Digital Workplace

A Game Changer for Unified Communications?

by Steven Forrest

At Lync Conference 2014 Microsoft announced that Office 365 will soon be available with enterprise voice. Since then the words ‘game changer’ have been used to describe this development. While the headline implication of this change is clear, does it mean that Lync via Office 365 will be a viable PBX replacement for organisations of all sizes?

Microsoft has had an on off relationship with cloud based enterprise voice deployments. Back in 2010 BPOS was expanded globally and introduced enterprise voice for OCS. The following year when BPOS had become Office 365 and OCS became Lync, enterprise voice had been removed from the service. Low customer adoption cited as the reason at the time, this prompted questions regarding the direction Microsoft would take Lync in the future. Shortly after this a hybrid model was introduced only to be deprecated and removed a short time after. During this time integrators have been providing customers enterprise voice calls via their own hosted environments. Such services have gained traction as PBX replacements. This is due in part due to the apparent fractious relationship Microsoft has had with online enterprise voice and tailored, localised user and call routing.

It was announced that Enterprise Voice for Office 365 will be introduced in phases along with other developments announced at Lync Conference 2014. Third party carriers will initially provide PSTN calls before ultimately customers will be able to buy calls directly from Microsoft. It is unclear at this point if other technologies that were announced will be available via Office 365. For example JLync will make voice and video possible with Javascript. This can be seen as a response to the growing popularity of WebRTC, but it is yet to be made clear if this will be open to Office 365 customers. In an earlier announcement on the partner network Microsoft announced that they were introducing a degree of flexibility with regard the margins partners would be able to demand/yield. Until the detail is revealed this is speculation, however if JLync is made available with 365 could it represent an interesting proposition for integrators offering increased value by customisation.

Previous hosted Lync solutions did have their limitations, response groups and interactive voice response (IVR) call flows were either not available or only available with significantly reduced functionality. Other considerations around compliance and call quality also needed to be considered. For example UK financial institutions are subject to rules defined by the Financial Conduct Authority. Compliance regarding data security and communication archival means that there are legal requirements around where data is stored and the archiving of all communications for seven years. While not impossible to comply with these requirements they could represent potential ‘show stopping’ complications for 365 voice. It will also be interesting to see the detail regarding service level agreements, specifically regarding call quality issues.

Office 365 with Lync will be the correct choice for a number organisations. However for a range of reasons an on premise solution will remain the correct choice for many. These include:

  • Design: The one size fits all model of Office 365 is good in theory but will not take the requirements of the complex nature of organisations into account.
  • Licensing: Being on the correct subscription or agreement has always been a challenge and this will be complicated further.
  • Local Gateway: Terminating audio on a LAN not only provides greater control (security/troubleshooting etc), it also better facilitates the migration from TDM to IP. Taking a phased approach is proving much more common than a rip and replace. Most organisations will choose to operate in hybrid mode for extended periods of time, which may dissuade them from moving to the cloud.
  • Support: Different organisations have different support requirements. The SLA offered by Microsoft may be acceptable to some but not to all.
  • Analytics: This has quickly become an essential to help understand how the deployment is being used. User adoption, licence utilisation, service monitoring can be reported on and if needed action taken.
  • Compliance: There are many third party applications that now have several years of development behind them that address all compliance requirements.
  • Communications as a platform: Our developers here at Forfusion are very much looking forward to JLync. The ability to collaborate via websites is an interesting prospect the potential for which, we suspect, will be far reaching.

Some organisations will benefit from and be a perfect fit for Enterprise Voice via Office 365. However identifying and addressing issues/reasons specific to the organisation is an important stage in the decision process. Systems integrators continue to play a significant role by helping organisations identify factors that will influence the direction in which an organisation should take.

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