Workplace collaboration partners pursue Skype for Business

Channel partners are developing services around Skype for Business, which they view as an important part of their unified communications toolkits.

Communication is a key part of workplace collaboration, and with the increasing popularity of Skype, it was only a matter of time before employees clamored for integrated voice and video conferencing functionality regardless of their location.

Since acquiring Skype in 2011, Microsoft has been seeking to cultivate that market. The latest phase of the company's strategy kicked off in April when Lync, Microsoft's unified communications (UC) platform, morphed into Skype for Business, a real-time synchronous app that allows users to do instant messaging (IM), audio and video calling, desktop and app sharing, and file transfer. The offering also lets users share content and call another Skype user on any device. Channel partners are getting into the action with newly launched Skype for Business managed services, which channel executives say takes UC to the next level.

"People want and think there's greater value going to unified communications than ever before, and they expect to get good telephony services," said Stephen Tong, senior director of Infrastructure Services at Avanade, a technology solutions, cloud and managed services provider. Accenture owns a majority stake in the company, which was founded by Accenture and Microsoft.

Skype for Business will be a core offering from Avanade with some unified communications bundled around it, Tong said. While businesses already can purchase video telepresence as a separate aspect of a UC bundle, typically that can be very expensive, he said. That can leave smaller businesses with no dedicated IT departments out in the cold.

"These businesses want a simpler purchasing experience and a simpler economic model … and [to] include components where solutions are integrated, and they want it to be easy to purchase," and have it all work together, Tong said.

Integrated solutions have proven elusive in past years. Historically, if someone was a Vonage Voice over IP customer, for example, and tried to add video and app sharing without a managed communications circuit or good quality of service with an underlying network infrastructure, they would have a very uneven experience, he said.

Going forward, "if you are a pure-play [UC] provider and aren't able to offer that, it's going to be a challenge," Tong noted.

Avanade's managed service offering monitors Skype for Business environments under a service-level agreement, providing 24/7 support. Coverage, according to Avanade, includes "real-time analysis" of core Skype for Business services, Skype for Business Branch Appliances, network topology, Active Directory and storage.

Moving out of the video conferencing room

Carousel Industries, which specializes in UC, also offers managed services supporting Skype for Business. The company's SmartPoint Managed Services for Skype is a 24/7 monitoring and management package that covers IM/presence, voice, video, Web conferencing and voice telephony.

Carousel's experience supporting Lync customers set the stage for its Skype offering. Indeed, Carousel sees Skype for Business as a natural migration of its Lync 2013 managed services business.

Company officials pointed to a Lync migration project to illustrate that point. A financial services industry customer with 2,500 employees and a global footprint wanted to avoid the hassle of sending its staffers to specially equipped conference rooms every time they wanted to conduct a video conference. The company had been a longstanding Avaya user whose conference rooms housed Polycom video equipment. Being in a multi-floor building, employees would leave their offices ahead of time to go through stairwells and elevators to get to a video conferencing room.

"We discussed where the industry was moving -- to more desktop video deployments -- and we asked what were their communication needs?" recalled Ed Wadbrook, vice president of applications and collaborative solutions at Carousel, which had done some video equipment installations for the company. He told company officials that employees want more video mobility capabilities, "and they were intrigued by that."

During a series of meetings, Carousel demonstrated the capabilities of Microsoft Lync, and the company decided to do a pilot in 2013 with 20 features, including IM, presence (so that if users are on a conference call they can change their availability to busy) and contextual presence (if users are using Avaya for a call, publishing that information to Lync to indicate that not only are they busy, but they are on a phone call).

"Maybe they think you're busy but can be interrupted," Wadbrook explained.

Carousel gave them the capability to do point-to-point calling, point-to-point video conferencing over Wi-Fi and 4G, and shared desktops, while testing out all the functionality and also ensuring the financial services customer's security requirements were met.

Four months into the pilot the company decided to roll Lync out globally to employees in seven countries, so Carousel built out a backup data center for disaster recovery in addition to the primary data center. Carousel put Lync servers at the company's seven remote locations for localized workplace collaboration without having to go over its Internet Protocol pipe through the Atlantic Ocean into the U.S.

Since then Carousel has added other UC features for the company, including giving video conference attendees full PowerPoint presentation capabilities and support for their regulatory compliance requirements, particularly within IM. As of the end of 2014 the company was in full production with the UC platform, Wadbrook said.

We see [Skype for Business] as the next evolution of Lync.
Terry SheaCarousel Industries

"We see [Skype for Business] as the next evolution of Lync," said Terry Shea, director of the Microsoft Services managed services practice area at Carousel. Many people haven't heard of Lync, "but they certainly have heard of Skype," he noted.

From a back-end perspective, nothing has changed; it's just a matter of cosmetics, Shea noted. Carousel, he said, has positioned itself "with the right toolset and partners to proactively monitor Lync transactions in real time. Most managed services providers are essentially looking at [transactions] afterwards" if a customer reports poor call quality. Carousel is rolling out a "fully baked offering" including proactive monitoring, help desk, patch management, a single point of contact and help with capacity planning.

Shea thinks Skype for Business will spark new interest in unified communications among customers because of the recognizable name: "There has been a sea change because the average person had no idea what Lync was" and that there is now a business offering for Skype.

Tong said there has been a shift toward UC as a service in general, and "people are interested in buying what they need on a monthly subscription basis … We've seen the acceleration of that trend in last 18 months."

Workplace collaboration trends

In other trends, Tong said Avanade is seeing a lot of demand for UC services with large corporate customers as opposed to medium-sized enterprises, where "there has not been a huge amount of traction."

But the company plans to build out its UC services by expanding its base of resellers and some telecommunications service providers to focus on medium-sized businesses. Tong said some of the new deployment models and new features expand the range of customers that can leverage Skype for Business as their primary UC platform.

"Avanade is strengthening our channel business with our partners to target medium-sized companies by leveraging these enhancements in capability and efficiency," Tong said.

Avanade has also made a lot of investments in tools so that employees on the road can have the same communications capabilities that they receive on the corporate network delivered to them.

Beyond tooling, providers need to look at the network infrastructure and operational processes that Tong said now have to be adapted for UC because now there is a blend between IP data networks and voice.

"If your Web page is not that fast, when humans get on a call … we are very tuned to listen for nuances and pacing and delays," he said. "People will notice service quality problems much more with unified communications than any other workload, which is why it's very important to have good tooling and processes" in place.

Overall, it's an interesting time to be in the unified communications space, Tong added, because providers need to think about the fact that companies increasingly have customers in different geographic regions and they need to provide geographic coverage.

"People expect to be able to get a number and be reached," he said. "So if you're spanning the globe you have to think about how to do it and the different [regulatory] rules."

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