VoiceCon: Microsoft exec talks up corporate VoIP strategy

Microsoft introduced the public beta of its Office Communications Server 2007 at VoiceCon. Following the announcement, Gurdeep Singh Pall, corporate vice president of Microsoft's Unified Communications Group, discussed with Network World Senior Editor Phil Hochmuth how Microsoft's Session Initiation Protocol-based VoIP, messaging and collaboration server fits in and competes in the corporate convergence market.

Microsoft introduced the public beta of its Office Communications Server 2007 at VoiceCon. Following the announcement, Gurdeep Singh Pall, corporate vice president of Microsoft's Unified Communications Group, discussed with Network World Senior Editor Phil Hochmuth how Microsoft's Session Initiation Protocol-based VoIP, messaging and collaboration server fits in and competes in the corporate convergence market.The following is an edited transcript.

How are you presenting Office Communications Server 2007 to enterprise voice managers and IT managers?

The key message is to see what it can do for you and see what limitations they may have. We see a lot of folks going down these one-way streets [with PBX and IP telephony vendors]. They might find themselves in a situation where they've deployed a solution, and because it is not an open solution, it is slow in terms of innovation.

Are you talking IP PBX products from companies such as Avaya, Cisco, Nortel and so forth?

Yes. These are closed systems. They're just like mainframes. Once you bought the computer, or IP PBX in this case, pretty much every component you buy from that vendor. They'll tell you about openness, and say "you can buy any SIP phone, sure," but when you call product support, they'll tell you, "sorry, if you're not using their phone, we can't guarantee the voice experience." It sort of builds on the fear that voice cannot be delivered in an open platform.

Our approach to building a solution was we didn’t try to look at it one way. We didn't go back and say here is a list of 300 features on a PBX, and that we need to start matching each one of them. We looked at what people want from their communications systems. For example, IP PBXs today have all these features, but if you ask a user to do anything more than answer a call, or add a third person into a call, it's very hard. Most users have unmet needs today.

Many IP PBX vendors at VoiceCon are calling Microsoft a partner. Is OCS a complementary product or a competitive product for these companies?

Enterprises which have a TDM PBX today are looking to move to an IP solution. Then you have some enterprises which have some TDM PBXs and some IP PBX and their goal is to replace all of their TDM PBXs with IP PBXs. What we are telling both groups of users is that we believe, over time, you can be totally based on Office Communications Server. For now, we also want to help customers deal with missing features they may not have, or to help along those who are saying, 'oh, can I trust my voice entirely to Microsoft.' They can keep their current system in place, and put Office Communicator next to it, and slowly phase out the old one.

This resonates with customers, but what about the partners? I'm a big believer in the force of the customer. If customers are educated and aware and they know what they want, they will make the right choices. If there is merit to our approach, then the partners who are in the [IP telephony market] today will have to transform themselves, similar to the way IBM transformed itself from a mainframe company to a great services company. They will provide what the customer is asking right now, which is interoperability with OCS. Over time, they will figure out how to create a good business in this new market. Nortel certainly has joined with us to do that. The question is, will other players do it, or will they push their vertically integrated stack.

How does Nortel figure into the OCS road map? Is Nortel call control technology, or other code, included in OCS?

There are several components to the [Interactive Communications Alliance]. We talk about three pillars: One is around the cross-licensing of intellectual property; the second one is around Nortel creating a systems integration business for unified communications; the third one is around working together around some jointly developed solutions in the unified communications market. The first thing we're doing is with Nortel gateways, which we will interface with. Nortel is looking at how its contact center solution works with our infrastructure. So we're working with them. Regarding what we are announcing today, we did work with Nortel to get their feedback. But we are not actively taking code from Nortel and incorporating it into OCS.

How do you address skeptical views on the reliability of a Microsoft-based enterprise VoIP system?

I would say that we are not telling people to go and change their entire enterprise over to OCS today. We believe we have some pretty good constructs in our architecture which are good building blocks. And then we have a road map to enable more things. For example, OCS has a two-tier architecture, where we have these front ends, which are stateless. Then the back end is based on SQL Server. You run these systems in a redundant, failover model. So basically if you have failure and one back end goes down, then the other one seamlessly picks up without a hitch. If the front end fails, the client immediately reconnects to the other front end.

Then we have some planned things we are looking at, such as geographical failover. That's the kind of stuff we're working on in our road map. What happens if you are working in a branch office and your WAN link goes down, how does the egress happen backwards over the PSTN? Those are the kinds of things which we are going to be enabling. And we are on a very rapid pace of shipping software.

But fundamentally, the approach is slightly different. In the old telephony world, it was, start with a phone, have a separate wire, run it into a separate cabinet, and have different boxes. We're saying lets use some of the practices we've learned from the Internet and the rolling out of data applications, and apply them to the voice world. Microsoft.com is one of the most attacked sites in the world. All these hackers all over are trying to bring it down. But it's up and running 99.8% to 99.9% of the time. So if you can run a service like that, using the things that you learned how to do in the data world, we can do that in the voice world. It's that kind of approach.

Will Microsoft enter the IP phone or VoIP gateway markets?

What we are doing is we are working today with nine PSTN gateway providers. Since we are based on SIP, every transport is back to G.711. Even though you might be using IP audio, we can translate signals back to the dialect everyone knows and understands. So we want customers to choose whatever gateway they want to buy. We don't want to say, if you are deploying a Cisco solution, you must buy a gateway from us, otherwise I cannot guarantee voice to you. So we're open on gateways and open on clients. We've built some clients which we believe demonstrate the right way to do clients. We did the phone design, and it's running our software, but Polycom is going to take it to market, LG/Nortel is going to take it to market as well as some other partners we will announce shortly that will also take it to market. So again, there is a choice, you can buy these hardware phones from several vendors. We have done peripherals, USB peripherals, ,Bluetooth peripherals, with folks like Logitech. We are not planning on having Microsoft-branded phones. It's all through partners.

Will OCS interoperate differently with Microsoft Exchange or Office products, compared to other VoIP or unified messaging vendors?

Office is open. People can come and integrate into it. Some have done it better than others. One thing OCS does fundamentally differently — it's the difference between crabmeat and imitation crabmeat. It might look the same, but when you taste it, it's different.

In our model, there is only one identity, stored in a different directory. When you log on to your machine you use the same password, when Office runs it uses the same credentials. When you connect to SharePoint you use the same credentials, when you have a document you use the same credentials. When I call you I call you with the same credentials.

When you try to integrate just on the user-experience side, you can show the same interfaces, but you are trying to actually inherently map different identities in the back. And this starts to create these gaps, and blips for the user. Suddenly, a user tries to drag and drop a file, or drag and drop to set up a conference call — and they can't because they don’t have the right credentials. It goes to the heart of why we are different. We didn’t start with a different directory. The adoption of Exchange has resulted in AD being built into many enterprises. AD is now a mission-critical thing for these customers. This is just building off of that and the success of that.

OCS requires Exchange Unified Messaging. We've talked about working with other messaging back ends. It's quite messy. There are all these [bridging protocols], things like QSIG, etc. OCS works with Exchange Unified Messaging, and the value is amazing. If you look at price points of unified messaging solutions compared to what people pay for Exchange, you get sticker shock. So we're democratizing unified messaging. We consider it part of our suite. In fact, Exchange Unified Messaging uses our SIP stack, the same OCS SIP stack, and the same speech engine that's part of the OCS platform.

How can people work existing messaging systems into OCS?

You can have voice mail systems that are already installed — those can continue to work. You can continue to see the message-waiting indicator light on the phone. It just won't show up on the communicator side of the world. You can still access voice mail by dialing through communicator, if you want to do that. But eventually, we believe that when this thing gets phased out, this piece gets phased out as well.

Does Microsoft have plans to make a carrier-focused version of OCS for telcos?

I would not say carrier, but we are focused on having this technology available in a hosted sense. It's one thing we believe in very strongly. This could be a huge role in the future. We're going to make sure that some of these technologies can be made available as a service. We have a great Office Light business now, and you can see how small businesses are experiencing that without having to put up all the servers and manage them. So you'll see more and more with that later on.

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

IT Salary Survey: The results are in