and UC rivals

Small and medium-sized businesses can dramatically cut down communication expenses by deploying Lync 2010, a unified communications and collaboration system capable of both cloud and on-premise functionality released Tuesday by Microsoft, according to the Redmond-based software company.

Lync 2010, which replaces the company’s Office Communications Server (OCS), gives users the option to supplant corporate PBXs (private branch exchange phone systems), centralized call controls, and other phone features, reducing the overall number of devices that firms need to maintain, according to Vineet Parmar, product manager, unified communications for Microsoft Canada.

“Lync will absolutely benefit SMBs because it will enhance video conferencing and online collaboration, thereby reducing travel expenses and productive hours lost in commute,” Parmar said. “From an IT standpoint, Lync also reduces complexity and maintenance cost by cutting down the layers of hardware needed to support unified communication (UC).”

Lync Server 2010 replaces OCS Server 2007. On the client side, Lync 2010 replaces Office Communicator 2007 R2. The Web client is now known as Lync Web App instead of the former Office Communicator Web Access. Microsoft’s communications service is now known as Lync Online, replacing Office Communications Online.

Lync competes with UC systems from Avaya, Cisco and IBM. Microsoft’s Lync pricing plan indicates that Lync Server 2010 Standard Edition will cost $699, and Enterprise Edition, $3,999.

Lync introduces a new management server for Microsoft’s UC and collaboration platform. The server is called Central Management Server, and it removes settings for Live Communications Server and Office Communications Server from Active Directory (AD) so customers don’t have to change the AD schema.

The new server is meant to make deployment less daunting, according to Parmar. “Lynch was designed not as a rip-and-replace system but rather a platform you can incorporate into your operations bit-by-bit at your own pace.”

In a briefing held at the Microsoft Canada headquarters in Toronto, the company demonstrated Lync by conducting a videoconference with Douglas Besse, executive vice president and CIO of Creation Technologies, a Vancouver-based electronic manufacturing firm. Besse was calling in from the company’s operations in China. Creation Technologies has been trying out Lync for several months before its formal release.

Although the conference went well, the quality of the video was grainy and motion was choppy. For a moment there was some feedback noise. Overall the videoconference experience was reminiscent of a Skype video call.

A spokesperson for Microsoft later told that the fedback sound was caused by a journalist signing in on the call by using both Internet and phone. The spokesperson also said Lync supports HD video as long as the computer used has a quad core processor. The machine used by Besse for the conference was a personal laptop that did not support HD, the spokesperson said.

Besse, however, found Lync ideal for supporting the communication and collaboration need’s of Creation Technologies’ diffuse workforce operating across five locations in Canada, seven in the United States, and two in China.

“Lync helps us connect to the right people at the right time and facilitates quick decision making,” he said.

For instance, Basse said, people from separate locations who are working on the same project can quickly communicate in a variety of ways. Lync enables users to send IMs (instant messages), switch to voice conferencing or videoconferencing, and then send files to each other’s desktop or collaborate and manipulate whiteboards online, he said.

Lync will allow certified desk phones to switch a connection to a wireless device in mid-call without disrupting the conversation, said Parmar.

Near 24-hour availability is critical for many organizations, according to Dick Jensen, director of technology for Toronto-based law firm Goodmans LLP. “Lawyers for instance need to be available via their smartphones even when they’re on vacation just in case something crucial develops in a deal they’re handling.”

The crop of young talent entering the workforce are also increasingly demanding UC tools, according to Dr. Kevin Stolorick, associate director and research associate at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto.

“There’s a generation entering the workforce for whom communicating through IM, using VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol), and being on social networks is second nature,” he said. “The availability of these tools in the workplace will be a big factor for them.”

For his part, Besse favours how Lync streamlined his company’s UC system. “Prior to Lync, we had three layers of hardware and five layers of software for audio conferencing. It would take 10 to 15 minutes just to get a meeting started.”

For a dispersed company that relies on UC, the complexity was costly in terms of IT support and productivity. “Now we have a single UC platform. There’s no need to call in a technician and we can switch from audio to video to file sharing with a single mouse click,” he said.

But just in case there is a need for a subject expert, Lync supports searching for experts with particular qualifications within SharePoint. So if an expert in a given area is needed to address questions during a SharePoint session, Lync could track one down.

Bridging the VoIP gap

At least one unified communications expert however cautioned that user should make it a point to determine from their value added reseller what existing hardware or software needs to be replaced or upgraded when a new UC system is being installed.

“From a customer point-of-view, it’s important to know what OS, desktop, network or POE (power over Ethernet) components need to be upgraded or replaced,” said Roberta Fox, senior partner at Newmarket, Ont.-based Fox Consulting.

The imformation, she said, would give users a better picture of the cost involved in the UC emplementation.

Lync’s release brings Microsoft’s UC and collaboration (UC&C) offerings up to par in some areas with competitors – though it doesn’t slingshot past them, according to Art Schoeller, an analyst with Forrester Research.

The addition of VoIP features such as support for E911, better call control, and survivable branch infrastructure fill gaps that existed in Lync’s predecessor. “Some customers will now be ready to look at Lync” for telephony, he said.

Lync supports E911 so emergency responders can fix the location of callers using Lync. OCS did not support E911.

It also maintains local VoIP dialing and voicemail until the connection to the main server is restored. This, too, had been a major gap in Microsoft’s telephony platform keeping it from challenging PBXs. Lync will also allow certified desk phone to switch and drop a connection to a wireless device in mid call without disrupting the conversation, said Parmar.

Lync Server 2010 has the capability to switch the wide area network (WAN) links used to carry communications among branches of a business. If the primary IP link fails, the Survivable Branch Appliance reconnects the branch with the outer world via the traditional public switched phone network.

“Microsoft is much closer to the point where a customer could decide to use Lync for voice and expect reliability and business-class capabilities,” said Melanie Turek, an analyst with Frost & Sullivan.

Other vendors – Avaya, Cisco, IBM and Siemens – do better in video, social networking and collaboration with their UC&C platforms, Turek says, but those features are less urgent needs than voice for most customers. Microsoft still has time to develop Lync capabilities in these areas because customers aren’t ready to adopt them wholesale. “Microsoft had to spend a lot of time getting parity with voice,” she said.

(With notes from Tim Greene, Network World US)

Nestor Arellano is a Senior Writer at Follow him on Twitter, read his blog, and join the IT Business Facebook Page.

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