Networking

First look: Microsoft Live Communications Server

See what LCS has to offer as a corporate IM solution and how it has now been integrated with Office rather than Exchange.


Nearly everyone I know has used or currently uses some form of instant messaging (IM) software. Whether it’s ICQ, Yahoo Messenger, or MSN/Windows Messenger, this quick and easy way to communicate has become immensely popular over the last few years. Even now as I write this article, I'm chatting online with my brother. That's partly the beauty of IM. It allows you to have pseudo-real-time conversations and still perform other tasks at the same time without wasting a phone call or using an e-mail (which is most definitely not real time). For example, a colleague of mine once used IM software to eliminate international phone calls between his San Diego office and a Tijuana branch office.

Microsoft is a longtime purveyor of IM software, offering Windows Messenger, which is built into recent versions of Windows, and MSN Messenger, which has long been a free download from MSN.com. Microsoft tried unsuccessfully to break into the corporate IM marketplace with Conferencing Server, an Exchange add-on. However, that product was marketed through the wrong channels, bundled with the wrong products, and was a little buggy, in my opinion. And while MSN/Windows Messenger can be used within a corporate environment, companies have longed for a robust, functional version for corporate networks that can be controlled and administrated by the IT department.

Enter Microsoft Live Communications Server. This product replaces the now defunct (but still supported) Conferencing Server. In retrospect, Microsoft realized that IM was related more to Microsoft Office than any other product. And so the successor to Conferencing Server, which was originally code-named Greenwich, became Real Time Communication Server and eventually was changed to Live Communications Server (LCS).

In an article from IDG, LCS is highly touted as the first legitimate corporate-friendly IM product from Microsoft. Because of its tight integration with other Microsoft products, namely Office and the Active Directory, LCS’s chances for success are high. I'll provide an overview of the major features of LCS, some benefits, drawbacks, and its competition. I'll also provide some information on actual installations of LCS in the corporate marketplace.

Major features
LCS is a feature-rich software package that combines the familiarity of the MSN/Windows Messenger (and therefore less need to "train" many users who have already used that software) with the functionality of enterprise applications. Some of the major features are listed below:
  • Status/presence information—This feature is helpful when users are online, offline, busy, out to lunch, on the phone, etc.
  • Audio/video data collaboration—Integration of video is crucial to any real-time "conferencing-like" product, and LCS has that capability.
  • Multiparty conversationswith up to 32 persons—A user can chat with more than one person at a time. This is important in a corporate environment. LCS allows for up to 32 persons.
  • Leverages Active Directory’s authentication model—By using your existing Active Directory accounts for single sign-on, IT professionals gain administrative control over this process and avoid having to manipulate another authentication database.
  • Encryption—In today’s business environment, security is paramount. Through the use of TLS and RTP, Live Communications Server encrypts IM messages to help ensure their security.
  • MOM-friendly—For customers who leverage Microsoft Operations Manager to help manage Windows networks, LCS is MOM-friendly.
  • Extensible development capabilities—There are lots of client and server APIs that developers can take advantage of in order to create other customized communication applications that work with LCS.
  • Works with SharePoint—Because of LCS's tight integration with Office, it only makes sense that LCS integrates with Microsoft's SharePoint technologies.

Benefits
CRN has issued a glowing LCS review, which reports that “Live Communications Server provides encrypted instant messaging, archiving and follows industry accepted SIP/SIMPLE communication protocols. Moreover, it offers an integrated presence-awareness feature that allows users to know if other users are connected online, busy, or offline. The presence-awareness feature can easily be tied to other Office products and other applications through an API. Especially since it is integrated into Office, Live Communications Server is the most effective collaboration server CRN Test Center engineers reviewed this year.”

The last sentence in that quote is the most interesting and is indicative of the most significant feature that Microsoft is marketing; that is, the high levels of collaboration with other Microsoft products. This is consistent with other Microsoft products and not unexpected. Additionally, important features such as encryption and Active Directory integration make it more appealing to IT departments.

Drawbacks
A perceived benefit to some, the tight integration with other Microsoft products can be a negative to others as it makes independence difficult. Additionally, the cost (which you'll see in the next section) is a bit steep and may not be palatable for small businesses, which often resort to using the free, public IM services and sacrifice the functionality and control of a product such as LCS.

Cost
LCS isn't free, but that shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone. Here is a link to the most current licensing and pricing models Microsoft has available for LCS.

Case studies
As a reviewer of technology, I like to see other companies' successes and failures with a product before I implement it. In the case of LCS, there are quite a few reputable and large companies that have had great success with this product. I have provided some info on two of them below. Microsoft’s Web site has a more comprehensive list of LCS implementations.

Lockheed Martin
One of the largest (if not the largest) Department of Defense contractors in America, Lockheed Martin had a business case for Corporate Instant Messaging. As a result of its international presence and employee population of over 125,000 and, more importantly, the inherent project-oriented structure of DoD contractors, Lockheed Martin needed an IM solution that was robust, scalable, secure, and reliable. In LCS, they found such attributes and implemented the product in 2003. For more details, read the full Lockheed Martin case study.

Siemens
A very large telecommunication, medical, and power company (among many things), Siemens benefited from LCS software by using the extensibility of LCS to develop its own product, which heavily leveraged LCS. Folks at Siemens wanted to reduce the duplicitous communication methods and reduce the barriers that time zones or different IM tools can create. For more information on this example of product extensibility using LCS, read this case study.

There are other companies, large and small, including Boeing, Aliant, BP, and Avanade, that have successfully implemented LCS. If you have experience with LCS (positive or negative) that you’d like to share, please do so by using the forums below.

Competition
Microsoft isn't the first company to offer corporate instant messaging. In fact, many companies have been successful in this marketplace. Perhaps none has a stronger presence than IBM with its Sametime Lotus Instant Messaging and Web Conferencing software. This product was one of the first successful corporate IM products and is used extensively by many businesses. It will be interesting to see these two products duke it out. Additionally, AOL has a corporate IM product, Yahoo has a business IM product that it is developing, and there are series of second-tier IM companies that have been around for a while that also sell corporate IM software. In other words, Microsoft has a lot of competition in this arena, but the integration of LCS with Microsoft Office provides LCS with the most powerful integration potential.

End sum
LCS will be particularly appealing to those companies that are already deeply entrenched with Microsoft products. However, Microsoft, no doubt, has a lot of catching up to do in this arena and will face stiff competition from Lotus and others. Nevertheless, changing the product to integrate with Office rather than Exchange was a good move. It also provides integration with SharePoint technologies, which could become much more important if more companies adopt SharePoint for workgroup collaboration.

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