Rollout: Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007

Jan 25, 2008 (07:01 PM EST)

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CLAIM:  Microsoft's Office Communications Server 2007 integrates IM; VoIP; video, audio, and Web conferencing; and presence into one package, aiming to provide a complete messaging system for all size businesses. OCS 2007 ties into Exchange and SharePoint for presence management.

CONTEXT:  OCS 2007 offers more compelling features compared with its predecessor and catches up to the capabilities of IBM Lotus Sametime and others. OCS 2007 will serve small and midsize enterprises well as a VoIP platform, while larger organizations may be attracted to it as a corporate IM system.

CREDIBILITY:  OCS 2007 boasts good integration of IM with Microsoft Exchange and Outlook, with capabilities beyond what public IM clients provide. It also offers solid VoIP capabilities and can serve as an IP PBX or complement an existing VoIP platform. However, it lacks persistent group chat, and deployment can be complex. Google or Jabber integration also would be welcome..
Done right, a unified communications system integrating voice, e-mail, conferencing, IM, and presence improves productivity by providing a single platform over which workers communicate using the most appropriate medium. We put Office Communications Server 2007, Microsoft's flagship unified communications offering, to the test and found it does UC right, if not simply.

The heart of OCS 2007, a revamped version of Live Communications Server 2005, is its IM capabilities. Face it: Your employees are using IM clients from AOL and others, regardless of the compliance nightmares inherent with these public networks. In-house IM can provide many benefits, and OCS 2007 sweetens the deal with tight integration of Exchange and Outlook, which extends IM's presence capabilities to other media. It also adds features, such as audio, video, and Web conferencing, that weren't available in the software's previous incarnation. Users can initiate conferences from their desktops and include employees in the same building--or across the country.

OCS 2007's closest rival is IBM Lotus Sametime 7.5, which offers an almost identical feature set, but JabberNow, Jive OpenFire, and Reuters Messaging also are angling for enterprise IM business. While certainly not as feature rich as OCS, they may do the job for far less money. Several vendors can also help you cobble together a UC environment by building off an existing voice-over-IP infrastructure; products include Cisco's Unified Presence Server and Unified Personal Communicator, Avaya's one-X software, and Siemens' OpenScape. These systems will require more integration than Microsoft's package, which takes full advantage of Office's dominance in the workplace.

OCS is built around Microsoft's Communicator 2007 IM client. At the heart of this client is presence: Users' status information is displayed in an IM contact list, from which you can send e-mail, dial with a click of a button, initiate a chat session, or start a Web conference in Live Meeting or a voice or videoconference. Basic presence management is available and can extend to smartphones that run Windows Mobile; Microsoft offers privacy settings so users can choose which information to display.

For companies that log IM conversations, an archiving server uses SQL to store chats. This is a key feature for those required to record all communications, but others should be judicious in how much data they save. The archiving server also lets users view and search previous chats in Outlook 2007.

Communicator encrypts IM traffic among OCS users, but sessions with users on public IM clients are not encrypted, and OCS doesn't disable use of other IM clients. If you want to prevent users from accessing other IM systems, you'll need a third-party proxy.

Voice is a critical component of a UC platform. OCS can link to your VoIP PBX and enable employee PCs to act as VoIP soft phones. Microsoft also is partnering with PBX providers, including Alcatel, Avaya, Cisco, Ericsson, Mytel, NEC, Nortel, and Siemens, to ensure that the Communicator client can make and receive calls over most VoIP systems. Note that advanced features, such as the ability to transcribe voice mail to text-based e-mail, require Exchange 2007.

For meetings, OCS lets employees quickly set up audio, video, and Web conferences. By default, users can make direct PC-to-PC calls, but to host large groups you'll need to install the Web conference server, a full-featured LiveMeeting server that lets the client log in through LiveMeeting. Users can save Web conferences for later use, handy for training or employee orientation.

Don't expect to be up and running quickly. OCS requires as many as seven server systems to take advantage of VoIP, conferencing, and IM--more if you install a certificate server or reverse proxy. Servers include the director (also known as the front-end server), edge server, audio/video server, Web conference server, Web access server, archiving server, and mediation server.

At a minimum, OCS requires the director and edge servers. The director sits inside your firewall and is the primary server for OCS. It provides internal IM capabilities and talks to your domain controller to provide authentication. The edge server controls all external connections and federations with AOL, Yahoo, and MSN. It also federates with business partners that use LCS or OCS, letting you add people from federated companies directly to your contact list.

OCS comes in Standard, to handle as many as 5,000 users, and Enterprise versions. The Enterprise edition allows for more server pools, clustering, and a distributed environment, which some larger corporations may require.

Fair warning to small IT shops going it alone: It's easy to get confused as to what these various servers do and whether you need them. Invest some time with the manuals before clicking the install button. Larger organizations may want to consider engaging consultants.

There's also cost: Licensing starts at about $21 per user. Standard server licenses are $487 per year; Enterprise server licenses are $2,790 annually. It's not inexpensive, but Office Communication Server is an enterprise-ready unified messaging product, with integration and some presence management features unparalleled when compared with other products we've seen.