Success With Skype: The Cloud Is Coming... Slowly
Based on Microsoft's roadmap, 2018 should be the first year larger organizations could reasonably turn to Skype for Business hosted entirely in the Office 365 cloud.
When the Enterprise Connect Tour: Implementing Microsoft Lync/Skype for Business in Your Enterprise made its stop in New York City a couple of weeks back, cloudy, rainy weather marked the event. But that didn't dampen attendees' strong interest in clouds... of the virtual kind.
Cloud services hold a great allure for many organizations, as we saw among enterprise attendees in New York. Shifting unified communications to the cloud potentially makes it someone else's responsibility to manage the complexity associated with servers, gateways, and SIP trunks. You don't need accurate demand forecasts because cloud services allow you to add more capacity instantly. And, cloud services are often cheaper, at least theoretically.
As part of my "Success With Skype" keynote address in New York, Jennifer Suter, a senior marketing manager at Microsoft, joined me on stage to share the roadmap for the newly announced Skype for Business cloud services.
As you can see from the graphic above, Microsoft is rolling out cloud services for Skype for Business, but slowly. Consider the PSTN connectivity that is in preview now and expected to be generally available throughout the U.S. by the end of 2015. This is the same capability that, in February 2013, Microsoft had indicated would be coming within 18 months -- i.e., by August 2014.
Let's decode the Microsoft UC cloud services roadmap: what, when, and implications.
Firstly, here is a summary of Microsoft's cloud UC services:
- PSTN Conferencing - allows Office 365-hosted audio conferences to include participants who dial in from ordinary phones. Without PSTN Conferencing, only participants within your company or at federated organizations can join conferences.
- PSTN Calling - allows users of Office 365-hosted Skype for Business to make calls to and receive calls from regular phones and phone numbers. Without PSTN Calling, Office 365 Skype for Business users can only call people who are also using Lync or Skype for Business.
- Cloud PBX - provides advanced call control features such as hold, resume (take people off hold), forward, and transfer. The feature set will grow over time, but will not have parity with the on-premises Skype for Business offering until the end of 2017.
- Broadcast Meetings - enables broadcasting a Skype for Business meeting to up to 10,000 participants. Participants can attend using a browser-based application on almost any device. This is a one-to-many webcast.
Secondly, here is a look at when specific features are expected to be available:
- Today - in the U.S. only, you can sign up and take part in preview programs for PSTN Conferencing with Office 365, Cloud PBX with PSTN Calling, and Skype Meeting Broadcast. Go to the Microsoft preview page for details, requirements, and limitations.
- By the end of 2015 - PSTN Conferencing for Office 365 should be available throughout the U.S., as should Cloud PBX with basic call control features combined with PSTN connectivity. This means U.S. organizations with basic call control needs will be able to choose Microsoft as their carrier and voice provider. I expect this offering to be very attractive to small and medium-sized businesses. Outside of the U.S. you should be able to deploy Cloud PBX with a "bring your own PSTN connectivity" option -- that is to say, an on-premises appliance that connects to existing PRIs or SIP connections.
- In 2016 - Microsoft promises more features for the Cloud PBX offering, likely including response group (automatic call distribution, or ACD) service. In addition, it will extend PSTN Conferencing capabilities in Office 365 to parts of Europe, and provide the ability for organizations in Western Europe to use Cloud PBX + PSTN Calling as their voice platform -- i.e., Microsoft acts as their carrier.
- By the end of 2017 - Sometime in 2017, likely by the end of the year, Microsoft "aspires" to be able to provide in the cloud the same call-control features that Skype for Business on-premises currently offers: response groups (ACD), team calls, delegation (boss/admin scenario, answering and placing calls on behalf of someone else), E911, call park, and more. Additionally, Microsoft expects to be able to provide PSTN Calling and PSTN Conferencing in most global regions where it's not restricted from doing so by regulation.
Based on this, I expect 2018 to be the first year larger organizations could reasonably evaluate the option to replace an on-premises Lync/Skype for Business deployment with one hosted entirely in the Office 365 cloud.
Thirdly, and most importantly, here are several implications these new cloud services have for your UC journey:
- Don't let future options defer or confuse your current analysis. You need to evaluate your options based on the capabilities available now. I previously wrote, "Trying to evaluate options as of some future date is an insidious trap because every week and certainly every month, new versions and new capabilities are announced and introduced." (My detailed article describes step by step how to create a UC roadmap: "The Goldilocks Approach: 7 Steps to Get to 'Just Right.'")
- Proceed with any in-flight Lync or Skype for Business on-premises deployments. While several of the Microsoft cloud UC services are in preview, you have no certainty that Microsoft will be able to adhere to intended timelines. If you have a good business case to deploy Lync 2013 on-premises or to upgrade to a Skype for Business server infrastructure, I would recommend you proceed full steam ahead. You can always evaluate introducing cloud workloads or a full cloud UC deployment several years from now. There is no reason to forego returns now based on the future potential for better returns.
- The financial model for the Microsoft UC cloud is currently unknown. Microsoft has not published the pricing for these new cloud services, likely to be bundled into a new E5 client access license. Without pricing you cannot perform a financial analysis of options. Additionally, any of these cloud services requires an Azure ExpressRoute connection to Office 365 in order to provide consistent voice quality. ExpressRoute enables customers to create private connections between their premises and Microsoft data centers. Microsoft has announced that its partners AT&T, BT, Colt, Equinix, Level 3 Communications, Orange Business Services, Tata Communications, Telstra, Verizon, and Vodafone will deliver direct connections. Make sure you consider the additional cost of this element.
- The cloud is not a silver bullet. The new Microsoft cloud services provide excellent options for consideration for many organizations. Options are good. However, whether moving all or some of your UC workloads to the cloud makes sense for your organization will depend on your current investments in UC, your network infrastructure, the number of office locations, business priorities, integration requirements and security restrictions.
Despite the rain outside, inside the NYC Enterprise Connect Tour event was a great success. I predict the rise of Microsoft UC cloud services will make the next few years sunnier for many organizations.
Next up, my thoughts from the Orange County and Chicago stops. The 2015 Enterprise Connect Tour was a great opportunity to connect organizations and leading Microsoft UC vendors in a full-day interactive program. If you missed the 2015 tour, tune in for Virtual Event sessions, now available on demand.