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Microsoft, Voice & the Cloud: A Partner Perspective

With its Office 365 and Skype for Business Online offerings, along with the cloud PBX, PSTN conferencing, and broadcast meeting preview announcement from earlier this month, Microsoft clearly recognizes that unified communications and the cloud are coming together. And the company is showing that it expects to be at the vortex of that convergence.

To be sure, as Microsoft touts its UC-as-a-service (UCaaS) functionality -- a closing of the gap, if you will -- it is going to capture enterprise attention. As one Skype for Business architect, Tim Harrington, noted in a recent No Jitter interview, "Whether companies like it or not, this does elevate Microsoft on the list of viable options."

Microsoft definitely seems to want to be "the new answer to all of life's problems," said Harrington, who works at managed services provider and Microsoft partner, ConnectSolutions. Industry watchers, however, "all know that that's not necessarily the case. There's a huge void to fill up in the UCaaS market, and Microsoft is still only going to be just a niche part of it."

Harrington gave me a few reasons why he sees Microsoft in a niche role in cloud voice, including the multitenancy nature of its offering. Because it's a multitenant operation, customers need to accept that the Microsoft UC cloud will work in one way, with one set of standard features, and, for the most part, only in the U.S. initially. In addition, Microsoft is relying on companies to be OK with all the PSTN ingress and egress hosted out of its data center and to be comfortable with Azure ExpressRoute providing predictable quality of service on all cloud calls.

Those are three tall orders -- and even if a company is fine with that criteria, exceptions will still pop up, Harrington said. Some offices will require survivability, so will need localized PSTN connectivity, for example. "Is an office going to pick a separate solution to handle outlying items like analog devices or IVR systems? Because Microsoft is not going to be able to handle integrating analog devices or having survivable branch appliances in its topology."

Feature- and geography-wise, Microsoft cloud voice service will be too limiting for many companies, he said.

"Telecom is hard, especially when you're getting into providing voice. Going with telecom just in the U.S. alone is difficult -- now talk about extending that worldwide, and there are still a lot of hurdles and ... lots of limitations it needs to fix around geography and tenancy before it can scale," Harrington said.

Of course, cloud service partners like ConnectSolutions are only too happy to step in and help out. First and foremost, they can provide private cloud infrastructure that gives enterprises the flexibility they need for creating custom policies or handling "those weird application integrations," Harrington said. "You get private cloud architecture that is hosted by a service provider and allows you to have localized PSTN ingress and egress points along the way." And, they can unravel Microsoft messaging and help figure out how to optimize a deployment. Because Microsoft tends to speak in generalities, enterprises can often get confused about what's available now versus what's in the pipeline or is just part of a vision statement. In terms of the cloud PBX and PSTN connectivity announced earlier this month, Harrington noted: "We are still only in preview, probably a good six months out from seeing it released -- only in the U.S. -- for general availability. So there's still a long way ahead of us."

But, he quickly added, it's good that the idea of Microsoft handling voice in the cloud is progressing. "What I love about the move is that Microsoft is validating the workload in the cloud. It's doing our marketing for us, saying, 'Hey, Enterprise Voice can live in the cloud and, in fact, it probably belongs in the cloud. Why do you want to manage this on prem yourself when we can do it for you?'"

If you're interested in learning more about implementing Microsoft Lync/Skype for Business, register now and attend a free one-day Enterprise Connect workshop, coming soon to a city near you!

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