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Implementing Skype for Business in a Multivendor World

As we all know by now, Microsoft is intent on delivering cloud communications as part of Office 365, creating an all-encompassing, integrated suite that meets just about every productivity, collaboration, and communications need enterprise users might encounter in their workdays.

The reality, however, is that Microsoft needs to let others play within its UC fiefdom -- especially as it pushes out its Cloud PBX and PSTN connectivity solutions. These will be neither global nor quite enterprise scale to start out, so there's the recognition that "an on-premises PBX is going to be necessary for a lot of large enterprises for at least a couple of years to come," said Darc Rasmussen, CEO of IR, a Microsoft Gold partner that provides proactive performance management software, including for Office 365 environments.

This is what is going to make the Office 365 environment so interesting. "It's so multivendor despite that really solid core Microsoft DNA," said Rasmussen

I chatted with Rasmussen late last month just after we wrapped up our multicity Enterprise Connect Tour on implementing Microsoft Lync/Skype for Business (catch the related Virtual Event on demand). The challenge of managing a multivendor environment was certainly on the minds of our attendees during those one-day events, and with good reason. For enterprise organizations, he suggested, the multivendor challenge manifests itself in one or more of three ways: by nature, by migration, and by virtue of market and business dynamics.

Multivendor by Nature
While Microsoft is touting its ability to create an end-to-end user experience within the Skype for Business/Office 365 environment, a whole bunch of third-party applications and technologies lay just below the surface, Rasmussen said. Look at the network layer, for example. Microsoft has acknowledged that it doesn't aim to move into the network layer, and so will work with third parties to ensure that Skype for Business integrates with session border controllers, gateways, and switches.

Of course an enterprise UC manager needs to be able to look into the Microsoft stack. "But what about the other stacks?" he said. "It's not a challenge of finding a needle in a haystack -- it's more like walking into a field with hundreds of haystacks and having to figure out where the needle is."

In working with its enterprise clients, IR has found that anywhere from 60 to 80% of Skype for Business issues don't originate in the Microsoft stack but rather in one of the other elements, Rasmussen said. But users don't know that, and when they have trouble connecting to a conference, experience lousy audio quality, or can't share a document during a collaboration session, they're going to blame Skype for Business/Office 365 environment and come pounding on the door for answers, so to speak. "The Skype for Business team needs to have the view and ability to understand how all the underlying dependencies work," Rasmussen said.

Multivendor by Migration
A Skype for Business implementation is "not something that can be switched over in a heartbeat," Rasmussen said. Most of the organizations IR works with are looking to depreciate legacy assets or migrate to Skype for Business within one business unit or among one set of users at a time. This makes coexistence with Avaya, Cisco, and any other legacy environments a must, which necessitates accounting for interdependencies.

"If you've got a handset with the wrong firmware version on it, it will not be able to connect to or will experience intermittent or poor audio issues within a Skype for Business environment," Rasmussen said. "Again, what the user will report is: 'I'm fine when I'm talking to anybody else, but when I try to have a conversation with anybody on Skype for Business on a one-to-one basis or in a conference call, it doesn't work.'"

To fend off this sort of multivendor issue, IR recommends running an auto-discover mechanism before implementing Skype for Business or Office 365. "You've got to run an estate evaluation, and then make appropriate updates and fixes. Otherwise, it becomes a real headache and a disaster is just waiting to happen."

Multivendor by Market & Business Dynamics
Given the ever-evolving marketplace that characterizes many industries, companies need to be able to absorb acquisitions easily. That makes adopting a strategy that says "our systems can only see and understand Microsoft" a foolhardy approach.

"New businesses or business units brought in through acquisition often do have other technologies in place," Rasmussen said. "Being able to quickly plug them in and have them migrate over time is a much more efficient strategy than saying, 'Well, you'll have to wait out there and we won't integrate to our organization till we're ready to upgrade you to Skype for Business or [the] Office 365 environment.'"

These three multivendor challenges aren't new, but IR has found that the issues are getting more pronounced as companies look to implement Skype for Business and Office 365, Rasmussen said. As he pointed out, parts of an implementation are going to be running online and other parts on premises -- and enterprise UC managers surely need to see from one end to the other, no multivendor impediments allowed.

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