Microsoft’s Lync server must prove it lives up to hype

Customers eying Microsoft’s Lync 2010 unified communications server need to take a step back and evaluate what’s really new and whether they need it right now, down the road or not at all, experts say.

On the one hand, the company offers multi-modal communications that are well integrated with its extremely popular business and collaboration products Office, SharePoint and Exchange — a combination that could lead to more efficient ways of transacting business.

Lync signals the emergence of communications embedded in business-process applications such as Office and SharePoint, leading to a future when it is embedded in more proprietary software, says Don Van Doren, a principal in Unicomm Consulting, which advises on UC and collaboration (UC&C) technologies.

“Microsoft is doing what a disruptive competitor does — rethinking what communication is,” he says.

On the other hand, Lync isn’t as fully featured as competitive products in some aspects of communications, such as the PBX, and has yet to prove that major telephony gap-fillers new with Lync are stable and reliable.

Customers likely won’t trust Lync as a PBX without proof, so it may have to be on the market for a couple of years and proven with large scale deployments by early adopters to win over business telecommunications decision makers. “Telecom tends to be conservative. I’d like to see deployments with 5,000 to 10,000 users,” says Art Schoeller, an analyst with Forrester Research.

Perhaps to offset this perception, during the formal launch of Lync 2010 last week Microsoft vice president Gurdeep Singh Pall declared that PBXs are in decline. “The era of the PBX, folks, is over,” he says.

Even if PBXs are on their way out, the company needed to show that it can handle traditional corporate phone traffic, says Melanie Turek, an analyst with Frost & Sullivan. “Microsoft had to spend a lot of time getting parity with voice,” Turek says. “They’re much closer to the point where a customer could decide to use Lync for voice and expect reliability and business-class capabilities.”

With such parity, more customers will consider Lync along with offerings from its competitors such as Avaya, Cisco, IBM, Siemens and others, which Turek says do better than Microsoft in video, social networking and collaboration with their UC&C platforms.

Last week, Microsoft highlighted what it considered the significant new capabilities, many of which other vendors have had for some time, Turek says. Matching them feature for feature, though, may not be most important to customers.

In reality, most businesses use what Turek calls best of breed for communications, messaging and collaboration, so they may use a mix of products from multiple vendors. With sizeable investments in PBXs and IPBXs, customers will be reluctant to rip and replace that gear. As a result, customers may do careful evaluation and delay decisions three to seven years as they wait for their existing infrastructure to live out its usefulness, she says.

Microsoft touts that Lync has an integrated suite of collaboration and messaging tools, but its competitors such as Avaya and Cisco recognize its popularity and also integrate with Microsoft offerings, Schoeller says. “If they buy into Microsoft’s suite and there’s more integration out of the box, that’s good,” he says. “I’m not going to say it’s a dramatic advantage. It’s an incremental not a dramatic improvement when you stay within the suite.”

Even Microsoft admits this is so. If a customer decommissioned PBXs from another vendor and adopted Lync instead, the major advantage would be getting rid of the complexity of a multivendor network, not getting additional functionality through better integration, says Chris Capossela, senior vice president of Microsoft’s information worker product management group.

Feature comparison among vendors’ products may be off the point, Van Doren says. “I’d say don’t worry about that so much,” he says. “Disruptive products always look inferior if you compare them to traditional products because they’re pushing out into new spaces.”

For example, an office worker processing an insurance claim within a proprietary claims application might need expert help with part of the claim. Within that application a skill-search button could find someone with the right expertise who is also available, he says. “It’s not a buddy list. You don’t need a particular person, you need an expert. Presence will find the right person,” he says.

Also important to customers, Van Doren says, is Microsoft’s lengthy partner list that will attract businesses that don’t like being locked into buying all their hardware from their UC&C vendor. During the Lync launch, Microsoft announced 70 devices optimized for Lync and certified by Microsoft as meeting its standards. Among Lync’s certified gear are Juniper routers and switches, but also PCs from HP, Dell and Lenovo, Logitech HD Webcams, Dialogic survivable branch appliances, new cameras, IP phones and display devices introduced by Polycom and on and on. There’s even a Lync cloud service from Verizon.

More important than an pack of Lync products is interoperability between Lync and other UC&C vendors’ software platforms, says Don Jaycox, CIO of DLA Piper U.S., a law firm with 70 offices in 29 countries.

In the United States, DLA Piper has pretty much standardized on Cisco communications gear, but its European offices rely more on OCS/Lync, he says. So if he wants to place a video call with someone in a U.S. office he fires up Cisco Unified Personal Communicator (CUPC), but if the person is in the United Kingdom, he’ll use Office Communicator (now Lync 2010 client).

“Both of them work,” Jaycox says. “But today I need to choose between those two clients. What I really want is way to make all these things play together nicely.”

So hem would like an attorney in the United States using Cisco to be able to instant message an attorney in the United Kingdom using Lync, convert that to a video call and then add a whiteboard session and have the two platforms interoperate. It’s not just for convenience within the firm; it’s for dealing with the firm’s legal clients.

Conferencing in clients now is virtually impossible because the clients could be using anyone’s UC&C platform. “You can’t control all these elements,” he says. “I want them to federate across all [vendors’] platforms.” But Lync and the other vendors’ UC&C platforms aren’t there yet.

Much of Lync’s success may depend on how individual customers look at phasing in UC&C, says Osterman Research in its white paper “Microsoft Lync Server 2010 and the Unified Communications Market.” The infrastructure customers already have and the new capabilities they need immediately will have an influence.

“For example, should an organization use its existing PBX as the starting point and then add capabilities like video conferencing, e-mail, mobility and presence into that infrastructure? Should it begin with its e-mail system and then slowly add IM/presence, audio conferencing and then finally enterprise voice into the mix? Should it choose a middle route and preserve its e-mail and PBX infrastructures as they are now and simply “glue” them together to provide unified communications capabilities?” Osterman asks.

With that kind of thinking, customers need not worry about whether Lync is groundbreaking, but whether it provides now what they need and has features to cover what they’ll need down the road. “The issue is it doesn’t need to be cutting edge if customers aren’t there yet,” Turek says.

Schoeller agrees. “This is collaboration, not some application you have to use,” he says. So from Microsoft’s point of view, it may make sense to respond to customer wishes rather than blaze too far ahead of their demands. “What if they build them and users don’t come?” he asks.

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