Are the days of the legacy PBX numbered? 

Besides high price tags and surprise licensing, nothing says “vendor lock in” like a PBX.  In my organization we run a Nortel CS1000 and, in my previous organization, we ran an NEC 2400 IPX.  I’ve also managed smaller systems and remember the “$30,000” phone that we once had to buy when we ran out of expansion space in a cabinet.

With the rapid rise of SIP-based IP systems, are the days of the legacy PBX numbered in favor of something approaching an open and more easily managed environment?  For now… even as much as I’d like to say yes… the answer is no.

Recently, Microsoft announced Office Communications Server 2007, an upgrade for Live Communications Server 2005 that adds VoIP capability, among other things.  Microsoft is initially targeting OCS 2007 at organizations that want to run OCS side-by-side with their existing PBX.  Microsoft is taking the view that voice services will ultimately be handled in software rather than through legacy hardware.  This could mean significant expansion in the data center with new servers, new storage and more capacity required.

Ok… now all that said, here are some of the major drawbacks I see with migrations to OCS 2007:

  • Organizational issues between voice, data and email groups in larger IT organizations.  That said, in organizations that have combined these areas, a convergence could result in significant efficiency gains.
  • Like them or not, PBX’s just work.  They’re rock solid, reliable, stable and rarely lock up, blue screen or otherwise fail.  Communication between PBX modules also just works since everything is tested as a package.  Further, most PBXs are backed up by hours of battery and generator power.  When you consider that the voice network is critical for business communication and for calling 911, availability is key.
  • Microsoft’s OCS doesn’t support enhanced 911 yet.  Microsoft is working on deciding whether this capability will come in SP1 or in the next major release.  Without E911’s location announcing capabilities, forget OCS for many organizations.  Does anyone know of any third party solutions that integrate with OCS and correct this deficiency?
  • Legacy infrastructure to IP-based infrastructure doesn’t happen overnight.  Many organizations run a multitude of analog and digital phone sets and replacing these devices, let alone enhancing the cabling infrastructure, is no small feat.  Sure, there are analog-to-SIP gateways available, but these still need to be purchased, configured and installed.
  • Office Communication Server’s VoIP capabilities are “version 1” features and mark a significant new foray for Microsoft.  It might be worth giving them some time to determine what works and doesn’t.

Microsoft has laid out a grand vision with regard to communication and they are making good on this vision through products such as Office Communication Server and Exchange 2007 Unified Messaging.  Further, Microsoft has, so far, not indicated that they themselves feel that they are ready to completely ready to supplant the PBX.  They have partnered with PBX vendors, including the aforementioned Nortel, to provide side-by-side integration opportunities.

Eventually, I think we’ll see a day when OCS can be a sole PBX.  At that point, organizations will need to decide if they want to entrust voice services to Microsoft alone and will need to beef up their data networks in order to approach the reliability provided by the phone network.

Are you considering an OCS rollout in your organization?  I’d love to hear about your thoughts on this topic.