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Lync Online to Become Full-Fledged Hosted UC Service
As Microsoft begins to upgrade Lync Online users to Skype for Business Online this week, it is taking the first step in delivering a full-featured hosted UC service. And, make no mistake about it, this will be a game changer -- for Microsoft and its partners, customers, and competitors.
You see, by not adding PSTN connectivity and Enterprise Voice directly into Lync Online, Microsoft had hobbled the service from the get-go, creating a walled garden around it. Users can message one other, as well as set up PC-to-PC calls with other Lync Online users and, quite recently, Skype users. But without PSTN connectivity, Lync Online users can't connect to the larger world which -- like it or not -- still relies heavily on the PSTN for voice calls. And without Enterprise Voice, businesses can't lean on Lync Online as an alternative to traditional PBXs or telephony services.
But Skype for Business Online (the hosted UC service that replaces Lync Online) will change all this... eventually. So let's take a look at a some of the new terminology and capabilities that have never before been associated with Lync Online and that will in time transform what Microsoft can deliver in terms of cloud-based UC services.
Cloud PSTN Connectivity - As mentioned, today Lync Online lets users set up voice calls only from PC to PC. If you want to let users dial out to and receive calls from the PSTN -- that is, if you want to use Lync Online as your business telephony service -- you're more or less out of luck. I say "more or less" because you can make this happen via workarounds. These come in the form of Microsoft partner services that either connect Office 365 to a hosted Lync Server (like Arkadin Voice for Office 365 and ThinkTel's Think 365) or connect Lync Online to a telephony service (from AT&T, Vodafone, and others, as I wrote recently).
These partners' services should remain viable options as Skype for Business Online rolls out. But the Cloud PSTN Connectivity feature will cut out the middleman for businesses that don't want to deal with partners. Microsoft will itself issue new phone numbers to Office 365 customers and/or port the phone numbers a business has from its current provider to Skype for Business Online. Microsoft will provide calling plans with per-minute rates. At least I assume it will... Microsoft hasn't confirmed this yet. And Skype for Business Online will have a native dial pad to call standard phone numbers.
On-premises PSTN Connectivity - Cloud PSTN Connectivity is for businesses that want to get telephony services directly from Microsoft. For those that want to use an existing telephony service, On-premises PSTN Connectivity lets a company connect its Office 365 tenant to Skype for Business Server deployed onsite. Skype for Business Server then connects to a gateway or PBX, providing PSTN services for Office 365 users. So a user will be getting the Office apps from the cloud, but the ability to connect to the PSTN will come from an on-prem server.
Like me, you might be thinking, "Hey, wait a minute. Isn't that the same as the short-lived hybrid voice capability for Lync?" Microsoft says the two are absolutely not the same, but even after a discussion with company insiders about it I'm at a loss to explain the difference.
In chucking out the hybrid voice capability, Microsoft cited architectural complications as the main reason. So hybrid voice and On-premises PSTN Connectivity, I'm told, are based on entirely different architectures. But I don't know enough about how hybrid voice was architected, what architectural problems it had, how On-premises PSTN Connectivity is architected, how it's architecture is an improvement, and how the improvement is meaningful to businesses subscribing to Skype for Business Online. If you find out, please let me know.
What I do know is that hybrid voice provided Lync Online with the ability to connect to the PSTN via a Lync Server deployed on-prem, and On-premises PSTN Connectivity will do the same for Skype for Business Online. Hybrid voice also provided Lync Online users with a range of telephony features delivered by a premises-based Lync Server. On-premises PSTN Connectivity won't do this, but another new Skype for Business Online feature (described below) will.
Cloud PSTN Conferencing - Just as Lync Online lacks native PSTN connectivity, it also lacks native dial-in audio conferencing. And just as Microsoft partners like AT&T and Vodafone stepped in to provide PSTN connectivity options for Lync Online customers, Microsoft partners like Intercall, PGI, and BT stepped in to provide dial-in audio conferencing.
And just like Cloud PSTN Connectivity provides a native, Microsoft-delivered option for connecting Skype for Business Online to the telephone network without requiring customers to deal with a third-party provider, Cloud PSTN Conferencing will provide Skype for Business Online native, Microsoft-delivered dial-in audio conferencing capabilities. Office 365 users currently getting dial-in audio from a third-party Microsoft partner will still be able to do so. But they will be able to cut out the middleman and get this directly from Microsoft if they so choose.
Enterprise Voice in Skype for Business Online
Cloud Enterprise Voice - Enterprise Voice is that magic set of call features whose inclusion in Lync Server means it's a viable PBX alternative and whose absence in Lync Online means it ain't. However, Microsoft is set to bake Enterprise Voice into Skype for Business Online.
Enterprise Voice plus PSTN calling will equal a hosted UC service from Microsoft that should make a lot of customers quite happy -- no more integrating different services from different providers, and no more separate contracts, bills, and technical support teams. Instead, for businesses that want it, there will be one provider (Microsoft) delivering one service (Skype for Business Online) that should provide most everything needed in terms of calling, conferencing, and other UC functionality.
But Enterprise Voice has had a rocky ride toward its inclusion in Microsoft's cloud-based UC service. In 2013 the company said Enterprise Voice would be native to Lync Online. Then a year later it said that wouldn't be the case. More specifically, folks at Microsoft described Enterprise Voice in Lync Online as "aspirational," something that they really wanted to do but that wasn't on the immediate roadmap. But now it is.
So seeing, as the cliché goes, will be believing. Is this the plan on which Microsoft is really going to execute? Or a year from now will I be writing about some new approach to all of this? Time, as the other cliché says, will tell.
Azure ExpressRoute for Office 365 - Now this is pretty interesting, particularly for large enterprises subscribing to Office 365. ExpressRoute is an option Azure customers have had for a while now. Rather than connecting to the Azure data centers over the public Internet, businesses can connect to Azure from within the data center itself or through their existing wide-area network. Compared to standard Internet connections, ExpressRoute is somewhat more secure and loads faster. For Azure customers, this means faster access to storage and faster data backups.
Now Office 365 and Skype for Business customers will get the same deal: the option for a direct MPLS connection between their offices and the data centers hosting the Office 365 software. The advantage? Higher quality, more reliable voice and video connections compared with real-time traffic just going over the Internet. The pricing? As with all this new Skype for Business Online stuff: TBD.
Scenario Parity - Microsoft's end goal with Skype for Business Online is "scenario parity" with Skype for Business Server. Note, this is not feature parity, where platforms have an identical set of features regardless of whether they're deployed on premises or in a cloud-based model. Rather, users should be able to accomplish the same set of communications tasks even if in some cases the precise features that enable said tasks are somewhat different depending how a company has adopted Skype for Business.
Cloud First - Also part and parcel to the Skype for Business endgame (and I'm reading into things a bit here) is a cloud-based UC service that's not just indistinguishable from its prem-based counterpart, but that's preferable to it. At this point (once again, this is my interpretation) Microsoft will lead with Skype for Business Online, positioning it as the better alternative to businesses weighing their prem-or-cloud options when it comes to UC. Or at least the prem-based deployment option is something for which only the most obstinate, most backwards, oldest of old-fashioned CIOs would ever opt.
There are, of course, lots of unanswered questions. How much will Cloud PBX Connectivity, Cloud Enterprise Voice, Cloud PSTN Conferencing, ExpressRoute for Office 365, and the rest actually cost? What changes will Microsoft make to the Office 365 licensing model? How easily will enterprises be able to migrate existing dial plans? How nicely will Skype for Business Online play with existing PBXs and hosted voice services? Will Microsoft really execute on this strategy or will it be presenting a yet another one this time next year?
Hopefully we'll have the answers before very long.