Microsoft Lync 2010: Unified communications comes of age

Microsoft Lync 2010 combines instant messaging, VoIP calling, live meetings, and videoconferencing, but it's more than the sum of these parts.

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.

A new approach to communications

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.

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