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Office 365 E5: Microsoft Highlights Cloud PBX, More

Microsoft last week held its Worldwide Partner Conference, sharing news about many upcoming product attractions on virtually all the platforms. Those that most caught my eye were about Skype for Business and the E5 Office 365 enterprise suite.

As Zig Serafin, corporate vice president for the Skype for Business team, mentioned in a blog post earlier this month, Microsoft will be offering Office 365 E5, a new enterprise-wide licensing option that includes the full Office 365 suite (including Skype for Business), but also optional Skype Meeting Broadcast, Cloud PBX and PSTN Conferencing (see related post, "Microsoft Releases Trio of Skype for Business Online Previews"). Hold on -- before you rush out and start signing up your customers, let's take a closer look at what Microsoft did and didn't say.

Cloud Communications
One of the more intriguing new features is Cloud PBX with PSTN Calling. Cloud PBX moves the call control and features normally found in an on-premises deployment into the cloud -- theoretically leaving only client software and desktop devices on the customer premises.

Common architecture questions that pop up are: Who provides access to the PSTN? And, what happens to the well-publicized telephone numbers for those businesses that have standing carrier contracts (virtually all)? That's where the PSTN calling and on-premises features come into play. PSTN calling will be available in two configurations:

Besides the "who ya gonna trust?" question to answer, the above two configurations have some significant architectural differences to consider. Having the PSTN access go to the cloud initially seems like a no-brainer, but if you dig deeper, it's not that simple. One of the dings with the Microsoft-supplied PSTN is that all voice calls -- local, long distance, conference, and 911 -- will have to traverse the WAN to the Microsoft cloud. All that additional voice traffic may drive up the WAN facility needs for most businesses, requiring QoS and extra bandwidth for support.

While the Microsoft PSTN service will support everyday telephony features like hold, resume, and transfer, questions remain about support for common business productivity telephony functions like contact center, IVR, ACD, and fax. A first look makes me think Microsoft-supplied PSTN would be better suited to small businesses that have little or no current telephony infrastructure or can live with siloed services from various cloud providers.

This brings us to the customer-supplied PSTN (BYO-PSTN) configuration. With BYO-PSTN, most voice traffic stays on the company LAN in that only the call control and conferencing moves across the WAN to the cloud; a media gateway or enterprise session border controller connects to the existing (and local) PSTN provider. The business gets the benefits of Skype for Business while existing telephone numbers, E911, and provider contract terms all stay the same -- not just in the U.S., but globally. This configuration also means companies don't have to wait for a PSTN contract to expire before moving to Skype for Business. In my mind, this is a real win-win for most businesses.

Broadcast Meetings
The Skype Meeting Broadcast feature will be a big benefit for businesses that are looking to hold the occasional one-to-many conference calls for functions such as webinars, town halls, and training. While most webinar platforms support this sort of capability already, Skype Meeting Broadcast solves part of the problem Lync users have had when trying to hold large events on limited premises-based implementations. Without this capability, Lync users had have to turn to third-party broadcast services from providers like EventBuilder or to competing platforms like Citrix GoToWebinar or Cisco WebEx. I can easily envision a future in which large town hall meetings are accessible to constituents via the Web, with live Q&A.

Conference Calling
At last, Microsoft will support PSTN conferencing. Right from the beginning, access from the PSTN has been a big missing hole in the Lync Online offering. Seriously, who holds a conference call and doesn't have at least one participant trying to call in from his or her car, the airport, and from who knows where else? Similar to above, PSTN access to conference calls has been a staple feature of conference service providers and almost expected as a birthright for call organizers. Not clear at this point is whether you get to pick your number for the call-in access (I'm guessing no), who picks up the tab for 800/888 toll-free calling (likely you), and whether the Skype for Business PSTN conferencing option includes global numbers (I would hope so).

All in all, Microsoft shared some great news for the Skype for Business community at WPC. The challenges are in making sense of what was said and being patient until Microsoft announces pricing and delivery times.

I would love to hear your thoughts on Microsoft's plans. Share them with me on Twitter at @AlanDPercy, or in the comments section below.