Microsoft Lync 2010: Unified communications comes of age

Every once in a very long while, I get to review a product that strikes me as a stepping stone toward the future. Microsoft Lync 2010 combines instant messaging, VoIP calling, live meetings, and videoconferencing, but it's more than the sum of these parts. Although Lync integrates with almost any PBX, it puts the PC at the center of communications so effectively that it could send your current phone system packing.

Lync provides clear VoIP calling and crisp videoconferencing without requiring special network accommodations. It integrates with Microsoft Exchange, Microsoft SharePoint, and Microsoft Office, bringing user presence information to Outlook and SharePoint team sites and allowing instant messages and phone calls to be initiated with a click.

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Lync provides a much richer communications experience than any traditional PBX, all at a compelling price. The RFP competition at the Orlando 2010 VoiceCon, for example, tossed out a stunning result: Even when evaluated only on its voice capabilities, Lync was less expensive than the Asterisk-based solution, while still largely fulfilling the RFP. Microsoft argues that many of the RFP requirements missing from Lync (such as automatic callback) are unnecessary in a presence-based, unified communications solution.

It's a fair argument. The days of the hard phone definitely seem to be dwindling as a new generation of users live and breathe software-based communications devices. Looking at my computer's desktop, which shows three different IM connections while beside it my office telephone sits buried under papers, I have to think that traditional telephony vendors are missing the point when trying to duplicate an office telephone in software. Lync really is a step forward into a new era of the combined comfort zone of IM, voice, and video in a single manageable client.

For the review, Microsoft's Lync team visited my lab at the University of Hawaii. The Lync capabilities they demonstrated obviously shared some DNA with the previous Live Communications Server 2005 and Office Communications Server 2007 products, but had just as clearly benefited from the hard knocks experienced by the LCS/OCS user community. At nearly every step in the demo, I saw how different Lync was from its predecessors. It almost seemed like Microsoft had used my list of LCS/OCS gripes as a product road map.

Lync is not only more functional and easier to use, but significantly easier to deploy and manage than the previous generations. Unlike the last pass with OCS, Lync no longer requires integration with Exchange, Active Directory, and SQL Server, but incorporates all the required services into a single installer. Gone also is the multitude of management consoles, replaced by a single Lync console over SSL. Naturally, Lync can still be integrated with Exchange and Active Directory, and it can be scaled across multiple servers to support large environments, but the single-server footprint makes Lync a good fit for smaller businesses as well. (Additionally, Lync is available from the cloud in Office 365.)

For IT organizations concerned about the cost and effort required to set up and maintain VoIP systems, the best part of Lync may be Microsoft's core codecs (RTAudio and RTVideo), which do not require ultralow error rates and hygienically pure networks but are able to handle the wild west of unmanaged public Internet connections. With Lync, there's no need to invest in creating a pristine or isolated network, or to spend megabucks on specialized VoIP test tools.

New communications paradigm

One message that came through loud and clear during the testing is that Lync not a "better PBX" -- instead, it's as much a paradigm shift as Web browsers were to bulletin boards. A reimagined approach to connecting today's far-flung information workers, Lync starts with integrated voice, video, and IM, then builds on these tools to weave a communications workflow through the enterprise with features either not found in today's PBX offerings or are horribly expensive when added to the PBX mix.

For example, voice and videoconferencing can be provisioned as easily as a meeting announcement, without a multipoint conferencing unit (MCU) costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, nor does conferencing require dedicated endpoints or expensive ISDN circuits. Further, the conferencing lobby (aka waiting area) does not require an additional MCU/bridge license, as it does with some conferencing solutions.

Automatic call distribution ("press or say 1 for sales...") is not only built-in, but the announcements are created using a 32-language text-to-speech system. Thus, wildly customized announcements can be created at the drop of a hat, simply by typing them in. The same text-to-speech system also means no more waiting for someone to record a new greeting.

My favorite feature is the ability to apply business rules to communications paths. A great example is the executive who goes into a meeting, but needs one last set of numbers for a budget. Because the executive's presence status is now set to "in a meeting," he or she won't be disturbed. But members of the same workgroup are allowed through to deliver the precious budget numbers.

These sorts of communication rules have been part of the system since LCS, but they are richer and easier to apply in Lync. Features like private line calling and caller prioritization mean the boss or the platinum customer always gets through. Features like role delegation and ring groups ensure that calls don't go unanswered when workers are absent or away from their desks.

Live communications in the real world

A demo by Francois Doremieux of Microsoft seemed to tie all of Lync's advantages up in a bow. Doremieux had his laptop connected behind my SonicWall firewall in the lab without any special rules or accommodations. Yet he was securely logged into his Lync server back in Redmond, and he was able to browse the presence information of his contacts through a federated trust connection.

Although it was nearly midnight in Georgia, we could see that Doremieux's friend Drago Totev was online and available. After a quick IM, we switched to a videoconference. The HD-quality video was stable, and instead of errors causing drops or mosaics, all I saw were tiny pauses. The audio was crystal clear, and I was even able to see the swirls of smoke as Totev took a drag on his cigarette.

Now stop and think: A high-definition videoconference without any special firewall rules, over a connection that transitioned from the Internet2 in my lab to the commodity Internet and finally to the cable modem in Totev's home. Such a scenario may be familiar to Skype users, but it's a game changer for anyone used to traditional videoconferencing over H.323 using Polycom, Tandberg, LifeSize, and so on. Lync is not the first conferencing system to use a "dating service" arrangement for call setup (server connects the endpoints, and after a peer-to-peer connection is established, the server gets out of the way), but it's a superclean implementation.

The Lync client monitors and dynamically optimizes the user experience in the background, using a set of end-to-end tests similar to the traditional MOS (Mean Opinion Score) or R-value tools. It's a much nicer approach than using the expensive VoIP probes provided by some of the VoIP PBX vendors, but still allows for both active call monitoring and unattended off-hours testing with configurable synthetic traffic.

I've been using traditional H.320/H.323 videoconferencing for a good long time, and I'm continuously frustrated by the number of hoops I need to jump through to get it working behind firewalls. After all, it was designed for direct calls using ISDN (broadband dial-up), then subject to tinkering before it would work on the Internet.

Considering how fast Skype is eating the traditional videoconferencing business, it made sense to throw away the H.320/H.323 rulebook and design something specifically for the high-jitter and variable-bandwidth world of the public Internet. Microsoft has clearly done its homework here. Although the video of Drago Totev paused once in a while, it never exploded into the mosaic of colored blocks I've learned to live with on traditional videoconferencing systems.

Lync 2010 is a product that has been a long time coming, and it finally fulfills a promise I've been tracking for nearly a decade. Lync gives me more control over voice communications than my PBX, and it handles video better than my break-the-bank videoconferencing system. It pays attention to privacy, provides ways to separate my private life from work, and reduces the requirement to work from a real office. For companies that no longer provision offices on a one-to-one basis, but make use of "hot desks," Lync is a natural fit.

Don't even think about shopping for a new enterprise phone system without adding Lync to the list of candidates. Take a good hard look, and encourage your organization to download the trial and take it for a ride. This is the first UC system I've worked with that feels like UC should.

This story, "Microsoft Lync 2010: Unified communications comes of age" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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