A look at the new Microsoft Skype for Business Server 2015

skype for business desktop sharing

In March, Microsoft released Skype for Business Server 2015, its enterprise communications product that is the successor to both Lync Server for on-premises installations and Lync Online for cloud customers.

Skype for Business Server 2015 is a modest upgrade that takes care of a lot of plumbing on the server side but is more of a cosmetic polish on the client side. In this piece, I will take a look at exactly what Skype for Business is, what is new or improved in this release, some things to look forward to and perhaps some "gotchas" as well. Let's dive in.

Busting some myths

Let me take this opportunity to talk a little bit about what Skype for Business is not:

Skype for Business is not a replacement for Skype. Yes, it seems Microsoft has done it again -- it has created two services that seemingly have the same purpose and outcome but go about it in entirely different and mostly incompatible ways (think OneDrive and OneDrive for Business). Skype for Business is Lync, renamed. Skype that you freely download is still Skype, the same customer service Microsoft purchased from eBay a few years ago. It operates independently of Lync/Skype for Business, although some companies have enabled federation, which is the ability for Lync clients to initiate chats to Skype users.

Skype for Business is not a reinvention of the Lync service. It is a rebranding and a change to the user interface, mainly to "blue" it up and make it look a little bit more in line with the consumer Skype client (albeit without the advertisements pervasive in the free version). But the guts of the service -- the components, configurability, administrative aspects and concepts -- everything that applied to Lync Server 2010 and Lync Server 2013 (as well as to Lync Online, the cloud version that is a component of Office 365) still applies in almost exactly the same way to Skype for Business.

Skype for Business is not a cloud-only service. Some people have gotten the impression (and I can't blame them, because the naming is confusing and Microsoft has done a poor job of communicating exactly what this release is) that Skype for Business applies only to the Office 365 service, and on-premises deployments will continue to run Lync. Lync is now Skype for Business, thus making all on-premises clients and servers Skype for Business clients and servers. Just forget about the word Lync, and you will pretty well have it right.

If you think of Skype for Business Server as Lync Server 2015, you will immediately see all of this lock into place. I have no idea why Microsoft chose this name, nor why the branding geniuses in Redmond thought this was a way to dispel confusion, but live with it we must.

What is improved?

Now that we know what you should not expect from Skype for Business, let's take a look at what you can look forward to seeing.

The biggest and most noticeable feature on the client side of Skype for Business is the "Call via Work" feature. Put simply, Call via Work allows a user to place a PSTN call (think regular telephone) via Skype for Business on the desktop. Skype for Business will then ring the user's desk phone, and the user will answer it, and then Skype will complete the other end of the call to the destination party. This allows the original caller to control the call -- put it on hold, transfer it, mute, and so on -- from the desktop computer client.

For example, if I want to call Joan, I will click on Joan's contact on my Skype for Business client and select "Call via work." My desk phone will then ring; I will pick it up and will hear ringing as the call completes to Joan and she answers. From there, I am talking to Joan on my desk phone, but I can put the call on hold, mute myself, transfer, add participants and more just by clicking around on my desktop computer -- the Skype for Business client is acting as the control panel.

On the server side, updates were another area of attention in Skype for Business. For those of you with Lync Server deployments, I am sure you share in the frustration of how updates were applied. You had to apply them in sequence because they were not cumulative, they were titled in a way that did not easily reveal their sequence, the installers were not great at (or sometimes even incapable of) determining what services were already running, handling the stopping and restarting of those services depended on what piece of the Lync infrastructure workload they were assigned and more.

It made patching anything but a breeze, which led to a lot of un-updated, untested and perhaps even insecure Lync deployments. In Skype for Business, one setup process grabs your existing infrastructure no matter how big and ensures it gets updated appropriately. While it may take a long time to complete -- depending on how complex your deployment is, which endpoints are being used and so on -- it is a process you can deploy from a single administrative console and babysit through until it is complete.

In addition, there is new support for SQL Server AlwaysOn disaster recovery groups and SQL Server Failover Clustering. As you are probably aware, Lync depends on SQL Server being present in the operating environment, but previously the product did not support the use of the fault-tolerance features built into SQL Server itself. Now, however, Skype for Business works when you turn on AlwaysOn and sets up failover clusters so that a database error or a bad SQL server will no longer take down your whole Skype for Business deployment.

On the client side, unfortunately, you have to install Lync 2013 and then install a separate update that you can grab from Microsoft Update to move up to the Skype for Business client release.

Once you have installed the Skype for Business client, you can use a Windows Registry tweak to switch between the new blue-ish consumer-y looking Skype interface and the traditional Lync 2013 client, which is a bit more staid and buttoned down.

To do so, the easiest way to proceed is to grab a PowerShell script from the Microsoft Download Center and run it; the script will do the heavy lifting of getting the registry keys configured correctly. You can find that script here.

That script works only for Skype for Business as part of Office 365, however; to configure this for your on-premises clients, refer to this blog post from Microsoft. It explains all about how to set your user interface preferences globally as well as how to grant limited exceptions, perhaps as a way to manage the rollout of the new user interface in a carefully controlled way in order to limit the burden on your user training staff.

Once your users are on the Skype for Business client with the new user interface, they may appreciate a full set of emojis new to the software. Additionally, conversation history in instant messages is now synced across all of your devices, much like the Skype consumer client does now. This is handled on the back end by the Skype for Business server infrastructure so your users do not need to do anything to gain this feature.

On the mobile side, Microsoft has confirmed that Skype for Business clients are coming for iOS and Android devices -- and it's possible that Windows Phone will also get support. But no formal announcement has been made of when any of these clients will actually be available; so for now, only your regular desktop clients have Skype for Business access.

Speaking of desktop clients, Skype for Business is supported on Windows and Mac, but there is no word on a Linux or UNIX client. Though Lync never supported these clients, the new "cross-platform-aware" Microsoft might choose to pay some attention to Skype for Business and turn it into a true communications platform for the enterprise, regardless of the endpoint.

And finally, as you might expect, Skype for Business Server includes support for hybrid deployments where some of your users are provisioned on your on-premises infrastructure and others are provisioned in your organization's Skype for Business tenant in Office 365. The control panel will let you move users back and forth between your data center and Skype for Business online. You can also use the on-premises tools -- the Skype for Business Server 2015 Control Panel and Skype for Business Server 2015 Admin Center -- to manage the Skype for Business Online tenant so you do not have to keep switching between tools to get your service configured and managed the way you want.

The last word

Skype for Business, nee Lync, is the first of the big Microsoft server products to have its next major version release, and it appears at first blush to be fully baked from the server side. There's better support for hybrid deployments, a new toolset, much better updating and patching, and better fault tolerance based on the support for SQL Server AlwaysOn. Licensing remains the same as Lync Server, so there is nothing new to understand there.

As far as caveats go, I suspect many organizations will have some user training issues to consider, and if your business currently uses Skype and Lync then I do not envy the conversations you will end up having when your users try to call Skype users with Skype for Business and it does not work -- or perhaps worse yet, works for federated users and not for others.

Still, the benefits of better updating and a more robust infrastructure will pay off, and over time we can surely expect to see even further integration between Skype for Business and your existing PBX or IP phones, your PSTN telephone service, the Skype consumer service and Office 365 -- and that is great news for today's mobile workforce. Skype for Business Server 2015 is certainly worth a look if you are a Lync shop already, and if you're not, what are you using that is any better?

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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