VOICECON - Microsoft reaches out to the VOIP industry

Corporate vice president of Microsoft's Unified Communications Group talks about Microsoft's SIP-based VOIP, messaging and collaboration server

Microsoft introduced the public beta version of Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007 at VoiceCon. Following the announcement, Gurdeep Singh Pall, corporate vice president, of Microsoft's Unified Communications Group, discussed with Network World Senior Editor Phil Hochmuth how Microsoft's SIP-based VOIP, messaging and collaboration server fits in, and competes, in the enterprise convergence market.

How are you presenting Office Communications Server 2007 to enterprise voice managers and IT managers?

The key message is to see what it can do for you and see what the limitations they may have. We see a lot of folks going down these one-way streets [with PBX and IP telephony vendors]. They might find themselves in a situation where they've deployed a solution, and because it is not an open solution, it is slow in terms of innovation.

Are you talking IP PBX products from companies such as Avaya, Cisco, Nortel, and so forth?

Yes. These are closed systems. They're just like mainframes. Once you bought the computer, or IP PBX in this case, you pretty much every component you buy from that vendor. They'll tell you about openness, and say "you can buy any SIP phone, sure," but when you call product support, they'll tell you, "sorry, if you're not using their phone, we can't guarantee the voice experience." It sort of builds on the fear that voiced cannot be delivered in an open platform.

Our approach to building a solution was we didn't' try to look at it way. We didn't go back and say here is a list of 300 features on a PBX, and that we need to start matching each one of them. We looked at what people want from their communications systems. For example, IP PBXs today have all these features, but if you ask a user to do anything more than answer a call, or add a third person into a call, is very hard. Most users have unmet needs today.

Many of IP PBX vendors at VoiceCon are calling Microsoft a partner. Is OCS a complimentary product, or a competitive product for these companies?

Enterprises which have a TDM PBX today and are looking to move to an IP solution. Then you have some enterprises which have some TDM PBXs and some IP PBX and their goal is to replace all of their TDM PBXs with IP PBXs. What we are telling both groups of users is that we believe, over time, you can be totally based on Office Communications Server. For now, we also want to help customers deal with missing features they may not have, or to help along those who are saying, 'oh, can I trust my voice entirely to Microsoft.' They can keep their current system in place, and put Office Communicator next to it, and slowly phase out the old one.

This resonates with customers, but what about the partners? I'm a big believer in the force of the customer. If customers are educated and aware and they know what they want, they will make the right choices. If there is merit to our approach, then the partners who are in the [IP telephony market] today will have to transform themselves, similar to the way IBM transformed itself form a mainframe company to a great services company. They will provide what the customer is asking right now, which is interoperability with OCS. Over time, they will figure out how to create a good business in this new market. Nortel certainly has joined with us to do that. The question is, will other players do it, or will they push their vertically integrated stack.

How does Nortel figure into the OCS roadmap? Is Nortel call control technology, or other code, included in OCS?

There are several components to the [Interactive Communications Alliance] we talk about three pillars. One is around the cross-licensing of intellectual property. The second one was around Nortel creating a systems integration business for unified communications. The third one is around working together around some jointly-developed solutions in the UC market. The first thing we're doing is with Nortel gateways, which we will interface with. Nortel is looking at how its contact center solution works with our infrastructure. So we're working with them in a sense that this specification we're announcing today. We did work with them to get their feedback. So it's things like that. We are not actively taking code from Nortel and incorporating it into OCS.

How do you address skeptical views on the reliability of a Microsoft-based enterprise VOIP system?

I would say that we are not telling people to go and change their entire enterprise over to OCS today. We believe we have some pretty good constructs in our architecture which are good building blocks. And then we have a road map to enable more things. For example, OCS has a two-tier architecture, where we have these front-ends, which are stateless. Then the backend is based on SQL Server. You run these systems in a redundant, failover model. So basically if you have failure and one backend goes down, then the other one seamlessly picks up without a hitch. If the front-end fails, the client immediately reconnects to the other front-end.

Then we have some planned things we are looking at, such as geographical failover. That's the kind of stuff we're working on in our roadmap. What happens if you are working in a branch office, and your WAN link goes down, how does the egress happen backwards over the PSTN? Those are the kinds of things which we are going to be enabling. And we are on a very rapid pace of shipping software.

But fundamentally, the approach is slightly different. In the old telephony world, it was, start with a phone, have a separate wire, run it into a separate cabinet, and have different boxes. We're saying lets use some of the practices we've learned from the Internet and the rolling out of data applications, and apply them to the voice world and the rolling out of data applications and apply them to the voice world. Microsoft.com is one of the most attacked sites in the world. All these hackers all over are trying to bring it down. But it's up and running 99.8 percent to 99.9 percent of the time. So if you can run a service like that, using the things that you learned how to do in the data world, we can do that in the voice world. It's that kind of approach.

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