A brief rundown on Microsoft Office Communicator Server

FAQs about Microsoft's forthcoming Office Communicator Server

Microsoft released the public beta for its Office Communicator Server 2007 this week. Here are some key facts about the product.

What is OCS?

OCS 2007 is the centerpiece of Microsoft's unified communications strategy to bring together e-mail, instant messaging, presence, voice and video. It is a Session Initiation Protocol (SIP)-based server that routes and switches IP-based voice traffic, as well as instant messaging and Web conferencing sessions. With Microsoft's Office Communicator client technology front-ending the server, the need for an IP-PBX is radically diminished.

What are Microsoft's goals?

As usual, they are grand. Jeff Raikes, president of Microsoft's business group, said last week, "Within three years, more than 100 million people will be able to make phone calls from Microsoft Outlook, SharePoint, and other Microsoft Office Systems applications; and customers will be able to gain this value with VoIP solutions that are half the cost of what they are today." Of course, he didn't say users will be making those calls, only that they will be able to, but you get the picture.

What is the big deal?

Software like OCS represents a revolution in the telephony space in terms of infrastructure. It is a move away from the PBX and even the IP-PBX to a platform where voice traffic is handled completely in software and not on big, dedicated boxes. On the user-experience side, the unified communications supported by that infrastructure means streamlining of business processes, as well as communications that will give users information about their colleagues' whereabouts and how best to contact them.

What are piece parts?

Microsoft loves to build foundations for partners to build on, and OCS is no different. Not only does Microsoft have a number of pieces it is offering -- from such Office applications as Word, Excel and Communicator, to SharePoint and Exchange -- it has partners, such as Nortel, Alcatel-Lucent, Avaya, Cisco, Mitel Networks, NEC Philips Unified Solutions, Polycom and Siemens Communications.

What do partners and competitors say?

Cisco, as you might guess, thinks telephony is a network-layer issue and that Microsoft will show up only as middleware and client software. Nortel, on the other hand, is betting that telephony is going completely to software, and is eyeing a short-term future of integrated infrastructure and a long-term play for adding vertical applications and scalability enhancements on top of the Microsoft platform.

What are the challenges Microsoft faces?

Experts say time, reputation and cross-platform support are the big three. How fast can Microsoft release all the pieces needed to implement a unified communications infrastructure, and will it happen before users make strategic choices on Cisco, Nortel, Avaya and others? Microsoft also will be fighting its reputation for less-than reliable software, and the big question on customers' minds will be, "Do I want to turn my telephony infrastructure over to Microsoft?"

In addition, large organizations with heterogeneous environments will be asking for support of a similar user experience across Linux, Apple and device platforms.

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