Executive Summary:

The main products comprising Microsoft's unified communications (UC) initiative are Microsoft Exchange Server 2007, Microsoft Office Communications Server (OCS) 2007, Microsoft Office Communicator, Microsoft Office OneNote, Microsoft Office Live Meeting, and Microsoft Office RoundTable. Microsoft Office Communicator is the primary Microsoft Office Communications Server (OCS) 2007 client application. Microsoft Exchange Server 2007 is the core messaging and calendaring program of Microsoft's UC platform.

Microsoft has been making a lot of noise recently about its new unified communications (UC) product line. In January 2006, Microsoft merged the Exchange product group with the Real-Time Communications (RTC) group to form the Unified Communications Group (UCG). UCG now owns Exchange (and Exchange-related products, such as the Exchange Hosted Services family), Microsoft Office Live Communications Server (LCS) 2005, and Microsoft Office Communications Server (OCS) 2007. The merge indicates that Microsoft is moving to a model where Microsoft Exchange, OCS, and other collaboration and communications products are positioned as part of a unified platform. As UC takes hold, Microsoft Exchange professionals may well find their job duties expanding to include not just Exchange, but areas such as IP telephony and collaboration—so it's important to keep an eye on what's happening with UC. With the recent release of Microsoft Exchange Server 2007, which has better support for UC than any of its predecessors, and upcoming release of OCS 2007, it's time to evaluate Microsoft's UC strategy.

What Makes It Unified?
Most communication methods fall into two basic categories: asynchronous methods, which separate the sending of messages from their receipt, and synchronous methods, which keep the sending and receipt of messages together. Email is inherently asynchronous: If you send me an email message, I might not get it until some time later, and my reply might not reach you until even later. However, synchronous methods, such as IM and voice communications, assume that all parties to a conversation are present and more or less participating at the same time. These two categories are very different and must be accessed through separate applications or tools typically.

You can rank communications methods according to the amount of interpersonal bandwidth they provide: Face-to-face meetings are at the top, followed by voice and video sessions, then text-based IM, and finally email. Email and text IM are at the bottom because they're the least interactive methods and provide the least amount of additional information beyond what's actually typed in a message. It's often necessary to switch between communication methods; for example, one participant in a text IM conversation might ask another participant to start a phone call. Microsoft calls this escalating, and it's an important part of Microsoft's UC strategy.

Part of Microsoft's UC strategy is the idea that synchronous and asynchronous communications methods can be tied together into a single set of tools and accessed easily. With a high level of contextual integration, users can start conversations or escalate them from a variety of locations instead of having to switch to a particular application or tool, making it faster and easier to integrate communications in with your work.

UC also deals with how different types of data are tied together. Microsoft Office Outlook was the one of the first widely deployed clients to unify email, calendars, contacts, and tasks. The Office development team has continued to add more data types to Outlook's portfolio, including business scorecards of key performance indicators, RSS feeds, and the contents of Microsoft SharePoint workspaces. The Microsoft Office OneNote team has gotten in on the action as well, with OneNote becoming Microsoft's premier client for unstructured information. Microsoft's goal is to centralize access to many different data types in a small number of powerful applications.

UC Components
Microsoft's UC product line is comprised of several different tools, applications, and servers. Let's review some of the components that Microsoft is including in its UC platform.

Exchange 2007. Exchange 2007 remains the core messaging and calendaring component of Microsoft's UC platform and is the primary means of providing asynchronous communications. Exchange 2007's new unified messaging (UM) server role lets you use a phone to record voicemails and deliver them (along with inbound faxes) to users' Inboxes.

OCS 2007. OCS 2007 replaces LCS 2005 and provides real-time communication in the form of text, voice, and video IM. OCS 2007 also offers many of the telephony capabilities of standalone PBX systems, including call control and routing.

Microsoft Office Communicator 2007. Communicator 2007 is the primary OCS 2007 client application and runs on Windows clients. (There are other OCS 2007 clients, including Communicator Mobile for Windows Mobile devices, Microsoft Messenger for Mac OS X, and Communicator Web Access, but they don't have all of Communicator's features.) Communicator 2007 acts as a VoIP endpoint that can be used to place and receive calls on your computer. Communicator also provides an interface to access the PBX functionality included in OCS 2007. For example, you can redirect (aka deflect) an incoming call from your desktop to your cell phone, home phone, or voicemail.

Microsoft Office Live Meeting. Live Meeting remains Microsoft's hosted meeting and conferencing solution. OCS 2007 also includes a server component that provides most of Live Meeting's functionality if a hosted meeting service doesn't meet your company's needs.

Microsoft Office RoundTable. Office RoundTable is a pedestal-mounted camera that takes a 360 degree panoramic 3000 x 480 pixel image. Office RoundTable's software intelligently splits up the image to provide simultaneous images of multiple attendees. The camera is coupled with an array of microphones that provide noise and echo cancellation and an audio stream for each active presenter. Office RoundTable also automatically switches to the active speaker whenever someone begins to speak. When used with Live Meeting or OCS 2007, the Office RoundTable experience is more like being in an actual meeting than the traditional single-WebCam view can offer.

As you'd expect, there's a high level of integration between these products. (Keep in mind that you'll need to extend your organization's Active Directory—AD—schema to enable this integration.) For example, Communicator can pull out-of-office information from Exchange 2007 and Exchange Server 2003 so that you see each contact's out-of-office status, and when someone calls you and you deflect the call to your voicemail, Exchange 2007 can act as the voicemail system by answering the call, recording a message, and delivering it to your inbox. Also as you might expect, these components interact with other Microsoft products. For example, Microsoft Office Outlook 2007 and Outlook 2003 can display an icon next to contact names that you can click to start an IM, call, or Live Meeting session. This integration provides the kind of contextual access to multiple communications methods that's at the heart of Microsoft's UC strategy. Additionally, you can deploy these components independently of one another.

Exchange 2007
If you're an Exchange administrator, you're probably familiar with Exchange 2007's UM features that let you answer incoming calls, record voice messages, and receive incoming faxes from Exchange 2007. Exchange 2007 itself doesn't act as a phone system; instead, it integrates with compatible PBX systems that support the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) over TCP. Several major PBX vendors, including Nortel, Mitel Networks, and Siemens, offer compatible PBX systems, and both Dialogic and Audiocodes make gateways that can connect a wide range of PBX systems to Exchange 2007. Additionally, some Microsoft partners offer products that integrate with Exchange 2007 or Communicator—for example, Cisco Systems' Cisco Unified Communications Manager.

Exchange 2007's role in Microsoft's UC strategy is complex. As an asynchronous messaging system, Exchange provides a store-and-forward mechanism for delivering voicemails, missed-call notifications, and other types of UC-related notifications and messages. Exchange 2007 also provides client access to these items, so that you can receive voicemails and missed call notifications on your mobile device through Microsoft Outlook Web Access (OWA), in Outlook or Microsoft Entourage, or over the phone with Outlook Voice Access and provides a means for clients, such as Communicator, to get access to free/busy, out-of-office, and user contact information. Note that Outlook 2007 and OWA 2007 handle voicemail messages as a distinct message type, although other clients (including older versions of Outlook, Windows Mobile 5.0, and Entourage) handle voicemail messages as WAV file attachments. With OCS 2007 you can also set up time-based forwarding that uses the working hours you define in your calendar to control when calls are forwarded to particular numbers.

Office Communications Server 2007
OCS 2007 marks a major departure from Microsoft's real-time communications product line. OCS 2007's predecessor, LCS 2005, provided single- and multi-point IM combined with remote call control functionality that let compatible clients place, answer, and redirect calls by sending instructions to a compatible PBX. In addition, the process of setting up remote call control and PBX integration with LCS 2005 was fairly complicated. With OCS 2007, Microsoft is making VoIP the primary communication method rather than conventional PBXs. VoIP provides a much richer feature set than PBX because Communicator acts as the endpoint and the available features aren't dependent on which PBX you have installed.

OCS 2007 includes several new or redesigned server roles. Among them is the Mediation server, which acts as a gateway between OCS 2007's VoIP implementation and the existing PBX systems you might be using, and a new edge server role, which essentially provides the perimeter control and filtering that Exchange 2007 Edge Transport servers do. The edge server role is particularly important if you want to provide federated access to outside users or want your users to be able to connect to your OCS servers from outside the firewall without a VPN. There's also a new conferencing server role in OCSthat provides many of the same Web conferencing features that Live Meeting does. OCS 2007's deployment and management tools have been greatly improved over those in LCS, with a redesigned UI and better tools for managing users, servers, and server pools.

Microsoft said that a single OCS 2007 Standard Edition server should be able to handle a few thousand conferencing and IM users, although the company hasn't yet released the scalability requirements for voice interoperability. OCS 2007 is currently in public beta, so I recommend downloading it (http://www.microsoft.com/technet/prodtechnol/beta/ocs/default.mspx). In my tests, OCS 2007 seems to run well in a virtualized environment using Microsoft Virtual Server and 32-bit Windows.

Communicator 2007
OCS 2007 includes a redesigned version of Communicator Web Access, and an update to the Communicator Mobile client will be available later this year. Communicator 2007 continues to act as an endpoint for text IM and voice and video calls, and includes the following enhancements:

  • You can host multiparty video calls without having to use third-party add-ons, as is required with LCS 2005 and Communicator 2005.
  • Communicator 2007 includes a new inactive presence state. Instead of a binary transition between online and away, the presence status for a user now changes from online to inactive to away, giving you more information about the availability of your contacts.
  • OCS lets you customize the presence states that users can choose from; for example, you could add an En route presence state for field service technicians.
  • If someone calls you or tries to start an IM session while you're away from your computer, you'll receive missed call and conversation alerts in Outlook.
  • Outlook contains a new folder called Conversation History that automatically keeps a history of your conversations and conferences with your contacts.
  • When you're in the middle of a conversation or meeting, you can quickly take notes in OneNote.
  • Interruption management has been improved so that when you're in do not disturb mode, all incoming call requests are automatically sent to your voicemail, although you can configure Communicator 2007 to notify you if certain users are trying to contact you.
  • The UI for Communicator 2007 has been redesigned to match the look and feel of Windows Vista and Office 2007, and it's been streamlined so that it's now much easier to configure call forwarding and answering in Communicator 2007. You can also turn off elements of the Communicator UI to minimize the amount of screen space it takes up.

UC Hardware
One of the most exciting components of Microsoft's UC strategy is actually being executed by its partners, including Polycom, LG-Nortel, and Thomson. These partners (as well as other phone vendors) are building phones and phone-like devices that work seamlessly with OCS 2007. Microsoft calls this initiative Communicator Phone Experience, and the company's goal is to put the intelligent presence and contact management that Communicator provides on PCs directly into phones. (Microsoft also has a completely different set of phone devices being developed under the ResponsePoint brand, but these devices won't work with OCS 2007.) Microsoft hasn't announced availability dates or prices for any of these devices, although it's reasonable to expect to see them in late 2007.

Microsoft's UC Strategy
Microsoft's UC strategy comprises many components, but it's clear that the company is attempting to provide a seamless experience that combines email, voicemail, faxes, text IM, voice, video, and conferencing into a small number of clients (primarily Outlook and Communicator). At the same time, Microsoft is broadening the number of places within its applications that expose presence data or enable you to start or escalate conversations. Because you can deploy some components of Microsoft's UC platform independently, you can experiment with and pilot various architectures to find the combination of features that best meet your company's needs.