Microsoft OCS: The next step

Release 2 fills many of the feature gaps that customers noted in the initial release, but is this the end of the evolutionary road?

By Gerry Blackwell | Posted Nov 6, 2008
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The 800-lb. gorilla of unified communications just put the other foot down. Kaboom!

With the announcement last month of Office Communications Server 2007 Release 2—due to ship in February 2009—Microsoft has started to make good on its promise that OCS 2007, launched last November, would be a complete unified communications (UC) platform and a viable alternative to traditional office PBXs.

Release 2 fills crucial gaps in OCS's voice capabilities—including adding an attendant console, call routing, and workflow features, session initiation protocol (SIP) trunking, an audio conferencing bridge, and the ability to extend OCS presence, instant messaging (IM), and voice to mobile phones.

Is it enough to convince more companies to jump on the OCS bandwagon? Probably not, says analyst Steve Cramoysan, a research director with Gartner in the UK. But that's only because so many are already onboard.

"Will more people start to use OCS in its broader sense because of Release 2, absolutely yes," he says. "But will it increase the rate of growth [of OCS adoption]? I think, no. That's a train that has already come and left. The pace of adoption of OCS is pretty strong."

Is OCS now, with Release 2, the complete package then? It depends on a company's requirements for a phone system, Cramoysan says. "Some pretty basic stuff has been added, but what that really points to is that there's a bunch of other stuff that they haven't done yet."

Such as? For one thing, OCS still doesn't support e911. Microsoft director of unified communications Yancey Smith acknowledges this remains a gap—at least for some prospective users. Others don't seem to care, Smith points out. It's also one the company is "absolutely working on with partners."

Smith says Microsoft never pretended the initial release of OCS 2007 was a full-fledged PBX-replacement platform.

"We were really putting a stake in the ground and saying all communications were going to move to a software powered model that would be hardware agnostic. With that launch we were pushing hard on instant messaging and conferencing, and having companies pilot voice."

Smith is not even saying that OCS Release 2 is a fully evolved, mature UC platform.

"With R[elease ]2, we're taking away a lot of the barriers we thought people might have moving from a pilot to a production environment, and so we're expecting a lot more mass adoption," he says.

In the next breath, though, he says it will actually be with the "following" release that the company expects to see customers replacing PBXs with OCS on a mass scale.

In the meantime, Microsoft has been surprised by how many customers moved rapidly from piloting OCS voice features to extending them to many employees.

IT departments learned it was as easy to provision voice on OCS using softphones as it was to turn on e-mail or other features, Smith says. They also began to recognize the value of letting mobile employees work from almost anywhere and appear as if they were at the office, which the basic features in R1 allowed.

As part of its marketing, Microsoft went through an exercise of prioritizing features that would need to be added to make OCS a true PBX-replacement product. But the acknowledged gaps in the OCS feature set were in many cases not as much a barrier as expected.

"All these things I think people over the years were trained to look for [in a phone system], when it actually got down to implementation, [their absence from OCS] wasn't really a blocker for a lot of workers," Smith says.

"That's why I think we saw the great adoption of [OCS] 2007, but that's also why as we get these couple of key features such as attendant console and delegation done, we think that that might in some ways open up the floodgates."

The press release on Release 2 cites the case of Royal Dutch Shell plc. Shell, an R2 beta customer, is reducing the load on existing PBXs—and presumably delaying having to upgrade them—by using OCS to connect over 5,000 mobile and remote workers with soft phones rather than giving them PBX phones.

Smith claims Microsoft also has "dozens of other customers" with "thousands" of OCS voice connections. And 38,000 Microsoft employees use OCS for internal voice communications "every day."

Is anyone using OCS exclusively, though? We're guessing not. Most will be using it as Shell is, not to replace PBXs, but to supplement them. Still, it's a step down the road Microsoft wants to lead, just not exactly the one it expected.

As Smith says, "In some ways we had to change our mindset from replacing the PBX to replacing the phone for those users."

The new features in Release 2, however, move OCS closer to being a true PBX replacement platform.

Some are basic functions that almost any traditional or IP PBX would provide. The attendant console, for example, is a PC interface that lets a secretary or receptionist answer calls to a central number and route them to other extensions and set up conferences by clicking buttons and names in a list.

The response group feature lets network managers easily set up rules in software for how calls should be routed and queued—ringing several extensions simultaneously, for example, or ringing one extension after another until someone picks up, or automatically routing calls to the station that has received fewest calls within a time period.

"This is very much Microsoft filling in the feature gaps," Cramoysan says. Virtually any PBX, especially modern IP PBXs, would already have these features, he says.

Other new voice-related features take OCS beyond the capabilities of basic PBXs. The built-in audio conference bridge software, for example, lets companies set up conferences without having to use outsourced bridging services.

It's a feature that could not easily or inexpensively be added to a traditional PBX, Cramoysan says. And there are definitely savings from bringing the function in house.

But while OCS will work fine for internal conferences set up and managed by the meeting convener, it may still be cheaper to use a service for more formal conferences involving outside callers. Those conferences, Cramoysan points out, require operators to assist callers, which the company would now have to provide, at some cost in labor and management burden.

Still, Microsoft hopes to lure customers with the promise of the savings on bringing conferencing in house. Once a company implements audio conferencing, Smith points out, all the hardware is in place to make it easy to proceed to a full voice implementation. "So why not just voice-enable that person and let them be free of the PBX," he says?

The SIP trunking feature is similarly intended to improve the business case for migrating to OCS for voice. It eliminates the costs involved in buying and managing SIP gateways to place between a local IP phone system and a VoIP service provider.

The new mobile features may be the most impressive additions. They bring OCS closer to becoming a true UC platform by providing UC clients for some mobile phones—BlackBerry, Windows Mobile and a few Nokia and Motorola lines.

OCS will now be able to track presence for those users. When they make calls from their cell phones, it will appear as if they're calling from their office phone. And they can move from a mobile IM session to setting up an audio conference with a few clicks.

The next release will "round out the PBX features," Smith says, and "continue the integration between modalities"—voice, IM, conferencing presence, etc. This is just the way Microsoft, and most other software developers, bring products to market anymore—bit by bit, piece by piece.

Will it eventually be a complete and viable solution for voice? Cramoysan believes so. But it will take time.

"The reality is, it's going to take awhile for all the features to come through. It's going to take a long time for customers to figure out how to deploy it, when to deploy it, when to displace existing technology and so on. So I think it'll be awhile before it's fully out there."

That said, Release 2 clearly hastens the day.

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