Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Unified Communications Hosted Trial, sponsored by Microsoft & Unisys

Source: OCS Team Blog more info at Unisys

Unisys recently put out a press release announcing the UC Hosted Trial, and I wanted to give some additional behind-the-scenes information on what we’re doing here. This is a system managed by Unisys that lets Microsoft and Unisys field sales sign up our customers for a trial of Microsoft’s unified communications technologies, including Microsoft Exchange Server 2007 and Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007. We’ve been using the trial both internally and externally for several months now, and it’s gotten some great feedback and customer usage – nearly 800 30-day accounts have been created. In this post, I’m going to talk about what the trial is in a bit more detail and how it all works.

The UC hosted trial is designed to give customers the ability to experience firsthand the power of Microsoft’s UC products without having to download or install a trial version of the server software in a lab environment. All the end-user features available from Exchange Server 2007 and Office Communications Server 2007 that we could possibly offer are available in the trial. Participants in the trial use Outlook 2007 for mail, calendaring and unified messaging and Office Communicator 2007 for instant messaging, web conferencing, and voice calling, with everything working against Microsoft software running in Unisys’ Reston, VA datacenter. Participants can have up to 20 accounts on the trial and the trial lasts for 30 days.

All this is made possible through the great remote access capabilities of Exchange Server and Office Communications Server. Both products fully enable users connecting remotely from the server infrastructure. In a typical company, this may be people working from home or on the road. We use the same elements in the hosted trial, as without them we would either have our total user pool be limited to those working in the Unisys data center or all participants would need VPN access – neither are particularly compelling options for a trial designed to be both easy to use and worldwide in scope. Unisys has ‘edge’ components for Exchange and Office Communications Server deployed in their data center’s DMZ, and that allows anyone with an account to connect up from anywhere in the world. Even better, when companies deploy Microsoft’s UC products, they’ll have the same great remote experience – it just works, on the LAN at corporate or on the Wi-Fi network from your hotel in Taipei.

Moving on with the deployment, Unisys has these systems running on their ES-7000 line of servers, with one cell dedicated to Exchange, one to Office Communications Server, and others to the variety of ancillary products (SharePoint Server, System Management Server, Reporting, etc.) that are use for other services, administration and maintenance. The solution is conservatively sized for about 5,000 concurrent users, and essentially we’re way over-provisioned on the hardware front – the Unisys servers are designed for scale and it handles the workloads like a champ. And of course, reliability hasn’t been an issue for us at all.

What really matters though is how this translates into the trial participant experience. This begins with provisioning, or when a Microsoft or Unisys sales person creates the accounts on the hosted trial using a web form. The sales person enters in the names of the participants and optionally their work phone numbers, or uploads a simple spreadsheet with the same information. A custom workflow process developed by Unisys then kicks off and creates all the user accounts, their mailboxes and their settings for Office Communicator. This single process to create a user in our “faux enterprise” is one of the great benefits of Microsoft’s UC products for real enterprises as well. One can quickly link Exchange and Office Communications Server with other business processes such that automating the creation of a user’s communications resources is linked right into Active Directory and can be automated along with account creation. So no more waiting to get a new employees phone turned on!

The provisioning for our trial also creates a “sandbox” in Active Directory, ensuring that while there are many trials going on in the server at once, participants can only see accounts created for their company. Because Office Communications Server 2007 doesn’t support multi-tenant hosting capability, this required some pretty fancy Active Directory footwork - once again a statement to the power of the platform, but more so to Unisys’ excellent custom coding work.

So now that there are accounts provisioned on the trial, the Microsoft or Unisys sponsor gets an email from the provisioning system with all the account information for the newly created users. The sponsor just forwards those mails to the participants who then download and install the client software - Outlook 2007 and Office Communicator 2007, both of which are available in 120 day trial downloads. After signing in, they get a fully functional messaging and communications environment. They can send email, instant message, make voice and video calls, collaborate and much more….

Connectivity to the phone system is one part of the trial that we’re quite proud of because it lends a lot to the experience. In the trial we offer inbound calling to trial users using Exchange Unified Messaging’s Auto-Attendant feature – by dialing a single number you can reach anyone in the trial just by speaking their name. Then for US-based customers, we also have enabled making outbound phone calls to any phone number in the US. This is done using SIP-PSTN Gateways from Quintum Technologies LLC, a subsidiary of Network Equipment Technologies – their press release on the hosted trial can be found here. Since the Quintum Tenor gateways are qualified in the Microsoft Open Interoperability Program, it was a snap to plug them into PRI lines from the carrier serving the data center and connect the gateway into the OCS deployment. In addition, voice quality is consistently great – whether listening to messages over Exchange UM or forwarding calls to your cell phone.

So now the participants are up and running on the trial and doing things like using Exchange Server’s smart calendaring capabilities to schedule conference calls on Office Communications Server. The Microsoft or Unisys sponsor can now communicate with them in a totally different way – using Federation. The Hosted UC Trial is federated with our corporate deployments of Office Communications Server, so sponsors can add their trial participants to their Office Communicator “buddy list”, see when they are online, and communicate with them using an encrypted connection through the internet. Even better, these calls use the same great sounding wideband audio codec as internal calls, and can include video as well. So now an audio-only conference call that used to be run on a bridge can now include IM, video and web collaboration.

While we certainly are happy that the trial shows off our products quite well, this really highlights the great work our partners do. The expertise at Unisys and Quintum made this trial possible, building on our UC platform and turning it into a great solution - just like our hundreds of UC & voice partners do every day for deployments worldwide.

So if you have had any interest in Exchange Server 2007 or Office Communications Server 2007 but the issues of finding lab space, hardware or time to install the server software has prevented you from checking it out, then definitely ask your Microsoft or Unisys sales person about the Hosted UC Trial. In less than a day, you and your colleagues can experience all the great end-user features that Microsoft’s unified communications products have to offer. And once you do, use that federated link to send me an IM or make a video call and let me know what we can do to make the trial better! I’m at sip:jastark@microsoft.com

Jamie Stark
Sr. Technical Product Manager
Microsoft Unified Communications

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