Unified Communications with Exchange and Lync can banish 'information islands'

John Joyner explores the potential for Exchange and Lync Server 2010 to work together to bridge gaps between email, IM, and voicemail, allowing for seamless data exchange.

Unified Communications (UC) refers to both real-time and non-real-time delivery of communications based on the preferred method and location of the recipient. UC has the potential to bust open legacy information silos like voicemail, and bridge the gap between instant messaging (IM) and conventional email. UC can compensate for the weaknesses of the various communication types by linking media sources together. Who doesn't want seamless data exchange, where information effortlessly follows the user?

A smart UC architecture can provide cross-platform awareness and cooperation between communications applications. The goal is that users quickly become aware of information they need to act on, wherever they are, and wherever the information came from. We want to avoid critical information island scenarios like these:
  • Traditional voicemail that sits in a queue until you dial into your voicemail system remotely to check messages, or you return to your office and respond to the blinking voicemail light.
  • An instant message from a colleague waits unanswered on a computer screen-there is doubt if the recipient will see the message when they return to their computer.

Both of the scenarios above involve a possible loss of data, or at least tardy processing of time sensitive business information. Microsoft's latest products, Exchange Server 2010 and Lync Server 2010, deliver a solution that eliminates these data loss scenarios.

UC market dominance eludes all vendors

Achieving a full featured UC capability that is easy to put together and use has been an elusive goal for the IT industry. Cisco is years ahead of Microsoft in the UC field, yet there is enormous potential for all players in this market due to the lack of a heavy favorite with customers. The 2011 Gartner Report on Unified Communications of August 22, 2011 rated Microsoft #1 for both vision and ability to execute, and had this to say about Microsoft's UC stack:

"Microsoft released Lync (an evolution of its OCS product) and enhanced its telephony capabilities. Microsoft now has references that use only Lync for telephony, which is an important milestone. Microsoft also made important UC as a service (UCaaS) advances with the release of Office 365, which includes Lync-Online. Microsoft's pending acquisition of Skype is likely to lead to Skype-integrated Lync offerings."

Cisco has offered a complete stack of UC hardware and software for some time, which also integrates with Microsoft Exchange Unified Messaging through Cisco "Call Manager" software. The Cisco UC solution has a reputation for doing what it says; however owing to the cost and complexity of procurement, deployment, and support, it is still not extremely popular.

IBM is charging hard in the UC field with offerings called IBM SameTime and IBM SameTime Unified Telephony.  IBM's UC technology was previously offered under the Lotus SameTime product line, but IBM has rebranded by dropping the Lotus linkage in the name. An upside to the IBM solution is that the server components can run on the AIX, Linux, Solaris and Windows operating systems. A downside is that IBM doesn't have a hybrid on-premise and cloud integration story like Microsoft does with Office 365.

Microsoft hits a home run with 2010 releases

There are two main pieces to the Microsoft UC architecture: Exchange Server 2010 Unified Messaging for email integration and Lync Server 2010 for presence, instant messaging, and conferencing. When these products are deployed together, a powerful synergy is created that can be literally transformative for an organization. Here's a brief background of these Microsoft components, as well as how the new products avoid the information islands of voicemail and IM:

History: Microsoft entered the UC market in 2006 with a new "Unified Messaging" component in the Exchange 2007 product. A centerpiece of early Exchange UC was the receipt of recorded voicemails as attachments to email messages. Today: Exchange Server 2010 Unified Messaging is a second generation UC server product with compelling new features like speech-to-text translation of voicemails. Scenario: Voicemails left at the office are translated and readable as text messages minutes later from anywhere using Outlook, Outlook WebApp, and via Active-Sync on mobile devices like smartphones. History: Microsoft Office Live Communications Server 2003 (OCS) was the original IM and chat component that has grown into Lync Server 2010. Today: Lync 2010 integrates deeply with Microsoft Office applications such as Outlook; the presence and status of all team members in a project are viewable everywhere. Right-clicking on a colleague's Lync status icon will offer a half-dozen ways to interact with the person in real-time and non-real-time. Scenario: IMs left on a computer screen, but not replied to after a few minutes, are automatically packaged and delivered as emails, creating a permanent record of the IM.

Lync 2010 can replace or enhance your existing IP PBX system

To enjoy the benefits of any vendor's UC solution, it is necessary to interface the voice phone system with the computer data network. The heart of every telephony system is a Private Branch eXchange (PBX) device. Users of the PBX share a certain number of outside lines for making telephone calls external to the PBX. A legacy PBX is not IP (Internet Protocol) aware, so there are IP gateway devices available from many vendors to connect PBXs with UC components. Newer PBXs, known as IP PBXs, perform the legacy PBX role as well as talk natively over the IP network with UC components.

Figure A

The hardware needed for the full UC experience, here an IP PBX (UX2000 by NET) and an IP Phone (CX600 by Polycom).
To support Exchange 2010 Unified Messaging, one or both types of PBX configurations are used when connecting a telephony network infrastructure to a data network infrastructure. See what hardware solutions are compatible with Exchange 2010 at the TechNet Telephony Advisor.  Complement and complete your Microsoft UC experience with IP Phones that are Lync-ready. Figure A pictures the two key pieces in a modern office's UC solution: An IP PBX from NET (Network Equipment Technologies) and a Lync-ready IP Phone from Polycom.

By John Joyner

John Joyner, MCSE, CMSP, MVP Cloud and Datacenter Management, is senior architect at ClearPointe, a cloud provider of systems management services. He is co-author of the "System Center Operations Manager: Unleashed" book series from Sams Publishing, ...