Microsoft Makes Unified Communications Call

The vendor hopes to entice users with new technology that supports VoIP, video calls, IM and webconferencing.

Microsoft Corp. did its level best to make sure that last weeks launch of Office Communications Server (OCS) 2007 and other unified communications software wasnt a case of a tree falling in the forest with no one around to hear it.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates was the keynote speaker at a press conference that included dozens of supporting announcements by telecommunications partners. The event also featured testimonials from 155 companies that have beta-tested OCS. The new software, which succeeds Live Communications Server (LCS) 2005, supports voice over IP (VoIP), video calling, instant messaging and webconferencing.

But various concerns have been voiced about OCS. In some cases, Microsofts rivals are just trying to sow fear, uncertainty and doubt. But in others, legitimate issues are being raised. For instance, theres the question of whether companies should entrust their telephone systems to a software vendor.

Microsoft executives maintain that OCS will provide audio quality that is as good as or better than what users can get from conventional private branch exchange (PBX) systems.

Oyvind Kaldestad, IT director at OCS beta tester Lionbridge Technologies Inc., backed up Microsofts claim. Lionbridge, a vendor of localization software in Waltham, Mass., installed LCS 2005 last year and upgraded to an early version of OCS nine months ago. Now its 4,300 employees make 400,000 minutes worth of VoIP calls per month.

The voice quality is better than what workers get on conventional phone networks when they make calls between many of Lionbridges international offices, Kaldestad said.

With OCS, companies can centralize hundreds of scattered PBX systems onto just one or two servers. But another issue for Microsoft is whether software running on a Windows box can be as reliable as PBXs are.

Windows lack of reliability is totally out there as a perception and a message, acknowledged Kim Akers, Microsofts general manager of unified communications. But she pointed out that rival products, most notably Cisco Systems Inc.s Unified Communications Manager, also run on Windows.

Dustin Hannifin, a systems engineer who has been beta-testing OCS at accounting firm Crowe Chizek and Co. in Oak Brook, Ill., said that if the software is architected properly, it may be safer than PBXs are.

The problem I have with traditional PBX systems is that while they are generally rock-solid, when they fail, there is no redundancy plan, Hannifin said. At least with OCS, you can back things up.

Kaldestad said Lionbridge has had 99.88% scheduled uptime on OCS. The company runs two load-balanced OCS servers at a single data center, which lets it keep one running while the other is patched or rebooted. And if both were to fail at the same time, Kaldestad said he is confident that he could bring up a replacement system within several hours.

Some of the features in OCS are strong selling points. Hannifin said that Crowe Chizek employees who have seen him testing the software are just going nuts over Microsofts built-in Office Live Meeting technology, which lets end users quickly set up ad hoc videoconferences.

Lionbridge spent about $100,000 on VoIP phones and headsets when it installed OCS. But the savings from using VoIP and Office Live Meeting enabled the company to recoup its investment in less than two months, Kaldestad said

On the other hand, OCS doesnt have the ability to identify the location of people who call E911, and it doesnt allow users to make free VoIP calls from Wi-Fi-enabled cell phones.

Ferris Research Inc. analyst David Sengupta said he expects that OCS will initially be adopted primarily by Microsoft-centric organizations willing to put up with some growing pains over the coming year or two.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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