Microsoft's marriage of easy communications

The combination of Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007 and Exchange Server 2007 brings voicemail to the in-box, and speed and flexibility to how Windows workers communicate

We've been watching the romance develop between OCS (Office Communications Server 2007) and Exchange Server 2007 since OCS became available in beta earlier this year. When OCS finally came of age last month, we brought the mature couple together for a Hawaiian wedding.

To conduct this ceremony, Oliver donned his floral print shirt and straw hat and headed off to Honolulu and the Advanced Network Computing Lab at the University of Hawaii. There, lab director Brian Chee set up the testbed, and Microsoft flew in two capable representatives to manage the installation and run us through the new features before OCS and Exchange were joined in VoIP union.

Overall, our upbeat view of Exchange Server 2007 hasn't changed since we examined Beta 2 back in August of 2006. For both users and admins, Exchange 2007 is a good upgrade, and Service Pack 1 makes it even better (see Exchange Server 2007 Service Pack 1 packs plenty). OCS has matured noticeably from our early-beta look. Blending Web and video conferencing, instant messaging, and VoIP telephony, this communications platform is very slick, but has significant back-end requirements, especially in large deployments.

Office Communications Server 2007

There's an element of confusion surrounding exactly how Exchange 2007 and OCS play together -- who brings what to the sandbox. Exchange boasts several new features under its Unified Messaging banner, and OCS waves flags like IM, Web conferencing, and enterprise VoIP. There's some overlap, so let's get that out of the way.

Exchange 2007's Unified Messaging capabilities revolve around the term "anywhere access." Have a Web connection? Exchange can serve up the OWA (Outlook Web Access) works with a dollop of sour cream. Have a cell phone? Exchange can connect you to your Exchange data via mobile Web or as a direct client. Stuck with an ordinary phone? Exchange can read your e-mail to you in an electronic voice. On the flip side, your inbox can pretty much suck in anything anyone is likely to send you save for snail mail and IMs. E-mail, voice mail, video mail, faxes... Exchange can handle it all, and serve it up to Outlook or Office Communicator (the OCS client) or their mobile equivalents. Naturally, with the exception of e-mail, Exchange is just the target, not the source. Voice mail requires appropriate PBX connectivity as does fax reception. That's where OCS comes in.

Provided your Exchange 2007 server farm includes at least one server running the Unified Messaging role, Exchange can serve as the voicemail repository for OCS users. Otherwise, Exchange's features and functions remain the same whether OCS is a neighbor or not -- a good thing considering Exchange administrators moving to Exchange 2007 have enough to worry about.

Office Communications Server 2007 serves up everything you've come to expect from Live Communications Server 2005 and takes it to that logical conclusion we all wished Redmond had gotten to earlier. The succinct list of new features and improvements goes like this: VoIP telephony (with a caveat or two), group IM, in-house Web conferencing (as opposed to hosted Live Meeting), better presence management (meaning more presencing options, and more control over who can contact you and when), new federation features (for connecting with external OCS and IM networks), better support for audio and video, enterprise-class management features, and support for a Star Trek-like addition to your conference room called RoundTable. Compared to LCS 2005, you'll also find significant differences in OCS 2007's deployment architecture.

We'll start with the brief 411 on as many of OCS' new features as we can fit. VoIP is the obvious big news, though Microsoft plays this down in favor of integration with Exchange, SharePoint, and especially the Office clients. Bottom line: Behind your firewall and POTS lines, OCS can serve as a full-blown IP PBX with all the fancy call features you can imagine. All you need do is make sure your desks are equipped with SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) handsets supporting Real Time Protocol or that your clients are using Office Communicator 2007 in softphone mode. Users telephoning this way get all the IP PBX features we've come to expect, including forwarding, conferencing, deflection (to mobile phone, for example), and call logging on both the server and the client (stored in Outlook).

In fact OCS delivers some clever call features you won't find in third-party IP PBXes, at least not yet. One of those is the ability to assign rankings to calls. For example, before you dial, you could assign a call an importance ranking -- a great way to make sure that folks ignoring calls at their desk know they have to answer this one. Or, once a call is in progress, you could assign a call-sensitivity rating that might prevent other callers from joining in -- to prevent co-workers from hearing you get chewed out by the boss, for example.

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Oliver Rist

InfoWorld

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