Lync-ing up… Expert views on Microsoft’s unified comms contender

Is Lync the little engine that could? Heather Wright dials up some expert views on Microsoft’s unified communications contender.

It’s not very often you get to call Microsoft the ‘new kid on the block’, but when it comes to unified communications that’s exactly how many see the tech giant.

True, the company has dabbled in the space for a number of years – Microsoft Communicator was released back in 2003, after all.

But now, more than a decade down the track, Microsoft seems to be gaining some real traction with its offering, available both as the Lync Server platform and a hosted service with Lync Online.

Audrey William, Frost & Sullivan ANZ head of research, ITC Practice, says she’s seeing increasing numbers of organisations evaluating and asking questions of system integrators and telcos about Lync’s advantages and how it can be used for voice, instant messaging and presence.”

“Lync adoption is definitely growing. When proposals are going out, Microsoft is definitely on that shortlist now. Whether they are winning them, against some strong contenders, I don’t know, but they are definitely on the shortlist.

“However, the interesting thing we’re seeing is that adoption is still with the medium and small organisations, rather than the top end of town such as banks and government organisations, who are remaining largely with the traditional voice vendors.” Cisco remains the key competitor for Lync, she notes.

“But there are also others including Alcatel Lucent, Mitel, Avaya and Shortel. They have robust voice, video and call centre applications.” And it’s on the call centre front that William believes Lync is still ‘falling short’.

“Other [competitors] are not only strong on the unified communications front, but also for contact centre. Lync doesn’t have that.” Another limitation lies in the lack of PBX capabilities in Lync Online, although Lync Server does act as a credible PBX alternative.

At the 2014 Lync Conference, Microsoft did, however, reveal that it expects to add PSTN calling to Lync Online, which will enable users to dial standard telephone numbers and receive calls from the PSTN. It’s a move that has been applauded by analysts, and no doubt many Lync Online users.

Brian Riggs, Ovum principal analyst, enterprise services, says the addition will be ‘a significant improvement’. “Lync Online customers have long demanded PSTN calling, but Microsoft has struggled to deliver it,” he wrote in a blog in February.

He noted that PSTN calling would make Lync more similar to, and more competitive with, other hosted telephony services. William says while companies are adopting Lync for instant messaging and presence, it isn’t necessarily winning on the voice front.

“Some companies still want the superior PBX functionality and call centre functionality and they’re not sure if the whole Lync experience with voice is correct.

“It’s just a journey Microsoft is going through. In the past a lot went for the instant messaging and presence. Small and medium companies are starting to embrace the voice aspect though.”

True integration

Aaron Olphert, Kordia chief technology officer, says Kordia has got a lot of customers taking up its Microsoft Lynccertified OnKor offering, with a diverse range of clients including Fonterra, Chorus and Stevensons.

“It is a true unified communications platform for their business, which is quite cost effective. “And most New Zealand businesses, regardless of their size, use Microsoft predominantly for their desktop applications.

“Lync, apart from providing voice, seamlessly links in and provides a truly unified experience. You go to call someone and you can see their status and what they’re doing from what’s in their calendar. Once you’ve called someone, you can share your desktop to collaborate with a click of the button…”

Other benefits he lists include status, messaging, desktop sharing, voice and videoconferencing from one application; enabling mobility and remote workers; being great for collaboration between small teams through to companywide announcements; and easy federation with other companies using Lync.

He says common feedback from Kordia customers moving to Lync include positive comment about the integration of unified communications and the existing operating environment being relatively seamless, the user interface being intuitive and Lync not being seen as a separate system. “It is just part of how we work on a daily basis,” he says.

Check it off

But both William and Olphert caution that there are checks to make before implementing Lync, in either of its forms.

“For a Lync deployment to be successful, you have to go through a stringent and strong network assessment,” William says.

“The network has to be thoroughly tested. You are going to be running voice over it and that takes a very different approach and requires a superior quality network to work.”

Olphert agrees and says there are a number of important things companies – especially medium to large companies and those looking at multi-site deployments – need to consider.

His checklist:

• Does my current WAN provider support quality of service to enable data, voice and video traffic to co-exist and have appropriate priority?

• Have I engaged a suitable, qualified Lync specialist/integrator to scope, design and implement the transition to Lync?

• Is my current Microsoft environment on the correct version/release to enable Lync?

• Is my LAN infrastructure suitable and does it have port capacity to support unified communications users?

• Do I have a relationship with a Microsoft Lync certified SIP provider to ensure Microsoft will warrant my deployment?

• How will I get engagement across the business to adopt the change from traditional phone solution to unified communications?

• Do I need headsets or desk phones and what brand will I purchase (these don’t go cheap)?

To that list, William also adds that change management and rigorous training for staff is also essential. “It is a different experience for users, so change management is required.

“Users won’t be coming in and picking up a PBX phone. The way they dial out using a softphone is very different and so on. There has to be an emphasis on training for staff.”

Julian Rivers-Smith, 2talk senior VoIP engineer, says he believes Lync is moving simply because it is ‘packaged with a lot of Microsoft server products’. However, he acknowledges that 2talk is also seeing quite a few customers interested in Lync, predominantly for voice.

“And we are compatible with it. It has a lot of functionality similar to our cloud PBX, but it has limitations – it only works TCP for example.

“But the biggest difference between Lync and where I believe the market is going is its pushing back into the hardware field, requiring a server locally while the market is moving to cloud-based.

“In that sense I think it’s a bit of an aged product.”

Even Rivers-Smith however acknowledges that for people using Microsoft’s other offerings, Lync can be ‘great’.

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