How To Make The Most Of Microsoft Lync

What benefits does Microsoft's Lync communications platform offer customers and how can you make best use of it? A customer panel at TechEd Australia 2012 proved some insights.

The Lync customer panel at Microsoft's TechEd conference included some substantial users of Lync. Superpartners has 2500 users across eight sites, Adelaide City Council is using it over 31 sites, and the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage is1150 seats into a 4000-seat deployment.

Understandably, all were positive about Lync. "There are many benefits," said David Carroll, team leader, ICT infrastructure and operations, Adelaide City Council. Fernando Martinez, ICT infrastructure manger, NSW Office of Environment and Heritage observed: "the technology's working well."

Andrew Pritchard, CIO, Griffith Hack said the firm had achieved quick wins from improving the use of features such as call forwarding, which were underutilised on the old PABX. Although Griffith Hack was not originally considering Lync, a Microsoft partner made an effective pitch. An old PABX needed replacement at the Brisbane office, and a Lync pilot could be carried out in the time available., The project grew from there.

Similarly, Superpartners was in the throes of an RFP with "the usual suspects" but had an urgent need to set up telephony for 300 people moving into a new building in Melbourne. The company used this as an opportunity to run a live trial of Lync, and designed the deployment with an eye to expansion. It now extends to eight regional sites.

Various pieces of advice were proffered by members of the panel.

Sufficient bandwidth along with Quality of Service (QoS) is necessary, though Carroll said "bandwidth is the least of my concerns" as his sites are connected by 10Gbps links and QoS was already in place from an earlier trial - but "your users will notice if you get it wrong," he warned.

While it is easy to estimate voice bandwidth requirements from existing call records, video bandwidth is harder to predict. Martinez recommended using Lync's monitoring capability to understand the patterns, and he noted that while the initial novelty wanes, traffic associated with desktop sharing has "a reasonably high impact."

James Frost, infrastructure architect at Superpartners, suggested that it might be appropriate to deprioritise video traffic in favour of voice and video sharing if aggregate bandwidth is an issue.

A progressive rollout was recommended, not necessarily in terms of the number of users taken on at a time but rather the feature set that is made available. One issue is that some groups of users may be overwhelmed if presented with too much at once; another is that the organisation may be so impressed that it generates an expectation of ongoing improvement that the IT team is unable to meet.

Carroll took a phased approach, initially giving people their new handsets and offering a 30 minute basic training session. The rollout was done on a bottom-up basis, as presence was seen as one of the key advantages. People want presence information about their subordinates rather than their superiors, so starting at the bottom meant more senior staff had an immediate use for the system. The second phase introduced more advanced features such as the mobile client.

But not everyone at Adelaide City Council is getting Lync handsets. Lifeguards at the Aquatic Centre are keeping their DECT handsets, partly to avoid disruption but also because the chlorine water purification leads to a corrosive atmosphere that shortens the life of electronic hardware. What has changed is that the handsets are now connected to Lync via an analogue gateway.

Superpartners was the odd one out in that it was the only organisation represented that had chosen to use all softphones. That was partly for cost reasons (a headset is cheaper than a handset, although some people were issued with USB handsets for OH&S reasons), but perhaps more importantly Lync was seen as a transformational technology that would free people from their desks. In any case, "Users were just as happy with headsets," said Frost.

While the panellists reported various issues, most of them were teething problems that were at least partially solved with appropriate configuration, changes made by vendors, user training, or simply finding the right complementary product (eg for call recording).

One example of an issue solved with training was call pickup - "a source of fear and terror," said Carroll. "The same outcome is available with Lync, he explained, but the mechanics are different. "It's really a training issue."

Redundancy can be achieved in various ways. Superpartners has full redundancy across two data centres, continually backing up the Lync registrar pool to the secondary site, allowing full failover. Adelaide City Council, on the other hand, gets simple failover for voice by running two Lync standard edition servers. This avoids overengineering, according to Carroll, who pointed out that the Council had no redundancy with its old PABX.

Visit Gizmodo's TechEd 2012 Newsroom for all the news from the show.

Disclosure: Stephen Withers is attending TechEd 2012 as a guest of Microsoft.

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