SolutionBase: Keep users in touch with Live Communication Server 2005

Collaboration is one of the key buzzwords of the day. Your users need a way to work and share information bettter. Here's how Live Communications Server 2005 can help do that.

In yesterday's business world, simple access to the Internet was the ticket. Today, it's all about collaboration and presence--knowing when your teammates and partners are online. In Office 2003, Microsoft introduced a collection of new features to make it easier for people to collaborate on all kinds of projects through Office applications and document workspaces. These workspaces are Windows SharePoint Services sites that provide a framework for collaboration among team members. What was missing was the means to provide secure messaging and presence across the enterprise. Microsoftï¿?s recently released Live Communications Server is the missing piece of the puzzle. Letï¿?s take a look at Live Communications Server and see how it fits with another piece of the puzzle, Microsoft Office Live Meeting.

Live Communications Server versus Microsoft Office Live Meeting

If youï¿?ve been looking for ways to provide collaboration for your Microsoft Office users, you might have explored Microsoft Office Live Meeting. Live Meeting is a hosted online web conferencing and collaboration service delivered by PlaceWare Inc., a subsidiary of Microsoft. Live Meeting enables Microsoft Office users to show documents, share applications, deliver presentations, and receive feedback through real-time polling. Live Meeting is priced on a per-seat/per-hour basis, or on a per-minute basis.

Live Meeting offers whiteboard and presentation features, along with voice conferencing. It offers two types of virtual conference rooms to serve large presentations or smaller collaborative meetings. Presenters can incorporate live web pages in the presentation, and presentations can be recorded for playback by users who canï¿?t attend the live presentation. In a nutshell, you can cut out travel associated with many of your meetings and hold them online with Live Meetingï¿?s capabilities.

Live Communications Server (LCS) serves some of the same functions, but LCS is really a different animal from Live Meeting. In a nutshell, LCS provides the back end infrastructure for secure instant messaging across the enterprise and with business partners that have also deployed LCS. LCS provides presence information to enable users to see when coworkers and partners are online and easily initiate IM sessions with them through Windows Messenger. Users can perform certain collaboration tasks such as whiteboarding and application sharing through Windows Messenger, in conjunction with LCS.

At first blush, LCS can be a confusing product because itï¿?s difficult to see where LCS stops and other products, such as Live Meeting, start. Letï¿?s take a look at LCS to get a better handle on what it is and how it might fit into your organization.

Enterprise Instant Messaging

First and foremost, LCS provides a secure platform for enterprise-wide and enterprise-to-enterprise instant messaging. In fact, thatï¿?s the main focus of LCS--providing secure IM and presence information within a company and between business partners.

For example, some of your users probably use chat programs now to chat with other users, either within your company or outside of it. However, those chat sessions are not encrypted, and therefore expose the data flowing between users. Whether youï¿?re simply trying to ensure high security for your proprietary data, or need to comply with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (financial services) or the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), that encryption is essential.

LCS works in combination with Windows Messenger 5.1 to provide encryption for IM. Whatï¿?s more, companies can set up relationships (called federation) to LCS running in other organizations to provide secure, encrypted IM with those partners. The net effect is that your company can enjoy the benefits of Windows Messenger not only from user to user within your organization, but also with business partners. No VPNs--or the headaches associated with setting up and managing them--are required, because LCS uses standard ports.

LCS moves beyond the Windows Messenger boundary, however, to also support AOL Instant Messenger, Yahoo Messenger clients, and Microsoft own MSN Messenger IM clients. This new IM integration means LCS users will see their Yahoo, AOL and MSN buddy lists appear when they log on and be able to instant message their contacts. This truce in the IM war between the big three players, although long in coming, will nevertheless be welcomed by lots of IM fans.

Office Collaboration and Presence Awareness

While Live Meeting certainly offers an interesting array of collaboration features, it's not the only way to provide collaboration capabilities to your Microsoft Office users. As I already mentioned, you can use SharePoint Services to create document workspaces in which team members can view, comment on, and share documents, as well as share contacts and other information.

Document workspaces provide presence awareness--the capability to see at a glance when a particular contact is online. You've probably seen this at work in Microsoft Outlook 2003, which shows a green pawn icon beside a contact who is online. What you might not realize is that this presence information also extends to other Office 2003 applications.

For example, assume youï¿?re reviewing a shared sales report and have a question about whether it is still current. Through the presence information provide in Word, you can tell at a glance that the author is online and easily initiate a chat session to discuss the document. Meeting Workspaces provide dynamic presence icons next to each team memberï¿?s name, making it easy to initiate an IM conversation with a team member. With Microsoft Exchange integration, you can even check a personï¿?s schedule and get up-to-date availability information directly from their calendar.

LCS is the back end piece that brings this presence information to the user and provides the same capabilities for secure IM among team members. LCS brings to this collaboration framework the added security of encryption and the capability to broaden the scope of a workspace to business partners. Within an organization, users can take advantage of LCS to work from home or while traveling, enjoying the same secure IM capabilities and easy IM integration when collaborating in Microsoft Office.

Beyond Simple IM

Although IM by itself is certainly a valuable tool for collaboration and communication, itï¿?s just one tool in the box. If youï¿?ve spent any time in Windows Messenger recently, youï¿?ve no doubt realized that all of the features in the long-gone NetMeeting for whiteboard, application sharing, audio conferencing, and video conferencing have over time found their way under Windows Messengerï¿?s hood. Windows Messenger therefore provides a good platform for collaboration outside of the Office framework, as well as within it. Again, LCS provides the IM infrastructure that not only secures that traffic but also broadens its scope to include your business partners.

In addition, technologies such as Voice over IP (VoIP) and PC-to-phone connectivity are fast becoming key tools that companies use to cut communication costs and improve communication and collaboration overall. With LCS in place, your users can make PC-to-phone and phone-to-PC audio calls through the standard public switched telephone network (PSTN) with an appropriate gateway deployment.

LCS 2003 included support for PC-to-phone calling by connecting the LCS infrastructure to a SIP to IP-PSTN (Session Initiation Protocol to Internet Protocol-public switched telephone network) gateway. In LCS 2005, this feature is expanded to give you more options for making the connection between LCS and the SIP to IP-PSTN gateway. Where LCS 2003 required a single, dedicated LCS to communicate with the gateway, LCS 2005 allows multiple servers to communicate directly with the gateway.

Two Flavors

LCS 2005 comes in two flavors: Standard and Enterprise. The Standard Edition supports up to 15,000 users per server, a jump from 2003ï¿?s 10,000 users. Standard Edition uses MSDE as the underlying database engine to store user data such as contact lists and registration status. Users are assigned to a single home server, although a domain can include multiple servers.

Enterprise Edition gives you the capability to create an LCS server pool, which is a group of front-end servers that connect to a separate, shared SQL Server database. Each pool can handle up to 100,000 users. The pool provides clustering and failover capability, as well as scalability. On the SQL Server back end, you can implement SQL Server clustering and data recovery solutions for performance, reliability, and availability. Both Standard Edition and Enterprise Edition require Windows Server 2003 and Active Directory. Windows Messenger 5.1 (or later) is also required.

Bottom Line

Although LCS doesnï¿?t directly provide many of the collaboration features Iï¿?ve explored here, it binds together these features in a much more seamless way. Providing a secure connection between users helps you meet data privacy and corporate security concerns, and the capability to support IM from remote users without the need for VPNs will be a boon for many IT and network administrators. Just simplifying remote usersï¿? access to remote assistance could save hours of call center time.

Perhaps one of the most compelling new features of Live Communications Server 2005 is federation because it makes it possible to extend the benefits of secure IM, presence awareness, and data sharing throughout your organizationï¿?s entire business sphere. Your companyï¿?s subsidiaries, partners, suppliers, and customers can all communicate with key employees in real time, just as if they were all residing in the same network domain.

Finally, the capability to integrate Windows Messenger with AOL, Yahoo, and MSN can potentially be a major consideration for your users. After all, the fewer IM platforms you have to support for your users, the better.