For the past number of months, I’ve undergone a crash course in telephony.  Although I’ve overseen telephone systems in the past, including large systems from NEC and Westminster College’s current Nortel system, when it came time to seriously consider a forklift migration to a new system, I wanted to start at square one to make sure I did a thorough analysis of the market; I had to make sure that the product selected would meet the needs of the College.  Equally important were the needs to meet our financial goals related to the project and the need to select a system that would excel at the technical level.

I’ve focused the IT department at Westminster College heavily upon Microsoft products.  If you work in academia, you understand the compelling nature of a Microsoft Campus Agreement.  As a Microsoft-centric institution, I decided to consider Microsoft products when it came time to replace our PBX.

The verdict: For most organizations, Microsoft’s current unified communications product will supplement-not supplant-traditional telephony systems.  To be fair, even Microsoft says this; however, because of my intense desire for “clean” solutions-that is, solutions that integrate will with everything else we have-I was hoping that Office Communications Server and Exchange Server 2007 could fit the bill.

I’ll save some of the discussion and get to the meat.  Here’s where a full-Microsoft implementation falls down:

  • OCS does not support enhanced 911 location information and not many (if any) third parties provide E911 services for OCS. E911 is critical in a college environment.
  • OCS does not provide hunt group capability. In organizations of any reasonable size, hunt groups are used heavily as they help to make sure that calls get to the right place. Simplistically, hunt groups make it possible for a call to a single line to ring on many phones.
  • Conference calling from outside the organization is not supported as a part of OCS’ conferencing capabilities. This deficiency puts the nail in the coffin for the use of OCS as a traditional conferencing bridge. Although you can use OCS and connect it to a third party source to provide audio conferencing, OCS itself supports only Office Communicator-connected clients. This is the missing feature that disappoints me the most and I’d really like to use OCS as both an audio conferencing bridge and a web conferencing system. We’re implementing a new PBX later this month, but it will not have native conferencing capability. Until I identify an on-campus solution, we’ll use an outside service, which is fine in the interim.

These are some of OCS’ major shortcomings.  Now, to be fair, OCS is really a v1 product, so it’s not unexpected that it would have some missing capabilities.  In fact, although I have no source to support the following claim, I believe that Microsoft intentionally releases new products missing one or two critical features as a way to control the uptake of the product.  This would give Microsoft the chance to work with some really early adopters that are ok with a missing feature or two before a product is adopted en masse, giving Microsoft a better picture on direction and support requirements.  This is just my personal opinion.

My point in this post: In almost all cases, OCS 2007 and Exchange 2007 still require a PBX and outside assistance.  If you need hunt groups, conference calling with outside callers, E911-all relatively common telephony features (ok… E911 is often achieved through third party integration anyway)-OCS still needs a real PBX of some kind with which to interface.  When it comes to conferencing, most PBXs have a conferencing option. Even if it’s an add-on with a charge attached to it, at least the service is available!

Although Microsoft has stated that OCS 2007 is not intended to result in the mass replacement of PBXs everywhere, I’m looking forward to future versions of OCS that can at least replace a single traditional telephony service!  There are rumors that Microsoft will release an R2 version of OCS later this year.  I’m eagerly anticipating the release of a feature list that will let me know if OCS can be used to replace my Nortel-based conferencing bridge.  Until then, Westminster College will rely on a third party audio conferencing provider which will provide the same service we have now.