MarkC on UC Microsoft Skype for Business, Lync, Exchange & Everything Else

Why UC?

Why do I love working with UC Technology?

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It’s not often I write opinion pieces - I’m usually all about the technology and the how, and less about the why….so bear with me. I recently found myself having a coffee with quite a senior IT Director of a large organisation, and also a couple of very capable techies. The tech’s were focused on large infrastructure, so think large Exchange, AD, SQL and associated systems. I’ve known these people for a while - I came from a similar background.

The conversation got to asking why am I so into UC type technologies, with a particular lean to the Microsoft offerings. Such an open question, and one you’d expect a short and easy answer to - but the more I thought about it, I realised it’s not an easy one to answer.

My evolution in the world of technology consulting started with Novell Netware (version 2.11 if I remember rightly). I loved working on that stuff. Interesting, and it was an evolving market so interesting stuff. Worked right through the Netware 3.x and 4.x days, and then around the 4.x era Microsoft got in on the act. I remember sitting in a presentation over at Thames Valley Park and thinking that Windows was going to ruin Novell’s space - mainly through the commercial reality of it, even though the tech in me at the time didn’t think the platforms comparable. At the time, Novell was sold in user chunks, so 5, 25, 50, 250 seat licenses for example. Here was the upstart Microsoft offering a server that would do the file sharing (and much more) for just the server license cost - there were no CALs back then. Buy a single server license, connect as many clients as your server could handle. This seemed incredibly aggressive to me, and back then I wondered how it would work financially. Arguably it didn’t work - Microsoft later brought in the CAL model meaning each user would need a client access license. Ho hum.

…Anyway, off in to the world of Microsoft I go. Working on largish Active Directory, Exchange and also for a while Citrix deployments. Good stuff, enjoyable, and kept me in holidays and biscuits. A fairly rapid developing area anyway - keeping up with the new technology was interesting, and integration to other platforms also become more viable as the product set developed too. Interesting stuff.

The evolution of working on Microsoft Exchange and then moving into more realtime stuff like Office Communications Server (OCS), Lync, or Skype for Business seems a common one. Most of the people I work with in this space seem to have followed a similar route. This is the source of the originating question - why the passion to stay in realtime/unified comms?

I thought there was a simple answer to this, and there really isn’t. So I’ve thought about this some more, and tried to break it down objectively.

Technology
From a technology perspective, working in UC means you have to have a good in-depth knowledge of multiple complex products across the stack, as well as a solid understanding of how vendors work together. Consider a Lync/Skype deployment for example:

  • Active Directory. AD is at the heart of the identity in S4B - getting user identity right is paramount to ensuring a high quality user experience. A lot of scripting/updating/architectural stuff here to be done.
  • SQL. SQL is used for various function - it really helps to know how this works. In some of the larger estates I’ve delivered (think 200k+ seats), script modifications in databases etc. weren’t unheard of.
  • Storage. Large transactional processing often requires storage that performs in the way you need. It’s not just a bunch of storage.
  • Virtualisation. VMWare/HyperV - how often do we install physical servers now? Even on the installs you do where you are installing physical units often a chunk of the estate will still be virtualised.
  • Networking. Fairly key to the delivery of media and a quality user experience.
  • Load Blalancing/Firewalls-Reverse Proxy. Possibly should be under the networking header, but you get my point. Knowing how these work is fundamental to a great UC setup.
  • Scripting. Anyone who says they’ve deployed/managed a large system of thousands of users, and who has no skills in PowerShell/VBScript type stuff…well, you’re either a glutton for punishment or I’m questioning your credentials.
  • End Points. PCs, Laptops, Phones, Mobiles, Tablets…You name it, a UC platform needs an answer to deployment of. Also includes technologies such as mobile device management.
  • Other Voice Vendors. You need a fairly good understanding of most of the other common vendors in this space too - Cisco, Avaya, Mitel etc.

The above is just a selection of technologies I now get to work with every day. Would I get to work with the above wide stack if I’d have stayed in a more traditional AD/Exchange type role? Possibly some, but certainly not all….which also leads me on to the additional point of….

What does UC do for the Users?
Ever tried to get users excited about a new version of Exchange or Outlook? Tough call that one. Each new version of Exchange brings a lot of architectural advantages of course - they tend to help the IT Services deliver a better service though - or arguably, deliver more with less kit. Apart from perhaps large mailboxes….What value does it really bring the user? Of course Outlook has developed on - it’s a great product, and highly functional. I’ll take you back to my original point though, ever tried to get users excited about a new Exchange/Outlook deployment? Yeah, doesn’t happen in my experience.

The same goes for other back-room IT type stuff too - if it doesn’t change the way a user works, then….from their perspective, what’s the point?

Conversely, with UC, you’re offering truly new capabilities to users, and in my experience, people love the opportunities it gives them. The capabilities make people’s working days easier. Connect people, connect them well, from anywhere….People love it. Even doing things like product demos or model office type stuff, you can see people joining the dots on what capabilities these types of technologies bring to the work life. Depending on what direction you’re coming from, it either makes your existing work easier, or it can enable you to achieve more in the time you have at work. Either way, it tends to be a positive experience for the adopters.

I’m not really talking about vendor aligned UC at this point either - Microsoft/Cisco etc. all have great solutions of course. From a user experience point of view, I’ve yet to see one that comes close to Microsoft’s however.

Of course from a delivery point of view, to get this positivity out in the user population the user experience is absolutely key. If a user has to start thinking about how to do stuff, based on their device, location etc. well, it doesn’t work quite so well. For example, there’s a site I know where a coupe of remote offices use an Internet VPN for connectivity. This is absolutely fine, and mostly transparent to the user….apart from them not quite having set up the routing appropriately for Lync 2013. Users on that site can get basic services, but they run into issues with web conferencing, sharing etc. I won’t bore you with why this is, but essentially those users have become accustomed to know they have to disconnect from the corp network and connect via a public WiFi access point in order to gain access to the flakey services. Great user experience that isn’t.

In the above scenario, the main sites that utilise the tech love it - it’s been listed repeatedly as the best thing IT have done for the employees in a while. Look at those couple of offices though, and they think the product set is terrible, unreliable……and this doesn’t sit well with me.

Why work in the channel?
The final thing we were discussing in relation to this, was that we’d all effectively spent our careers working in the IT Technology Delivery sector. That is working for the companies that repeatedly deliver this stuff, rather than working directly for end-clients who may operate such platforms, but perhaps only implement/upgrade etc. every few years.

For me, the reasons for this relate back to my points about the technology. Working for a reseller means a stream of projects around the technologies that I’m interested in. It means you get far more exposure to those core technologies, often in greater detail, and often with higher backup from the vendors themselves too.

Finish one 1k seat deployment? It’s off to your next one, with a new set of requirements, new unique business challenges, and yes, a new set of users to impress. It’s a different approach to design/implement/operate that I seem to observe working direct for the consumers of the technology.

What’s Next?
I suppose the next question is…what technology next? I’ve been fortunate to have spotted (probably by pure luck) evolving technology spaces - whether it was the jump from NDS to AD, or the excitement at remote desktop type services such as those delivered by Citrix. I saw the same opportunity with UC. Is UC mature now? Well, obviously it’s a lot more mature than it was. Working between platforms now is far easier than it once was, and people’s implementation of SIP seems to vaguely follow the same ideals now. So it’s certainly maturing, not convinced it’s totally mature yet.

What’s next? Well, if I told you that, you’d all get in to it wouldn’t you? Watch this space.

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