Integrating Third-Party Voice & Video with Microsoft Teams

Having attended InfoComm last month, I was once again reminded how large the global audio/video market is. Among the hundreds of vendors displaying wares on the show floor were some well-known companies, including BlueJeans, Crestron, Lifesize, Pexip, Polycom (now Plantronics), StarLeaf, and Zoom, among others.

 

It occurred to me that this would be a great time to find out what these vendors are doing to integrate their solutions with Microsoft Teams. All of them have Skype for Business integrations, but we've heard from Microsoft that third-party devices and solutions won't integrate with Teams in the same way. InfoComm provided an opportunity to speak directly with some vendors and get a consolidated view of how this integration will occur. Little did I know that approaching this topic was going to end up being complicated and controversial.

 

Some Necessary Historical Context

To understand the context for current and future integrations with Teams, understanding how Microsoft has handled integration with Skype for Business is helpful. Microsoft opened the kimono, so to speak, with respect to the protocols, signaling, and audio/video codecs used in Skype for Business. In fact, Microsoft published a specification for Skype for Business audio and video, then left third parties to implement their own communications stacks to enable some form of integration. This need for serious development work made integration difficult, but a number of vendors were able to use the spec and create useful solutions.

 

AudioCodes, Polycom, Spectralink, and Yealink, for example, have implemented the spec in their audio hardware certified by Microsoft to work with Skype for Business. These devices register with the Skype for Business Server, and users would authenticate on the handset with their Skype for Business desktop or mobile client login credentials.

All phones that work with Skype for Business are called third-party IP phones (3PIP), and they interoperate with Skype for Business on premises or Skype for Business Online. Designation as a 3PIP phone becomes important when we discuss hardware devices for Microsoft Teams.

Polycom has taken Skype for Business interoperability a step further with its RealPresence Group Series video conferencing units. Using the Skype for Business spec, Polycom created a software load that allows its video conferencing units to connect and register directly with the Skype for Business Server. This means these room video endpoints can connect directly into any Skype for Business audio/video meeting.

Microsoft also has issued software specifications for its Skype Room System (SRS), versions 1 and 2, group video conferencing solutions. While partners can add a few unique and differentiating customizations, they must implement the Microsoft SRS software on their hardware platforms. Microsoft's intent here is to create room video communications experiences that have the same functionality and look and feel as video sessions using Skype for Business desktop or mobile clients. SRS solutions are available from Crestron, HP, Lenovo, Logitech, Polycom, and Smart Technologies (Smart did SRS v1 only), as well as Microsoft itself (aka the Microsoft Surface Hub).

 

Third-party audio/video interoperability with the on-prem and cloud versions of Skype for Business

 

Thus far, we've discussed third-party solutions that integrate with Skype for Business Server when the Skype for Business Server hosted the audio or video conferences. While these integrations came first, others soon followed.

Skype on the Desktop, but Something Else for Video
Skype for Business (or Lync), while not ubiquitous, is nevertheless deployed within many, many organizations. However, a number of these organizations also have video endpoints from Cisco, Lifesize, Polycom, and other third-party vendors, and enterprises have needed solutions that would allow a Skype for Business endpoint to connect into a meeting with video endpoints from other manufacturers. Responding to this demand, companies like Acano and Pexip created on-premises interoperability solutions that allow Skype for Business endpoints to connect into meetings with standards-based SIP and H.323 video endpoints. This strategy worked well enough that Cisco ended up buying Acano in early 2016 for $700 million, and ultimately transitioned this product into what it now calls Cisco Meeting Server.

The cloud-based conferencing providers also got into the Skype for Business endpoint interoperability game, with BlueJeans, Lifesize, Polycom, Starleaf, and Zoom creating solutions that allow Skype for Business users to join meetings with other standards-based (and vendor proprietary non-standards-based) video endpoints from within the UC client. All these third-party conferencing solutions use the Skype for Business audio/video spec to create software that enables interoperability between Skype for Business endpoints and third-party phone and video hardware devices, premises-based video bridges, and cloud-based video conferencing solutions.