Microsoft Lync: The pros and cons for enterprises

Lync was unveiled yesterday in NYC, complete with a surprise appearance from Bill Gates via Lync's video conference tool.

Lync, the next generation of Microsoft's Office Communications Server software, was unveiled yesterday in New York City, complete with a surprise appearance from Bill Gates via Lync's video conference tool.

Essentially, Lync is OCS (Office Communications Server) with new and improved unified communications features such as e911 and "search by skill." But the general feature set of corporate instant-messaging, audio/video conferencing and voice-over-IP telephony remains the same.

Microsoft is, however, dedicating more resources and marketing to Lync (and giving it a shorter, catchier brand name). It has also beefed up the amount of partners for Lync as it takes on Cisco, Avaya and IBM in the UC (unified communications) space.

Lync Server and client software are available for purchase on December 1. The Microsoft cloud-based version of Lync, Lync Online, is due out next year, as part of Office 365.

The lure for businesses with Lync is that it is capable of augmenting or replacing traditional PBX and conferencing systems, thereby saving companies money on hardware and licensing costs.

But there are other serious considerations for companies looking at Lync. It makes communication easier and could be a money saver, but it has the potential to be a worker distraction, and voice and video eat up network bandwidth.

At the launch event in New York, CIO.com's Shane O'Neill sat down with Gartner Research Vice President Stephen Blood to map out the advantages and challenges of moving your company to Lync.

Lync Advantages

Smooth Merger of Technologies

What Lync offers businesses is the ability to access and switch between instant messaging, video and voice telephony features in a single interface. Other companies provide these tools, but none have seamlessly integrated them as well as Microsoft, says Blood.

The biggest Lync competitor is Cisco, but its UC suite tends to be more expensive. IBM's UC suite, Sametime, doesn't have the voice component. It does IM and Web conferencing, but it relies on PBX vendors for the voice telephony part.

For IT, Blood says the integration of Lync makes life easier because they need just need a PC and one set of servers from one supplier to use Lync.

Lync Offers Better Bandwidth Management

With Lync, Microsoft is providing better bandwidth management than it did with OCS.

"They've added Call Admission Control, a common function in PBX systems that monitors how many users are allowed onto the network at one time," says Blood. "With OCS there was no ability to monitor how many users were using bandwidth. You could just keep adding users, which would eventually deteriorate call quality."

Lync's bandwidth management upgrade also allows IT pros to split what goes over the WAN and what goes over the Internet. For example, you can route voice calls over the WAN but route video over the Internet if the video doesn't have to be perfect quality. This is something you could not do with OCS.

The Lync Price Benefit

Lync Server 2010 follows the CAL (client access license) model, where a license is required for each user.

There are three license options for Lync: a Standard CAL includes instant messaging and presence and costs $31 per user; an Enterprise CAL includes everything in a Standard CAL plus audio, video and Web conferencing, and costs $107 per user; a Plus CAL includes enterprise voice telephony technologies plus everything in a standard CAL and a few features of an Enterprise CAL plus -- it also costs $107.

[ For complete coverage on Microsoft's SharePoint collaboration software -- including enterprise and cloud adoption trends and reviews of SharePoint 2010 -- see CIO.com's SharePoint Bible. ]

To enable all features, a user must be licensed with all three CALs.

In comparison, the basic voice licenses for Cisco and Avaya are $250.

"There's a good business argument here for putting in Microsoft's voice product instead of Avaya or Cisco," says Blood.

The savings become more apparent when you compare Lync to Cisco's full voice, video and messaging suite, called Cisco Unified Workspace Licensing. The cost for the Professional edition of Cisco's suite is $500.

Lync Challenges

Lync Still Uses a Lot of Bandwidth

Despite Lync's improved bandwidth management, it still uses a lot more bandwidth than traditional solutions, says Blood, and companies will have to account for that somehow.

With a PBX system you cannot do video, so that limits the amount of bandwidth you use. Having voice telephony and video in the same product are big bandwidth hogs, notes Blood.

"The downside is that with Lync you're going to spend more money increasing WAN capacity, possibly as much $250,000 to cover voice and video," he adds. "IT needs to prepare for that."

Lync Will Force Companies to Evaluate How IT Is Structured

Lync will also require companies to take a closer look at how their networks are designed and how their IT organizations are structured.

Traditionally, the part of the IT organization that implements Lync for instant messaging, SharePoint and Exchange is different from the part of IT that implements voice and video tools.

"Companies have to figure out how to get these people to work together," says Blood, "which is especially difficult at giant companies with a lot of internal politics."

Will Users Adjust to Being Interrupted More?

Blood notes that Lync makes communication easier and more flexible, yet could also lead to a workforce that is even more distracted.

"For Lync to be truly used enterprisewide, workers will have to get over the hurdle of being interrupted more," he says. "You end up doing things you weren't planning to do and you're not as productive. This has become the normal of working for many people, but it's mostly younger workers."

If you push out Lync to the whole company at once, Blood warns, you may find that not enough people will use it.

The first rollouts should be for focused groups of workers as a test to see if Lync can drive business.

"You need to see ROI first before rolling it out to everyone," Blood says.

Shane O'Neill covers Microsoft, Windows, Operating Systems, Productivity Apps and Online Services for CIO.com. Follow Shane on Twitter @smoneill. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline. Email Shane at soneill@cxo.com.

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Tags unified communicationsInternet-based applications and servicesapplicationsNetworkingMicrosoftTelephony/conferencingsoftwareinternetcollaboration

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Shane O'Neill

CIO (US)

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