Unified Communications: Microsoft Lync and Your PBX — The Best of Both Worlds | TechNet Magazine


With all the benefits Lync can offer businesses, no one should be surprised that you need to plan carefully, especially when legacy PBXs are involved.

William Van Winkle

You have to give your PBX props for a job well done. From auto-directory services to follow-me functionality to voice mail, the venerable PBX has evolved mightily from its early days of simply routing a lot of calls onto a modest number of phone lines. However, there’s no getting around the fact that today’s PBXs are stuck in the 1990s.

For example, why must the follow-me feature of a PBX step through a list of numbers instead of finding you instantly? How much better would it be to get voice messages e-mailed to you as auto-converted text instead of having to burn time dialing in for messages?

Unified communications (UC) platforms like Microsoft Lync 2010 communications software are like the PBX for a post-telephone world. Voice is only the beginning in a long list of productivity-enhancing capabilities you can expect from Lync, including:

  • Presence: You can instantly see if colleagues are available, in a call or out—and if so, where they’re located. “Voice mail is sort of a failure mode for cases when I can’t answer,” says Lync Senior Product Manager B. J. Haberkorn. “The idea of presence is that even before you call, you can tell if I’m in a position to answer.”
  • Instant Messaging: For quick questions, short instant messages can be more efficient than voice calling. Lync users can also easily share what’s on their screens with others.
  • Video calling: While nothing can replace a real handshake, the ability to videoconference in real time from anywhere can be a far more affordable alternative to being there.
  • Rich collaboration: Ad hoc groups can hash out ideas on-screen, regardless of group member location.
  • Skill Search: Find the right people for the task at hand and instantly pull them into active collaboration.

PBXs simply can’t provide these features. And when it comes to traditional PBX features, Lync can do the same things for less money per user. The total value of UC is now so compelling that some businesses are choosing to rip out their PBX infrastructure and replace it with Lync.

In many cases, though, rip-and-replace isn’t a feasible option. A recently purchased PBX may have years before the system is fully amortized, and replacing it too soon would be difficult to justify. Also, most businesses still have legions of users accustomed to hearing a dial tone every time they pick up a phone. The migration paths for UC aren’t so black and white.

PBX + Lync = Smooth Transition

Media gateways act as bridge appliances between proprietary PBXs and UC systems, which lets companies run both technologies together. The Dialogic 4000 Media Gateways (DMG4000 Gateways), for example, support up to 120 traffic channels. They also can tap into the new Survivable Branch Appliance functions built into Lync Server.

Main offices often have redundant communications lines. Branch locations typically do not. With a Survivable Branch Appliance running through an appliance such as the DMG4000 Gateway, when a corporate WAN connection fails, it will instantly flip VoIP and fax communications over to the local public switched telephone network. This illustrates how valuable legacy PBX hardware can still be running alongside a modern UC system. If a switch dies or someone slices through a fiber optic feed, your business’s communications remain operational.

“Companies aren’t fond of replacing PBX systems,” says Scott Wooster, enterprise marketing manager with communications platform provider Dialogic. “So when you have a product like Lync, where you can plug a reasonable selection of hardware into this system and unify your messaging and communications paths, it becomes very attractive. For starters, this lets them save money on long distance, but that’s really just the beginning.”

Global management consultancy A. T. Kearney has more than 3,400 employees spread across approximately 50 locations worldwide. The company wanted to run full UC functionality along with its entrenched PBX system. The company chose Lync (then called Microsoft Communications Server “14”) because of its integration with Microsoft Office, Exchange Server and SharePoint Server. A. T. Kearney set up the system to provide seamless presence and communication on those platforms.

The company totally overhauled the communications style and productivity of its largely mobile workforce. Initial savings were pegged at $500,000. A. T. Kearney execs note that, “For every 10 percent of usage that we can move off of mobile telephones and onto [Lync], we’ll save about half a million to a million dollars annually.”

The three-part client licensing structure of Lync contributes to these savings. The Standard CAL covers instant messaging and presence. The Enterprise CAL adds audio, video and Web conferencing. The Plus CAL delivers enterprise-class voice communication. (Companies with existing PBXs may find the Plus CALs unnecessary.) Unlike other UC platforms, Lync doesn’t require PBX-enabled businesses to pay for voice services twice.

“Nine times out of 10, we’ll start customers in IM and conferencing and leave the voice piece on the side,” says Scott Gode, VP of product management and marketing at managed services provider Azaleos. “Not because there isn’t interest from the CIO, but because it seems easier to put in IM and not configure the mediation server or media gateway. People just want to get the server up and running and enjoy a lot of benefits. Over time—a couple months, maybe a year—you start to phase in the conferencing. Then that gives you time to figure out your integration strategy for telephony.”

Plan Well

With all the communications functionality Lync can provide, no one should be surprised that a smooth deployment requires careful planning, especially when involving legacy PBXs. One common scenario involves maintaining the PBX for local telephony and using Lync softphones for calling international branches and clients.

Leased WAN lines are fine for light PC data, but can quickly become swamped under a sudden influx of multiple voice and video streams. Bandwidth analysis, both before and after deployment, is key to a positive end-user UC experience.

Scott Gode of Azaleos notes that some companies make the mistake of deploying too many softphones too soon. “We’ve found an obvious age cutoff, where you get people of a certain age who aren’t comfortable without a phone on their desk. They want the touch and feel of a handset and numbers to punch. The notion of a headset connected to a PC can be a tough barrier.”

That’s one reason why multi-staged trials are a good idea. These trials gradually roll groups of PBX users onto Lync, starting with those most likely to embrace the new technology and give a good review to other prospective users. In some situations, this approach can prove more cost-effective than bringing in media gateway solutions.

There are many instances in which media gateways can be essential, including failover to a Survivable Branch Appliance. Smaller companies will want to question at what point gateway investment becomes excessive. After all, if the company knows it’s going to eventually embrace end-to-end UC, when and where does it make sense to leap straight into the next-generation approach and skip the bridge product?

Such ROI calculations can be tricky, but consulting with both Microsoft and neutral third-party partners can help the decision process. Nearly all companies struggle with these migration strategies, even Microsoft.

Currently, the software company has about 120,000 employees and on-site vendors. All 120,000 are enabled for IM and presence. All of them can use Microsoft conferencing abilities. However, only about 85,000 use the company’s full UC stack, including voice. It has taken two and a half years to get them there. The remaining 35,000 still use PBX phones.

So anticipate patience. Stage the deployment gradually and do a lot of planning and proactive communication with your employees. While the era of the PBX may be coming to an end, it isn’t gone yet. You can still maximize that investment, but at the same time prepare for the future and start enhancing employee capabilities and efficiency with UC systems like Lync.

Try out Lync Server 2010 free for 180 days from the TechNet Evaluation Center.

William Van Winkle
William Van Winkle is the former managing editor of Reseller Advocate Magazine. He’s been a freelance technology writer since 1997, and has contributed to PC Magazine, CPU, Smart Computing, Processor, Tom’s Hardware and many others. He likes to blog about the impact of technology on everyday life. He lives in Hillsboro, just outside of Portland, Ore.

Sidebar: Key Points for Linking to Lync

  1. PBXs and unified communications (UC) platforms, such as Microsoft Lync 2010, aren’t mutually exclusive. Businesses can continue leveraging existing investments while enhancing worker effectiveness with new communication and collaboration capabilities.
  2. Lync doesn’t require businesses with PBXs to pay for voice services twice. Modular Microsoft licensing allows customers to buy only the services bundles they need.
  3. Anticipate a gradual process of phasing in Lync alongside legacy PBX gear. This will help improve employee acceptance, complete amortization of the prior PBX investment, and allow IT and management to keep the deployment smooth and under control.

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