Telstra-only approach misses out on features, adds cost.
The great promise of Lync is that it draws together communication platforms such as voice, video and web into one interface. Office 365 and Microsoft Messenger users can call each other for free and switch between instant messaging, voice and video conferencing in a Skype-like interface. Presumably it will soon connect to Skype, which Microsoft bought recently.
Lync also does web conferencing, which lets users share their desktops or specific applications with others over the internet. This has many uses; a web designer showing customers how their site will look and function, an architect pointing out features in a plan, a programmer demonstrating an application to a manager.
But one of the best advantages for a small business in moving to Lync Online is that they get an enteprise-grade telephony platform. Features such as call queuing and routing, automatic speech recognition and interactive voice response (also known as auto-attendant) that can send callers to help desks, hotlines or departments within a business.
Users can make phone calls directly to contacts from their address book as well as receive calls when Lync is connected to the public PSTN phone network. In the next release of Microsoft’s operating system for Windows mobile phones, users will be able to make and receive calls with Lync users directly to their mobile without needing to use the mobile phone network, potentially saving on call costs.
In fact Lync is so powerful that it can replace a business’ phone-switch system called a PBX, even in large companies.
However, small businesses that sign up to Office 365 in Australia with Telstra cannot get full access to all Lync Online’s features or replace their PBX – without an additional, external service.
Telstra, which has an exclusive arrangement with Microsoft to sell Office 365 to businesses under 250 seats, has not been able to confirm whether it has fully integrated its phone network with Lync Online and Office 365, despite repeated requests by BoxFreeIT. Industry insiders say the telco hasn’t carried out this integration and won’t until next year.
(To be fair, Microsoft says that no telco in the world has fully integrated its telephony network with Office 365 as the product was launched only two months ago.)
Another hurdle to unlocking all the features of the Lync platform is that it requires a business to buy and maintain a server running Lync Server. The requirement of an on-premise Lync server anchors the Office 365 cloud suite to the ground and is disappointing for businesses wanting to minimise their IT infrastructure.
Licensing, technology limitations and legal hurdles prevent Microsoft from giving Office 365’s Lync Online all the features of a PBX, a Microsoft spokesman told BoxFreeIT.
However, there is an alternative. At least one company has started selling a hosted version of Lync Server which can be integrated with Lync Online and Office 365. A hosted Lync Server service removes the need to buy and maintain your own server and sidesteps the delay while Telstra integrates its network with Office 365.
Next page: Hosted Lync Server vs Lync Online
There are three areas where a hosted Lync Server service makes more sense right now than waiting for Telstra to properly support Lync Online.
Call conferencing: Office 365 can integrate with a third-party PSTN conference bridge which in layman’s terms means people can join an audio conference on Lync Online by calling from a mobile or landline phone. (PSTN is a term for the public phone network used by landline and mobile phones.)
This feature is available to users on any of the enterprise plans for Office 365 (E1-E4).
Right now there are two problems with this approach; cost and availability.
The conference bridge must be rented at a separate cost. Telstra charges 38.5c or 60.5c per minute per line (for calling a Sydney landline or toll-free number respectively) for its self-hosted phone conferencing service. A five-person, 30-minute call on a toll-free number would cost $90.75, for example.
Office 365 customers prepared to pay the cost still can’t use this function because the option apparently isn’t yet available through Telstra. Telstra was unable to confirm that the service had been integrated or when it would be available.
By comparison, hosted Lync Server services can include a dedicated conferencing phone number with no metering for calls, which can save a lot of money if you regularly hold phone conferences. The conferencing service is also available today.
Calls to the PSTN phone network: Office 365 users on the most expensive (E4) plan can make calls from Lync Online directly to mobile and landline phones just like you can with SkypeOut and other VoIP services.
An integrated phone system like Lync can save a business money in call costs because it will make a call over the internet for free if the recipient is also on Office 365 or Lync Server.
However, Office 365 customers that want these features for their employees must spend several thousand dollars on at least one server to run Lync Server, a copy of which is included under the E4 plan.
Once a company has Lync Server installed it can replace their PBX and receive phone calls to the switch number or to individual employees’ PCs and landlines, which can be routed automatically.
A business that bought Office 365 to get rid of its file server by moving its files to the included SharePoint Online may not want to buy a server to get the most out of the Microsoft cloud productivity suite.
Microsoft says a local server is required for “legal and strategy” reasons and not latency issues between Australian businesses and Microsoft’s nearest Office 365 data centre, in Singapore.
“It isn’t a latency issue – it is more tied into functionality of the Lync platform in its current version and legal/strategy decisions that simply mean that Microsoft at this time doesn’t want to (or is not legally entitled to) provision DD (direct dial) numbers,” a Microsoft spokesman said.
An IT services company can integrate an on-premise Lync server with the Office 365 suite, which would add to the cost of the server installation.
High-end PBX features: Lync Server is capable of a long list of PBX features including auto-attendant (or IVR, interactive voice response), call hunting, queueing, diversions and so on. Lync Server also works with internet-connected IP deskphones.
Lync Online on its own does not include all these features. But many small and medium businesses that would otherwise benefit from these features would baulk at the cost and hassle of buying and maintaining a server to get them.
By using a hosted Lync Server service, a small business can move from a basic phone system to an enterprise-grade phone service without the need for a capital investment and ongoing running costs of a server.
Hosted Lync Server providers
As of time of writing, BoxFreeIT has heard there are less than 10 telcos in the world that offer a hosted Lync Server service. These include BT in the UK and Verizon in the US.
PingCo charges roughly the cost of line rental for Lync Server ($30-$40 per user per month) for businesses with up to 100 seats. This includes a free conference bridge with no additional time or line charges. Companies larger than 100 staff receive a dedicated service for $4,000-$5,000 per month for any number of seats.
The hosted Lync service integrates with Lync Online in Office 365, giving users access to the full set of features including the ability to dial out and receive calls to mobile phones and landlines.
PingCo has an arrangement with internet-based telco Mynetfone which provides free line rental and charges customers directly for calls to the PSTN network. Alternatively, PingCo can use any carrier for phone services or data connection to its hosted Lync service, according to customer preference, says Daniel Pearson, CEO of PingCo.
PingCo is still in startup mode and has not yet built a website which gives an indication of the early state of this market for Microsoft-based cloud telephony services. A case study of one customer can be read here.
BoxFreeIT will keep track of other providers as they come onto the market.