Using Microsoft's OCS as a unified messaging platform

Office Communication Server, Exchange and Office Communicator put voice on a level playing field in Microsoft nets.

Office Communication Server, Exchange and Office Communicator put voice on a level playing field in Microsoft nets.

In our initial evaluation of the first public beta code for Microsoft's Office Communication Server 2007, we measured it against what we know to be standard in the standards-based Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) IP PBX world.

But here we see what comes to life if you run this new code in an all Microsoft world. When it's deployed with Window Server 2003, Active Directory (running in native mode with DNS), Exchange Server 2007, SQL Server 2000, IIS 6.0 and Certificate Server on the back end with Windows XP clients running Office Ultimate 2007 and a beta version of Office Communicator 2007, the final result is easy user access to e-mail, voice mail, instant messaging and conferencing capabilities from the same interface.

OCS 2007 includes a deployment wizard to help guide IT administrators through the installation process. The Enterprise Edition can be installed in a consolidated topology, all components on a single physical server (as we did in our evaluation), or an expanded topology, each component on separate physical server. The wizard was very effective in walking us through each step of the process and provided meaningful feedback on issues that arose. For example, one of the steps failed and indicated that ASP, which we had not preloaded, could not be verified and may need to be installed.

The integration with Active Directory allows IT to enable user access to OCS services rapidly. Within the user properties of Active Directory a new Communications tab is shown. This allows administrators to directly configure OCS while setting up a new user as well as centralizing management functions for existing users. Administrators can control IP-PSTN call settings, IM Federation and Archiving from the same interface.

When an Exchange 2007 server is in the mix, integrating voice and e-mail is possible. Administrators need only configure a unified messaging mailbox policy then enable users for unified messaging. We chose to enable users by manually configuring the extension and PIN for each voice mailbox, but both can be generated automatically.

The unified messaging mailbox policy defines greeting length, automatic e-mail messages, PIN settings and dial plans. The automatic e-mail messages are sent to the user for certain events, such as when their account is enabled for unified messaging or their PIN is reset. Additional text, such as a company disclaimer, can also be specified for voice mail and fax notification messages. We were able to set different policies for different users and then customize the messages to each. This automatic e-mail generation frees administrators from some basic notification tasks.

At the user desktop, Office Communicator 2007 is the core. We found it to be a simple and intuitive client interface for unified communications. Setup required specifying the server name and providing our user credentials. Once logged in to OCS via Office Communicator, the status of the other clients in the test bed were shown. Without instruction, we were able to place calls, open chat sessions and even launch video calls. The voice quality for the calls was very good, and the video was good given we were using Webcams.

While on a call using Office Communicator, users could launch the Microsoft OneNote application to take notes. The OneNote document is populated with the call subject, date, time and the parties that were on the call.

When we opened Microsoft Outlook 2007, we immediately noticed presence indicators next to the user names in e-mails that we had sent previously. The indicators showed the current status of those users and updated near instantly when status was changed. Hovering the mouse over the presence icons gave us the user's status message. Clicking on the icon gave a list of response options, including instant message, reply e-mail or voice call. If multiple users were listed in the e-mail, options were also presented for instant messaging or calling all parties and joining them into a chat room or conference call.

Another item that is added to the Outlook interface is a folder called Conversation History. It lists all of the calls with date, time and contacts. The instant-messaging details also contained a complete transcript of the conversation. All of these details are searchable, making it easy to find past calls or chat sessions.

The presence was also shown within the contact cards next to the e-mail address in the Outlook contacts listing. From the card we could clearly see the status and as described before, click on the icon to access multiple means of responding. Using the call button from the tool bar will launch Office Communicator instead of the default auto dialer.

By installing in the Microsoft Conferencing Add-in, a conferencing option was now shown on the toolbar in the calendar appointments. The meeting request that was generated by using this feature contained a link to connect directly to the conference call.


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