The problem with Microsoft Office Communications Server

(From Microsoft Subnet editor Julie Bort) Yesterday I attended one of the Microsoft TechEd events currently on tour at various cities nationwide. The sessions I attended involved tools for Vista imaging-based deployments (some cool stuff there), deployment tricks for Windows Server 2008 (also cool stuff), and a demo of Office Communication System (VERY cool, but ultimately mostly pointless, I concluded).

Let's start with OCS and why, after seeing a demo of it with a group of IT professionals I've become a skeptic. In a nutshell, what OCS does is add a presence element to Office apps. An icon appears in e-mails, even in SharePoint documents, that shows the availability of the recipient (or person who created a SharePoint document). This is tied into communication systems (phone, video, IM) and to scheduling functions in Outlook. The selling point for it, according to the Microsoft "IT evangelist" leading the presentation, Chris Avis, is that people waste 30 minutes a week playing phone tag. Eliminate that, and you've reclaimed hundreds of hours of lost productivity per employee per year.

Right away - I'm having a problem with this marketing pitch. E-mail (asynchronous communication) and voicemail (leave a message if the person isn't there, for goodness sake!) have long-since solved the phone tag issue. I waste ZERO hours per week playing phone tag as I rarely call someone unless, via an e-mail or IM exchange, we've set up an appointment to talk live.

Instant messaging has helped that out a lot, I admit. For folks I work with closely, I have their, FREE, IM addresses in various clients. I can IM them and say, "You avail for a phone call?" More often, however, if I IM them, I simply type the question I have for them and wait for the typed reply. Now free IM clients are not a good choice for financial institutions and others where compliance is a big deal. It also is problematic in that it multiple clients create yet more communications systems to deal with. (But OCS doesn't solve the multiple IM client problem - it works only for people within the enterprise on the OCS server - in much the same way that a Global Address book is only available to employees.)

The presences stuff is cool. Eyes lit up during the demo. BUT the recommended reference implementation for OCS, at least according to the diagram shown at this session, is based on five to nine physical servers. This product was designed to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars (even upwards of a million) for hardware, software licenses and consultant fees. Why? So that people can avoid some phone tag?

And during the demo - a demo mind you - Chris didn't even avoid phone tag. He checked the availability of several people and, although they were registered as present, he still spent at least 15 minutes trying to get them on IM or cell phone or video phone. Send an IM, wait for a reply. Dial. Bad bandwidth, bad connection, horrible video, redial ... you get the drift.

Ok, I'm generalizing. Unified Communications, of which OCS is only a part, also includes using Exchange to become a single inbox for voicemail and faxes, etc. This is an area which will open the door to a bigger OCS implementation. Also should Microsoft find a way to make OCS deployments more affordable - where people can have presence for an incremental cost, not a major investment, that would be interesting. In theory, some third-parties should be offering it as a service. Affordability may be better for people who purchase OCS as an upgrade to an existing PBX system. (Then again, those folks have lots of choices for adding presence to VoIP already.)

Because Microsoft has 800 of its channel partners trained and ready to sell, sell, sell, PBX vendors have signed on to OCS in droves. (Why not if Microsoft's channel is going to sell it for them and make their PBX wares more valuable?) These include:

  • Alcatel
  • Avaya
  • Cisco
  • Ericsson
  • Inter-Tel
  • Intercom
  • Interactive Intelligence
  • Mitel
  • NEC
  • Nortel
  • Panasonic
  • Rolm
  • ShoreTel
  • Siemens
  • Tadiran
  • Toshiba

Next up, a look at the two tools Chris demoed for helping enterprises migrate to Vista (should you ever choose to do so) and Windows 2008. These are ImageX for Vista and the older, but typically overlooked, Windows Deployment Services (included in R3 of the Windows Server 2008). More info on those in my next post.

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