Microsoft's Lync fills gaps in VoIP

Despite the name change and hype around its dramatic release candidate and RTM version, the net significance of Microsoft's Lync 2010 release is that it brings the company's unified communications and collaboration (UC&C) platform up to par in some areas with competitors – though it doesn't slingshot past them, experts say.

In particular, additions of VoIP features such as support for E911, better call control and survivable branch infrastructure fill gaps that existed in Lync's predecessor, Office Communications Server. "Some customers will now be ready to look at Lync" for telephony, says Art Schoeller, an analyst with Forrester Research.

Microsoft Lync: What you need to know

"They're much closer to the point where a customer could decide to use Lync for voice and expect reliability and business-class capabilities," says Melanie Turek, an analyst with Frost & Sullivan.

Other vendors – Avaya, Cisco, IBM and Siemens – do better in video, social networking and collaboration with their UC&C platforms, Turek says, but those features are less urgent needs than voice for most customers. Microsoft still has time to develop Lync capabilities in these areas because customers aren't ready to adopt them wholesale. "Microsoft had to spend a lot of time getting parity with voice," she says.

Survivable branch capabilities are key to Microsoft in Lync, Schoeller says. Devices in branch offices that can reconnect to the traditional public phone network when SIP trunks supporting VoIP fail represent a significant addition to Microsoft's offering that Lync provides. The appliances reconnect these branches to the outside world, but also keep local VoIP calls flowing when the branch is cut off from the main Lync Server located in a remote data center, he says.

"This is an area where Microsoft has been playing catch-up. Everyone asks can Lync replace a PBX? Customers may now be willing to consider it," he says.

But they won't trust it 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," Schoeller says.

Much of Lync's success may depend on how 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 that 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 says.

Microsoft and its competitors are vying for control of the customer's desktops, which will be the key to which UC&C platforms businesses adopt over time, Schoeller says. Cisco's client, for example, supports the Lync backend servers. "Both product sets are lining up more and more side-by-side," he says.

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 IP-PBXs, customers will be reluctant to rip and replace that gear. As a result, customers may delay decisions three to seven years as they wait for their existing infrastructure to live out its usefulness.

Microsoft touts that it 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."

Ultimately, it may make no difference which vendor has the most complete set of UC&C features, he says, because customers haven't demonstrated demand for all of them. "How many people are not using instant messaging?" he says. "You walk into video conference rooms and the camera is idle. How many people save cell phone minutes by calling from Wi-Fi hotspots?"

Vendors like to boast about long lists of features, but that is unimportant if customers don't need them. "What if they build them and users don't come?" he says.

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