The Confusion Around Lync
Microsoft has taken a fundamentally different approach in some key areas, and it's required some adjustment by enterprises.
Most premises-based communications solutions are architecturally similar to one another. There's typically one or a few servers that connect to carriers and endpoints. Each system has a variety of software features and options and multiple choices for endpoints--though comparing prices can be tricky due to how vendors bundle features and services.
IT decision makers do their best to align the options, normalized as much as possible to better understand the nuances and pricing variations. IT staff make these judgments frequently in their procurement process. However, things get confusing quickly when Microsoft Lync is considered.
Either by design or happenstance, Microsoft Lync can be tricky to comprehend and compare because it takes a unique approach. Lync doesn't adhere to the mold. It follows a new approach in several ways, including:
Voice as an Option
Most UC solutions evolved from voice platforms. Voice has been the mainstay of enterprise communications for nearly a hundred years, and during this period, communications capabilities and features have increased. For example, internal caller-ID was introduced within the enterprise long before it was supported by the carriers. At one time, it was an add-on feature that could require upgraded endpoints. Voice mail's transition to unified messaging was initially an optional feature as well. As the PBX evolved into its current multi-modal incarnation, features such as presence and mobile clients were introduced as options.
Think of voice as the plain cheese pizza and each new capability as an extra topping. The deluxe communications system was a pie with the works, while simple systems remained plain--voice-only. Lync transforms this model, and positions voice as the optional topping. It's an interesting twist on an old recipe.
Instead of leading with voice, it turned out that presence was the door into the IT infrastructure with the fewest guards--combined with generous licensing terms, it contributed to Lync's rapid rise.
Most UC vendors use reseller channels for sales, deployment, and ongoing support. Distribution is tightly controlled--for example, branded phones are typically only available from authorized dealers. The traditional voice channel survived the advent of the Internet despite the obliteration of many other products' traditional sales channels--everything from encyclopedias to travel agents.
Microsoft uses a split channel concept. Enterprises acquire software from an established, controlled software licensing channel. Installation and support services are offered through other, often specialized, channels.
It is not unusual for established resellers to add/delete brands over time, but Microsoft's split channels can be very confusing for traditional resellers considering Lync. Since there's no upfront commission with the software license, dealers have to redesign their compensation plans, which can be difficult during the transition. Further complicating matters are the related components such as phones, gateways, SBCs, and servers that may be sold directly via Internet channels, through other resellers, or potentially even through the Lync integrator.
One Brand Name
Regardless of how an organization uses Lync, it uses "Lync." Lync is the single brand name for IM, voice, conferencing, video. All of the clients and all of the servers are branded Lync. Conversely, most competitors use different names for just about every server and client. It's increasingly common for an enterprise to be running Lync, but there's no way to ascertain if that means IM, voice, video, and/or conferencing.
There are three levels of Lync licenses: Standard, Enterprise, and Plus. What's confusing about these is that they don't unlock new feature areas, but rather extend existing features. For example, all permutations support voice, but the Plus license is required in order to enable PSTN calls. Most competitive solutions tend to use higher licensing levels to unlock totally new feature areas such as presence, video, conferencing, and IM.
While every major UC solution does offer softphones, hard phones continue to be very popular and still are often positioned as a default assumption. However, Lync is a soft-client-first solution. Lync-associated hard phones have existed from day one (even before the Lync brand, when the solution was called OCS), but they've always been presented as an option--even a crutch. Lync endpoints are not branded Microsoft, and can be procured through a variety of channels.
Every UC vendor has a list of partners to extend features and fill in gaps. This includes things like call recording, wireless phones, headsets, call accounting, etc. These partners are typically enabled through standard interfaces or APIs. In terms of support, partner solutions range from fully supported to best effort.
Microsoft Lync has a highly controlled ecosystem. Partners are accepted into it, and must meet specific requirements and testing. Membership to the club has rules that give Microsoft significant influence--reportedly over pricing and product names. Products that are labelled Optimized for Lync are tested for compatibility, typically to a higher degree than with competitive solutions. This accreditation service assures a controlled experience--for the end users and Microsoft. The Lync Ecosystem is a business in itself.
Microsoft Lync relies heavily on its ecosystem. The Lync solution is impossible without its partners, as Microsoft doesn't directly offer appliances or servers. Even telephones and core applications such as a contact centers are delivered through partners. In some cases, these products are actually designed by Microsoft, but still sold through third-party vendors and channels.
Every vendor likes to separate itself from the competition, but that's easier said than done. Microsoft makes no effort to be part of the pack. Microsoft's abandonment of traditional approaches was a gamble that paid off. This can partially be explained by the fact that IT became more influential over communications during the past decade. Increasingly, the buyer being targeted now is the CIO and IT department, rather than the Telecommunications department. In fact, many IT departments consider Microsoft's software approach to be business as usual.
Dave Michels is a Contributing Editor and Analyst at TalkingPointz