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Six objections to Microsoft Office Communications Server

After the announcement applause dies down, hard questions remain

Remember the old philosophical puzzler: If a tree falls down in a forest and nobody is there to hear it, are we sure it made a sound? With Tuesday's launch of Office Communications Server 2007, Microsoft is trying to render centuries of existential debate moot. Because as years of hype around OCS show, when Microsoft launches a new product, everyone wants to hear about it.

Today's ceremony in San Francisco, which will be keynoted by soon-to-retire chief software architect Bill Gates, will feature dozens of announcements by telecom vendor partners, as well as testimonies from 155 companies that have beta-tested OCS.

True to its Type-A nature, Microsoft has been preparing five years for today's launch, according to Mike Gotta, an analyst at the Burton Group, who wrote in his blog that it's "one of the most faultlessly executed multiyear strategies that I have seen from a vendor in some time."

OCS, the successor to Live Communications Server (LCS) 2005, adds key features such as Internet telephony and Web conferencing. Some say that on technical merits alone, those changes don't justify the attention OCS is getting.

OCS is a mere "refresh and rebrand" of LCS, said Nora Freedman, an analyst at IDC.

"The importance of this news is mainly that it's Microsoft," said Zeus Kerravala, an analyst at Yankee Group Research in Boston.

Microsoft being Microsoft, many are pinning their hopes on OCS to kick-start the unified communications (UC) market into gear -- something even formidable names such as Cisco Systems, Nortel Networks and others have yet failed to do.

That will help "all boats rise (even those that are delivering competitive alternatives)," Gotta said.

Yet, various concerns -- some legitimate, some pure FUD from Microsoft's co-opetition -- remain. Here are some six examples.

1) Should I entrust my telephone system to a software vendor?

With LCS, Microsoft relied on Siemens Communications Inc. to provide the voice telephony component of the software. But with OCS, Microsoft is doing VOIP itself, an area in which competitors charge it has little history or credibility.

"Microsoft has significantly underestimated the amount of work it takes to build a new voice system," said Mark Straton, senior vice president of global marketing at Siemens, which has since realigned itself with IBM's competing Sametime software. Microsoft is being "somewhat naive."

Microsoft is also minimizing the likely degradation in audio quality as users are switched from conventional PBXes to VOIP-based ones, said Paul Lopez, general manager of marketing at NEC Unified Solutions.

"When you go from a 64Kbit/sec. circuit to a highly compressed 5Kbit/sec. stream, it's like going from a CD to an MP3," Lopez said. "Users may be getting desensitized to what true toll-quality voice should be, but audio engineers will tell you there is a big difference."

Microsoft maintains, however, that OCS' adaptive codec, combined with tools such as the Quality of Experience Monitoring (QOEM) server, which lets system administrators monitor and fix sound quality, will provide as good or better-sounding calls than conventional PBXes.

One OCS beta tester, Lionbridge Technologies, agrees. A full-time user of LCS since 2006, the software localization firm upgraded to OCS nine months ago.

Today, its 4,300 employees -- scattered in 50 offices worldwide -- make 400,000 VOIP minutes worth of calls per month, according to Oyvind Kaldestad, IT director.

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"People still use their regular phones. But we are encouraging them go to OCS for all internal calls," Kaldestad said.

The voice quality through OCS is pretty good, Kaldestad said, and better than the regular phone network between many of its international offices.

Lionbridge did not roll out any additional networking gear to support VOIP, though it did set its routers to prioritize VOIP traffic. That was only needed for employees in offices with heavy Internet use, said Kaldestad.

2) Can I really expect some Microsoft software running on a Windows box to be as reliable as a PBX?

With OCS, users can centralize what were formerly hundreds of scattered PBX boxes onto just one or two servers. That can simplify management and make it easier to fix things when problems arise. The flip side is that if a problem with the OCS software occurs, the chances of a "catastrophic failure" bringing down all of the phones companywide is much higher than with an individual PBX.

"If you're all IP and SIP trunking and you lose connection to your carrier, that's not a very good scenario," NEC's Lopez said.

Analysts such as Barry Marks at IntelliCom Analytics agree.

"Vendors such as Avaya, Nortel and Ericsson all understand customer requirements for reliability, availability and hardened environments," he said. "Some of the newcomers who haven't been down that road could be at a little bit of a disadvantage in terms of truly ensuring 'five 9s' of reliability."

The other aspect is that OCS runs only on Windows Server 2003 and, soon, Windows Server 2008, unlike most competing products, which run on Linux or proprietary "hardened" operating systems.

Windows' lack of reliability "is totally out there as a perception and a message," acknowledged Kim Akers, Microsoft's general manager for unified communications. But she pointed out that other unified communication products, most notably Cisco's CallManager, also run on Windows Server.

Dustin Hannifin, a systems engineer at accounting firm Crowe, Chizek and Co. who has been beta-testing OCS, argues that OCS -- if architected properly -- may prove safer than conventional PBXes.

"The problem I have with traditional PBX systems is that while they are generally rock-solid, when they fail, there is no redundancy plan," he said. "For instance, with the old Octel [voice-mail] systems, there is only one hard drive. At least with OCS, you can back things up."

That's what Microsoft recommends: Users should replicate their main OCS server continuously to a redundant server in a different physical location.

For now, that isn't necessary for Lionbridge, which has had 99.88 percent scheduled uptime in the last nine months, Kaldestad said.

The firm runs two load-balanced OCS servers out of the same data center. That allows the company to keep one server running while it patches or reboots the other. And if both servers were to fail at the same time, Kaldestad is confident he could bring up a replacement OCS server in several hours because "all of the really important configuration data for OCS is stored in Active Directory."

Finally, Microsoft strove to make OCS interoperable with PBX and IP PBX gear from a number of vendors, so that customers can hold onto their boxes as long as they want.

"If you're the type of company with lots of mobile workers and consultants who demand a lot of features, you might go 100 percent software right away," Akers said. "But most customers will move in stages and wait for the natural end of life of their PBXes."

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3) If I'm not getting rid of my PBXes for awhile, why go to OCS at all?

For some companies, it could be the features. At Crowe, Chizek, Hannifin said employees who have seen him testing OCS "are just going nuts" for its Office Live Meeting feature, which lets users quickly set up ad hoc videoconferences.

"There are a lot of 'oohs' and 'aahs,'" he said.

For other firms that are already heavy Microsoft shops, it's the potential to save on their existing international calling and Web and videoconferencing bills.

Take Lionbridge, which has yet to give up any of its PBXes, some of which are 15 years old.

"It's probably going to take us several years before we get rid of our PBXes," Kaldestad said.

Lionbridge had deployed LCS a year earlier, so its servers were still new. And having bought Software Assurance for LCS, its upgrade to OCS was free.

Lionbridge spent about US$100,000 on new VOIP telephones and headsets that plugged into PCs or ran Office Communicator, Kaldestad said. The savings from using Office Live Meeting and VOIP let Lionbridge recoup its investment in "less than two months," he said.

At the same time, the fear of dumping their PBXes will recede faster than people imagine today, Marks said.

"Five to 10 years from now, I think half of the market will have adopted either software-based PBXes and/or unified communications," he said.

4) Do I even really need unified communications?

Experts say many companies remain truly mystified as to why they should potentially invest millions of dollars in gear which, when it comes down to it, is mostly about helping their employees save a few keystrokes here or there.

"Users are skeptical about UC because vendors have done a crappy job of identifying the value proposition of it," said IDC's Freedman, citing IDC surveys and customer interviews. "So what if employees gain 15 minutes [of productivity] from presence. How does that help the bottom line?"

Convincing them of that won't be easy, because "UC is an amorphous collection of abilities, rather than one particular space," according to Jorge Blanco, vice president of solutions marketing at Avaya.

As a result, most companies are cherry-picking applications such as conferencing, desktop videoconferencing or mobility, without taking the entire package, Blanco said.

The global UC market this year will total just US$4.5 billion, according to Freedman. That's about one-tenth what many vendors are trumpeting, because IDC won't count full price of a product if it ends up being used narrowly as a replacement for a voice PBX box, she said.

While IDC is predicting the UC market will grow to $17 billion in 2011, Freedman remains "cynical about what vendors have delivered." And they need to "educate the unwashed masses about what the hell is unified communications."

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5) Well, I AM interested in unified communications. But OCS seems to lack features we need.

That's very well possible. Perhaps the most well publicized is OCS' lack of support for E911, which gives out a caller's physical location during an emergency 911 call.

VOIP systems, because of the multiple, complicated ways that data traffic can be routed, are not inherently able to do this as regular landlines do.

Although consumer VOIP services such as Vonage are required to offer E911, enterprise VOIP software is still largely exempt, though some IP PBX makers are offering it.

Microsoft is working on E911 and is deciding whether to introduce it in a Service Pack to OCS 2007 or wait until the next release, Akers said.

To get around the lack of E911, Lionbridge plans to maintain at least one non-VOIP line in each office for emergency calls as it phases out its PBXes, Kaldestad said.

OCS also lacks a fixed-mobile convergence feature that allows users of Wi-Fi-enabled cell phones to make free VOIP calls.

NEC plans to roll out this feature in its UniVerge mobile client by the end of the year, Lopez said.

"Do I really want to carry my laptop around to make a phone call?" he asked.

OCS also only integrates well with BlackBerries and Windows Mobile smart phones. Smart phones running the Symbian operating system make up 75 percent of the market, according to research firm Canalys. But Akers said Microsoft has no plans to extend presence support to them.

Another feature that OCS lacks, according to Kaldestad, is a virtual receptionist that can answer and direct incoming calls.

OCS also doesn't remove the need to maintain conventional fax lines, as Kaldestad found that employees still strongly prefer to fax hard copies of documents requiring signatures, for example.

"It's not a PBX replacement yet," he said.

6) Why go to OCS if we're not a Microsoft shop?

Wooing companies that are not heavily on the Microsoft stack will be one of the company's biggest challenges.

"If a company has already started to deploy unified communications, there is a very low chance" it will switch to Microsoft, Intellicom's Marks said.

There's plenty of competition for loyalty. For instance, telecom vendors such as Cisco have their adherents. For another, IBM is reinvigorating Sametime to convert its still-formidable base of Lotus Notes users -- and small but growing number of Symphony office software users.

Moreover, users need Exchange 2007 to take advantage of many features in OCS, Freedman said. But doing that "locks you into specific IT and telephony infrastructure, which doesn't make sense," Siemens' Straton said.

David Sengupta of Ferris Research expects OCS' uptake primarily among "Microsoft-centric organizations willing to put up with some growing pains over the coming year or two while Microsoft plays catch-up in this arena."

Marks also expects Microsoft to "work its huge base" of Microsoft Office and Exchange e-mail customers and grab some "low-hanging fruit" that way.

But even among diehard Microsoft shops, OCS won't be a no-brainer upgrade, according to Burton Group's Gotta.

"The deployment of OCS 2007 will be slower than expected within Microsoft shops because of other projects [Office SharePoint Server 2007] that sap IT resources and raise overall change management concerns," he said. A "critical mass" of customers won't start moving to OCS until the second half of 2008.