Unified Comms

Is Microsoft VoIP ready for prime time?

With its new Office Communications Server (OCS), Microsoft is setting out to get its feet wet in the VoIP space. Here's a closer look at OCS, what it does, and what it means to companies looking to deploy VoIP in their organizations.

Last spring, Microsoft representative Jeff Raikes predicted that VoIP would move from hardware- to software-based in the next few years and that this move would bring down the cost of business VoIP considerably. We last took a look at Microsoft VoIP in January, and, as expected, things have changed in the resulting months. With its new Office Communications Server (OCS), the company is setting out to get its feet wet in the VoIP space -- in a big way.

OCS is about more than VoIP, but VoIP is a big part of OCS. Its VoIP capability is what sets it apart from its predecessor, Live Communications Server (LCS). You can integrate the software-based VoIP feature in OCS into existing PBX systems, or you can use it alone. Here's a closer look at OCS, what it does, and what it means to companies looking to deploy VoIP in their organizations.

Two editions for two different markets

OCS, like many other Microsoft server products, comes in two different editions to serve different markets. Small and midsize companies can get into the game at a lower cost with the Standard Edition. Not only does the software itself cost less, but it runs all the components, including the database that stores user information, on a single server computer so hardware costs can be less as well.

Larger companies that need higher capacity can accomplish this with the Enterprise Edition, which spreads out server functions across multiple machines, with one or more front-end servers -- you can load-balance multiple front-end servers for better availability and performance -- and a database server on the back end.

Enterprise Voice

Enterprise Voice is the VoIP component of OCS, and it's an important point of the Unified Communications goal of OCS (along with audio/video, conferencing, IM, and Outlook/Exchange integration). OCS makes VoIP an integral part of working with Office applications. Users can make phone calls in a "click-to-call" manner to Outlook and Communicator contacts.

OCS also provides a similar sort of functionality as services such as Google's GrandCentral, which allow users to integrate all their phone numbers. Users can register their mobile phones and other devices with OCS; they then receive calls simultaneously on all registered endpoints and can choose which to answer. Through the Enterprise Voice client software, users can also choose whether to forward unanswered calls to another number or log them for notification.

In addition, the voice functionality doesn't limit users to calling within the local area network. Users with Internet connections can call into the office remotely. They don't have to use a VPN or pay long-distance charges.

Cost savings go beyond substituting VoIP for PSTN calls. When calls do need to go through the PSTN, Enterprise Voice uses least-cost algorithms to determine how to route those calls.

PBX integration

Based on the SIP standard, OCS offers integration with a company's existing IP PBX if it supports SIP and native PBX integration. That means users can use existing handsets to make and take phone calls, as well as Office Communicator 2007 on their computers.

A mediation server mediates signaling and media between the OCS and PBX systems. It's necessary if you're using a basic media gateway. If you have an advanced media gateway, however, the gateway handles mediation, and you don't need a mediation server. Media gateways are devices that translate the signaling and media between the Enterprise Voice software and the PSTN.

When the PBX routes calls to users, it also sends the call to OCS. OCS then routes the call to the user's registered SIP endpoints while the PBX sends it to the PBX phone on the user's desk.

Another option is to set up OCS to handle phone calls for an individual department within a company while the rest of the company uses the existing PBX. This allows you to roll out OCS in increments within the organization and/or to deploy OCS only for those groups that need its features.

A media gateway can connect the OCS/VoIP group with the PBX. The members of these groups don't necessarily have to be in the same physical location. If the team members are in disparate locations, they can use OCS for communications, which can save a significant amount of money in long-distance charges.

You can place Enterprise Voice either in front of or behind the PBX. Each option has advantages and disadvantages. Placing Enterprise Voice in front of the PBX means incoming calls come into the media gateway, and it routes calls to the PBX or OCS as appropriate. Placing Enterprise Voice behind the PBX means incoming calls go to the PBX first, and it routes calls for Enterprise Voice users to the media gateway.

OCS and Exchange Server 2007 Unified Messaging (UM) can work together to provide users with Outlook Voice Access. This makes e-mail messages, faxes, and voice messages all accessible from Outlook on a computer or over the phone via an access number assigned by the Exchange UM administrator. Exchange UM can provide voice mail services when you use OCS without PBX integration.

Drawbacks

Of course, like any VoIP solution, a network or power outage may cause you to lose telephone service. In addition, problems with the OCS server itself may result in a voice outage.

You'll want to have an alternative calling method available for emergency services (i.e., 911) in such cases. OCS doesn't automatically provide physical location information to emergency services when a caller dials 911.

Another consideration is that when using PBX integration, users can't use the OCS voice mail. That means you have to either use the voice mail system on the PBX or configure voice mail on Exchange Unified Messaging.

Deploying Enterprise Voice can be complex. If you have outside callers who use Office Communicator, you need an Access Edge Server and Audio/Video Edge Server so their calls can go through the firewall or NAT device.

The A/V Edge Server includes an A/V Authentication service that authenticates outside callers. In addition, you need to translate phone numbers to the E.164 format, create dialing plans, define usage records to assign call permissions to users, and populate a routing table for determining how to route which calls to which gateways.

Summary

Microsoft OCS 2007 provides enterprise-level VoIP and integrates with Exchange 2007 for full-fledged unified communications. However, as with other enterprise services, deployment can be a complex process. Many businesses will probably find it best to engage the services of a specialist to get it up and running.

Deb Shinder is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. She currently specializes in security issues and Microsoft products, and she has received Microsoft's Most Valuable Professional (MVP) status in Windows Server Security.

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About

Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 add...

8 comments
jhkotak
jhkotak

MS is ready to be in the lime light. I am not so sure if it is ready from Prime Time. Right now I use the PC boot time and Windows update time & restart time to make phone calls. B OCS with PBX Integration is the best bet for next few years.

Jaqui
Jaqui

I'll go to the Nov 13 exposition MS is having here in Vancouver, and I'll take the copy of both the server and client packages of it, and look at what they are offering as ready for market. Then I'll answer your question.

gfeintrepid
gfeintrepid

My understanding is that all the voip bits is done by Nortel and these these 2 companies have allied to get OCS running... I know Nortel does use the standard G.729 and G.711 codecs for packetization. I could be wrong...

mbbs
mbbs

For me, the main drawback is that MS does not use the standard codecs & signaling protocols that are usual in the telecom world (normal SIP & G.711, G.723, G.729 codecs?. Therefore you need a mediation server to integrate with PBXs or or special GW to connect to ISDN, adding unnecessary cost & complexity. Another thing is they don't have PBX features like manager/assistant, Call Center, IVR, ... Al those things that are requested in Enterprise environment.

ashfaq07
ashfaq07

One can easily incorporate the UM sell MS is pushing with open source solutions with gateways to the Exchange. With this inexpensive solution, one gets all the VM, IVR, Reporting features etc. and Exchange can get the UM offerings.

mbbs
mbbs

Nortel wis not the only vendor capable of coupling with OCS, there are a number of certified gateways. My point is that MS on its own is not ready. You still need to couple with a PBX or a gateway to get decent phone services and translate the MS proprietary protocols to commonly used codecs & signaling. I work for an ICT integrator, and we recently got a presentation & demo about OCS from MS sales people. Their attitude is that all other vendors have to adapt to their proprietary SIP/CSTA signaling and special codecs, instead of MS using commonly used protocols directly

Jaqui
Jaqui

except I don't even have a single copy of windows. My evaluation of these packages will have a highly critical eye doing it, they would have to be perfect, since they are assumed to be garbage to start with.

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