In the past few years, only virtualization and the cloud have rivaled unified communications (UC) as the latest IT buzz phrases. UC is all about integrating various communication modalities, such as email, IM, telephony, voicemail, video, fax, and conferencing into a single system and then providing contextual information to users to help them choose the best method to contact someone at any given time. For example, companies that have deployed a full UC system, such as Microsoft Lync Server 2010, have found that voicemail is a rarity because users can discover a contact’s availability and then choose to email or IM rather than call. Taken further, UC can be embedded into the business process. An example would be a maintenance crew being selected based on presence and then contacted through an automated system either by IM or voice to be summoned to a job.

This utopian vision requires a fair amount of work in the background. You have the obvious technical challenge of integrating the modalities; however, in many ways this is far simpler than changing the culture of a business—which requires making information such as presence and skill set freely available and working to achieve a flexible and empowered workforce of individuals who are trusted to work in support of each other and the organization wherever and whenever necessary. Any company that embarks on a UC project needs to clearly identify why it’s doing so, outline its business and technical goals, and communicate why and how it will bring this change to users.

What Is Lync?

Lync is the new name for Microsoft’s real-time communication platform, previously known as Microsoft Office Communications Server. OCS provided enterprise IM, presence, and conferencing with direct integration to the Microsoft Office suite of applications. It also provided nascent telephony functionality and conferencing features that were cost effective and easy to manage.

In conjunction with Microsoft Exchange Server 2010 and Microsoft SharePoint Server 2010, Lync builds on its predecessor, OCS, in key areas:

  • The PC and browser client experience, which I discuss later in the article
  • Extensibility improvement through Microsoft Unified Communications Managed API (UCMA) 3.0, which provides a single set of APIs to access and control all modes of communication; the APIs ensure that access to communication modalities can be easily embedded in new and existing applications through Microsoft Silverlight and the .NET Framework
  • Management improvements (e.g., PowerShell, Silverlight web-based management console)
  • Improved telephony features
These improvements are underlined by tight integration with the cloud as part of Microsoft’s Office 365 offering. Office 365 will provide the ability to host Lync either on premises or in the cloud and to have close interoperability and single sign-on (SSO) between systems such as Exchange and SharePoint whether in the cloud or on premises.

The Lync Client

With Lync, Microsoft has worked hard to streamline the client experience, moving toward a single client for real-time communication. The biggest change is that the separate Live Meeting client no longer exists, with the functionality integrated into the main Lync client.

The Lync client gives users all the necessary information to easily find and communicate with the correct person through the most appropriate method. Presence information is gathered from integration with Exchange calendar information and enhanced by real-time usage data from the PC, location, and device awareness. The addition of photos in presence, close integration with SharePoint 2010 or SharePoint 2007 for skills-based searching, and a Twitter-like update capability called the Activity Feed (which can provide status updates, Out of Office—OOF—messages, and notifications about photo changes) all provide a rich environment that lets teams work closely together and understand one another’s goals. In addition, users can quickly and easily find the relevant person in an organization. Of course, organizations that want to disable functionality such as the Activity Feed can do so through client policies.

The Lync client has been completely redesigned from OCS. It has a simple layout, with easily accessible key options; it operates based on four main tabs that provide contacts, activity feed, communication history, and telephony functions. Examples that demonstrate Lync’s ease of use include the ability to effortlessly switch between audio devices even within a call, the ability to pop out the video feed in a call and move it to another monitor for ease of viewing, and the telephony tab’s provision of visual access to voicemail and a large-size numerical keypad for dialing.

Microsoft has done a lot of work to ensure tight integration between Outlook, Lync, and the wider Microsoft Office 2010 suite. (Of course, Lync also works with earlier versions of the Office suite. For detailed information about compatibility, see TechNet’s Lync 2010 Compatibility web page.)

One very effective Lync improvement when working with Office 2010 is the presence contact card, which is identical wherever presence is accessed across the Office suite. The contact card provides key details about people’s locations and availability, as well as single-click access to the main modes of communication, as Figure 1 shows. For example, Lync consolidates contact objects found in the Global Address List (GAL), Outlook contacts, and potentially on Facebook and LinkedIn through the Outlook Social Connector (OSC), to present a single contact with all relevant information about a person.
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Figure 1: Lync 2010’s contact card (click image for larger view)

Another welcome addition, described as “the mother of all redials” at launch, is the new conversation history tab in the Lync client. This is another example of tight integration with Exchange because it uses either Exchange 2010 or Exchange 2007 as a data store to give instant visibility of all previous communication, whether over IM, voice, or conferencing, and lets users dive straight back into a previous conversation, with the context of what happened previously.


One thing missing in Lync is a replacement for OCS Communicator Web Access. CWA provided basic IM and presence functions, as well as desktop sharing through a web browser. As I mention in the conferencing section later in the article, a basic browser client is included, but it’s currently only able to provide access to conferences, as Figure 2 shows.
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Figure 2: Lync 2010’s basic browser client, showing the Lync web app connected to a conference (click image for larger view)

Currently, if you need a more fully fledged web-based client, you must deploy CWA from OCS 2007 R2. Microsoft has plans for a native Lync web client, although the timeframe for release is unknown.

Lync includes improvements for mobile device users, particularly BlackBerry users. BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) 5.0 SP3 includes a native Lync client that connects directly to Lync, just as Windows Mobile 6.5’s Microsoft Office Communicator Mobile (CoMo) client does. BES 5.0 SP3 makes BlackBerry one of the most fully featured clients available for Lync (at least until the iPhone and Windows Phone 7 clients are released later in 2011). For die-hard Windows Mobile 6.5 device users, the existing CoMo client will still work with Lync.

Finally, it’s worth noting that although the Lync client can be installed on Windows XP SP3 and later, a very capable Mac client is also available that works on Mac OS X 10.5.8 and later. This client, called Microsoft Communicator for Mac 2011, provides IM, voice, video, and conferencing features in addition to integration with Microsoft Office for Mac 2011. Unfortunately, some elements are currently missing, such as the ability to set up a conference via Microsoft Outlook 2011—but further functionality is likely forthcoming. For more details about specific features that are available, see the Microsoft TechNet Client Comparison Tables website.

Collaboration

A key enhancement to the Lync client is the integration of Microsoft Office Live Meeting functionality, which no longer requires its own client. It’s now possible to conduct rich conferencing sessions either on a planned (i.e., scheduled through Microsoft Outlook 2010, 2007, or 2003) or ad hoc basis through a single client. Features such as prior uploading of slides and handouts, presenter view with private navigation of slides and slide notes, animated slide builds, white boarding, and polls are all available. In addition, the ability to share either a program or whole desktop while using audio and video feeds makes Lync a comprehensive conferencing system. Of course, conferences can be recorded and then directly uploaded to a SharePoint site for future viewing.

Some issues still exist with the Lync conferencing experience—for example, the inability to present a tiled view of all participants so you can view everyone in the conference simultaneously is annoying. Lync still works on the premise of showing current and previous speakers. You can work around this problem by using a third-party conferencing bridge such as those available from Tandberg, Polycom, and LifeSize.

Lync provides access to conferences for external partners in various ways. You can access a conference through a web browser, from which you have the choice to join the meeting from a phone number that you provide or via the Attendee client, which is a scaled-down Lync client that enables rich access to all elements of the conference, including voice and video access from a PC that isn’t owned by the organization. Direct telephone access is also available. Dial-in conferencing services are enhanced in Lync to let participants dial in to any Lync conference. Once connected, users can use familiar, customizable dual-tone multi-frequency (DTMF) tones to control their participation. For example, participants can be asked to record their names and allowed to mute and unmute lines, and organizers can easily request a roll call.

Across all the new conferencing methods, the lobby feature is a great addition. This function provides a means for organizers to keep attendees outside the conference until admittance is suitable, to ensure a professional presentation. Hold music plays while participants wait in the virtual lobby. Although Microsoft doesn’t support changing the hold music, you can do so, as the Microsoft article “How to customize voice prompts or music files for dial-in audio conferencing in Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007 R2” describes.

Telephony and Voice

One of the product group’s major focuses in updating Lync was to improve telephony functionality. The company’s goal is to compete with Cisco and Avaya to be one of the top three enterprise telephony companies. Lync 2010’s features help push Microsoft in that direction.

Architecturally, Lync includes many changes to support enhanced availability and failover capabilities both in the data center and in branch offices. Lync clients can connect either to a primary or backup registrar, which lets service automatically switch to a secondary data center in case of a disaster. Where a media path is maintained, existing calls will stay up. Specific to branch offices are Survivable Branch Appliances. These hardware solutions, offered by Microsoft partners such as NET Quintum, HP, Ferrari, and Audiocodes, are centrally managed and don’t require extensive technical skills to deploy. The devices act as the registrar for local users; in the event of a WAN failure, they let calls route out of local Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) lines instead of over the WAN to the central office. For a list of supported devices, see the Lync Unified Communications Open Interoperability Program website.

An important new Lync feature is Enhanced 911 (E911) support. Lync can provide location information to emergency services via a Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) trunk. Location information is gathered automatically if a user is within the company network and the administrator has mapped the network into Lync’s Location Information Service (LIS); in the case of an external user, the user is prompted to enter location information. This information is retained and automatically selected when Lync realizes it has connected to the same network before.


End users can benefit from many new features, including call park, second/private line, and a call quality tester. The quality tester is useful for unknown network, Wi-Fi, or ADSL connections. The user can simply place a call to an automated bot, record some audio, and listen to a playback to determine whether the voice quality is acceptable. Alongside this functionality is the ability to provide information to the user about reasons for poor call quality, as Figure 3 shows.
Lync_2010_call_quality_Fig3_129622_0Figure 3: Lync 2010’s call quality notifications

Lync still has the capability for work delegation, in which an assistant manages executives’ calls; this functionality was introduced in OCS 2007 R2. In Lync, delegation management and operation is now handled through the Lync client rather than the Attendant Console. The Attendant Console is reserved for high call volume scenarios, such as an operator. In addition, users can now mark a call such as a bomb threat or simply an offensive call as malicious and have that information tagged for easy retrieval from Call Detail Records (CDRs) stored by the monitoring server role. This functionality is fairly limited at present; it doesn’t immediately record a call or automatically notify administrators.

Other important updates are the implementation of Call Admission Control (CAC) and improvements in the response group application, which enables support for small contact centers. Microsoft implemented CAC to address the challenges of providing real-time communication over LANs and WANs with limited bandwidth. To configure CAC, you must work with your network administrator to define hub sites and WAN links. You must understand available bandwidth and codec usage and define the maximum bandwidth available to Lync to appropriately control the number of calls. When limits are reached, policies can be implemented to make intelligent routing decisions (e.g., routing video out over the Internet, handing off a call to the PSTN). Video and voice can be routed in different ways, improving the efficiency of bandwidth usage. Another benefit is that Lync logs all blocked and redirected calls to let you further tweak your policies as required. Regarding the response group improvements, a key element that stands out is the ability to support the aggregated presence of groups and to hide agents behind the group name, to provided agent anonymity.

Finally, Lync 2010 supports a wider range of devices, including common area and desk phones operating over IP rather than via USB connection to the PC. Although Lync still supports all the previous methods of interoperating with PBXs, it’s now a credible replacement alternative.

Management and Reporting

Lync 2010 provides several improvements in the management and reporting space. The Microsoft Management Console (MMC) OCS snap-in has been retired and replaced with a well laid out, simple web-based control panel, as Figure 4 shows.
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Figure 4: Lync Server 2010 Control Panel (click image for larger view)

The Lync Server 2010 Control Panel provides easy access to key features without having to drill through multiple layers of configuration information. Being web based means that you can easily manage Lync from any computer running Internet Explorer (IE) 7.0 or 8.0 or Firefox 3 or later as long as the Microsoft Silverlight 4 add-in is installed.

As with Exchange 2010 and the majority of Microsoft’s server applications, the entire Lync product is underpinned with PowerShell, which means that automation of almost any element is possible and documentation of configuration steps is easy. Of course, also as with Exchange, just as not everything can be configured from the shell, not everything can be done from the GUI. For example, the configuration of call park settings, announcements for unassigned extensions, and certain client policies can be done only through PowerShell. In general, the balance between the shell and the GUI is good—and with PowerShell becoming uniform across all Microsoft products, it’s just one of those things that administrators have to learn.

Another positive is the implementation of role-based access control (RBAC). Management at the organization or pool level was very difficult to implement in OCS. The extremely limited delegation capacity didn’t give global organizations the potential to easily delegate setup or administration and therefore required a central management team. Lync 2010 includes 11 predefined roles that cover many common administrative tasks. In addition, you can create your own custom roles for granular management delegation. Unfortunately, there’s no direct integration with Exchange’s RBAC system.


On the reporting front, Lync provides even more information and integrates closely with Microsoft System Center Operations Manager. For example, Lync 2010 includes actionable alerts; when an alert occurs, an operator can click a link to kick off an automated repair process (e.g., to restart services). This means that operators can restore service without administrative access to the boxes. Another addition is the ability to create synthetic transactions, which lets Operations Manager automatically carry out actions (e.g., dummy phone calls) to ensure service is always available.

Finally, Lync includes improvements to the call detail and call quality reports, which provide clear and useful reports for management. Reports are laid out on a dashboard, as Figure 5 shows, providing quick visual information and enabling drilldown into specific issues, such as poor call quality.
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Figure 5: Lync 2010’s reporting dashboard (click image for larger view)

Deployment

Many administrators considered OCS difficult to deploy; in addition, it required too many servers to support all the different features. In Lync 2010, Microsoft has done much to change that perception. Figure 6 shows Lync 2010’s various server roles.
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Figure 6: Lync 2010’s server roles (click image for larger view)


The front-end server is the hub of the system, acting as the point of configuration and the registrar for users. The back end is a SQL Server database server. The edge server facilitates external access. The mediation server transcodes between voice codecs and can be co-located with the front-end server. The AV conferencing role allows for scalability of conference Multipoint Control Units (MCUs) by hiving the workload onto separate servers. The archiving and monitoring servers provide a historical store of communication data and reports on calls, respectively. The director role acts as an additional security layer, protecting the front-end server, and also as a redirector, taking the load off the front end in deployments with multiple pools. Finally, group chat provides persistent chat rooms with extensive compliance and filtering capabilities.

In terms of supported platforms, as for much of the 2010 wave of server products, Lync can be installed on Windows Server 2008 R2 or Windows Server 2008 SP2. A welcome addition is support for virtualization on both Microsoft Hyper-V and VMware for all roles, including those handling real-time media. Basic guidance is to expect 50 percent less capacity than from physical hardware. For more information about Lync 2010 virtualization support, see the Microsoft TechNet article “Running in a Virtualized Environment” at technet.microsoft.com/en-us/library/gg399035.aspx.

Another improvement is that Lync 2010 relies much less on the use of load balancers. These devices are necessary only for HTTP and HTTPS traffic rather than the multitude of real-time traffic that passed through them in OCS. This means simpler setup and goes a long way toward eliminating one of the most complex aspects of an OCS deployment.

Microsoft made big changes in Lync to address previous deployment difficulties. Deployment now starts with the Planning Tool and the Topology Builder. The Planning Tool asks various questions about your intended deployment, including names and IP addresses of the servers. It then feeds the results into an XML file for import into the Topology Builder. Although the Planning Tool is relatively simple, it provides a starting point for those new to Lync and ensures that at least the basics are covered correctly. You can further define your system in the Topology Builder, including details of front-end pools, edge pools, and other infrastructure, such as monitoring and archiving servers. At this point the central configuration database is deployed and the topology is published to it. You then progress by deploying each server, which after basic bootstrapping pulls all relevant configurations from the central store. Another advantage is that the edge server is now managed centrally rather than administrators needing to log on to the local machine. This new SQL Server replication model ensures that administrators at least think through their deployment while using the Topology Builder and thus hopefully avoid costly mistakes. In addition, this now means a single store for configuration information rather than OCS’s shared approach, which used SQL Server, Active Directory (AD), and Windows Management Instrumentation (WMI).

One final thing to remember while moving through the planning and deployment phases is that when interoperating with third-party equipment and services, it’s beneficial to consider the Microsoft Unified Communications Open Interoperability Program. This program lets vendors certify that their products work well with Lync. For more information about the program, see the Lync Unified Communications Open Interoperability Program website.

Well Worth Evaluating

Lync 2010 has been generally available since December 2010. This release adds critical functionality to ensure excellent service across a wide range of communication modalities. It stacks up particularly well in the telephony and collaboration space. In addition, Lync’s ease of use and its tight integration with the Microsoft business productivity platform mean that users can get up and running quickly. Lync 2010 is one of the most exciting products from Microsoft in recent years and well worth evaluating for any company.