In its June 2006 report Magic Quadrant for Unified Communications, 2006, Gartner describes unified communications (UC) as the ability to improve how individuals, groups, and companies interact and perform tasks. In practical terms, UC is the ability to seamlessly merge multiple communications technologies—such as voice, email, IM, and mobile technologies—while giving users a single interface to access and manage those communications. Microsoft has been busy recently with shaping its UC strategy, as it prepares to release Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007, the successor to its Live Communications Server (LCS) real-time collaboration product, later this year. (You can download the public beta of Office Communications Server 2007 here.)
Perhaps more significant than the product release is Microsoft’s recent decision to group its Exchange Server and real-time collaboration product teams into a new group called the Unified Communications Group (UCG). The handwriting on the wall indicates that messaging will become more closely aligned with real-time collaboration technologies in both Microsoft and third-party products, so it’s a good idea for Exchange professionals who aren’t familiar with such technologies to get acquainted with them. To help you become familiar with UC, we’ll look at LCS 2005 to learn how it works with other Microsoft messaging and collaboration technologies—Exchange, Outlook, and SharePoint—to support UC in a business environment.
What’s Under the Microsoft UC Umbrella?
UC technologies comprise email services, real-time collaboration technologies such as LCS, mobility technologies, VoIP, and portals such as Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007. Microsoft has provided a corporate IM solution since 2000, when it introduced an IM service (albeit a crude one) in Exchange 2000 Server. But IM was no longer a part of Exchange as of Exchange Server 2003; instead, Microsoft introduced LCS 2003, a standalone IM server. Still, LCS 2003 was only a shell of a solution because it was missing many of the features that IM users had come to expect, such as connectivity to other IM services, offline status, and multiparty data sharing, not to mention corporate requirements such as secure messaging and failover support.
LCS 2005 is to date the nearest thing to a true UC solution that Microsoft offers. (Office Communications Server 2007, when it’s released, will provide much more UC functionality.) LCS 2005 supports UC by providing these capabilities:
- Full Integration with Exchange and Outlook—the ability to pull not only contact information but also free/busy information and Out of Office Assistant information. (I’ll discuss LCS’s Exchange and Outlook integration in more detail in the next section.)
- Federation—an Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF)-compliant interface that enables federated, real-time communications between organizations through IM and presence applications. (Presence refers to an application’s ability to detect when a user is online and available.) Federation is a critical component of UC because it supports presence and collaboration for employees within an organization as well as those they need to collaborate with outside of the corporation.
- Public IM Connectivity—the ability to manage connectivity with public IM services, including AOL, MSN, and Yahoo! from LCS.
- Telephony integration—interoperability and communication with corporate telephone systems. I’ll discuss this feature in more detail in an upcoming article.
- Improved Office integration—Although LCS 2003 provided some integration with Office applications (as well as with SharePoint), LCS 2005 improved on the Office integration of its predecessor, LCS 2003.
- The Office Communicator 2005 presence client application—Although LCS 2005 is the back-end engine for UC (controlling all the authentication, presence-tracking, and auditing information), Office Communicator 2005 (and soon, Office Communicator 2007) functions as the client console to enable a user to access LCS features (e.g., IM, telephony, presence).
Let’s look at a real-world example of using LCS 2005 to support UC. My company implemented this solution at a customer site last year. Rather than provide the installation steps, I’ll discuss some of the overall aspects of the solution and the integration features it used.
The customer wanted the UC solution to accomplish the following goals:
- Eliminate the use of public IM clients (e.g., AOL, MSN) and secure IM.
- Provide remote access for company employees to the presence server (LCS) without requiring users to connect via a VPN.
- Prevent viruses from being distributed via IM.
- Provide controlled access to public IM services.
- Provide logging of text messages.
- Prepopulate Office Communicator contacts. By default, each user’s contact (“buddy lists” in other services) is empty and must be either populated by the end user in an ad hoc fashion or imported via a script by the administrator.
- Integrate into its existing Microsoft SharePoint Server 2003 environment.
Because of the remote-access and public IM connectivity requirements, the solution would require a three-tiered LCS architecture, as Figure 1 shows. As a Microsoft best practice, public IM connectivity and remote access both require not only a front-end LCS server but also an Access Proxy, which exists in the perimeter network, allowing for remote access, public IM connectivity, and federation; and a Director, which is used to authenticate, authorize, and route external users to their home server. (There’s some debate about the importance of the Director, although Microsoft still recommends using it.)
Starting from inside the network and moving out, the primary LCS server is responsible for front-end operations and is also known as the home server. This can run either LCS 2005 Standard or Enterprise Edition. The key differences between Standard and Enterprise are that Standard doesn’t require an external SQL Server system and there’s a significant difference in the number of users that each edition supports (15,000 and more than 100,000, respectively).
The question of hardware requirements for this type of architecture comes up rather frequently. Do you really need three pieces of iron to support presence? The answer is yes—and no. For this particular customer, we were able to leverage their existing VMware ESX Server infrastructure to run all three of the LCS servers, thereby only requiring the LCS and Windows licenses. If you don’t have VMware ESX Server, you can still apply this solution by using either Microsoft Virtual Server 2005 or the free VMware Server (formerly GSX Server). An added bonus is Microsoft’s revised virtual licensing strategy for Windows Server 2003 Enterprise Edition R2, which allows up to four instances of Windows to be run within a virtual infrastructure (e.g., Microsoft Virtual Server, VMware).
For our customer, LCS Standard Edition was sufficient to support a user base of approximately 300 seats. Enterprise Edition typically comes into play only when there’s a need either for redundancy (clustering) or an LCS environment greater than 15,000 seats.
The first step in implementation is to extend the Active Directory (AD) schema. LCS 2005 introduces several new AD attributes, so you need to prepare the forest and any associated domains, similar to the required AD preparations you must make before installing Exchange Server. Probably the most important attribute that LCS adds to AD is the user SIP ID: field. This field will ultimately be used to determine the user’s LCS logon identification and is typically the same as the user’s SMTP address.
Exchange, Outlook, and SharePoint Integration
Meeting the customer’s requirements meant that we needed to take advantage of the Exchange, Office, and SharePoint integration features that LCS 2005 provides. If you’re running LCS and Exchange, most of the integration work is already done for you because both LCS and Exchange employ the user information that’s contained in AD. When logging on to your LCS account with your Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) username, you’re essentially associating your LCS profile with your AD account, as is everyone else in your environment who uses LCS. Therefore, LCS can pull the associated Exchange information for each user listed within your Office Communicator contacts list, providing you additional presence information on the true state of the user.
For example, I can see that Bob Smith is in a meeting right now but will be free at 2:00 p.m. But if Bob had been out of the office on vacation, we’d be able to see his Out of Office message (from Exchange) in the Office Communicator client. Likewise, any outside company with which you’re set up for federated communications uses this same methodology, again letting you see a user’s status, based on his or her free/busy time. This integration lets the user go to a single console to place a call through the PBX or Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN), launch a PC-to-PC audio or video conference, send an email message or IM, or simply find out whether someone is in a meeting or out of the office.
Microsoft Office Outlook 2007 and Outlook 2003 include presence capability. For example, I can obtain presence information for anyone whom I’ve added to my Outlook contact list within the heading of an incoming email; in the To, CC, and Bcc lines of an outgoing message, as Figure 2 shows; or while scheduling an appointment.
Exchange and Outlook integration is vital to the success of LCS as a UC solution. Other Microsoft Office solutions have a presence capability, but you need to be running Microsoft SharePoint Portal Server 2003 or later to enable presence in these applications. By default, both SharePoint Portal Server 2003 and SharePoint Server 2007 have LCS integration activated as soon as both applications are active within an AD forest and domain. It’s simply a matter of the site administrator choosing the particular Web Parts within a SharePoint site. One of the easiest and fastest Web Parts to enable is the Site Users Web Part. This Web Part adds the capability of identifying members who might typically use a particular portal site, by displaying the usernames in a framed view on the SharePoint site, with the appropriate status icon (e.g., Online, Busy) next to the user. For team members who are constantly collaborating with one another, this is a very useful feature that lets you leverage SharePoint’s document-management features while collectively working on an Office document with multiple members of your team at the same time.
A UC Framework
As you’ve seen, LCS 2005 can provide the starting point for a UC solution and can help you envision what such a solution might entail. LCS 2005 also integrates with other Microsoft products, such as Exchange 2007’s Unified Messaging, as well as non-Microsoft products, such as Cisco Systems’ Cisco Unified Public Switched Telephone Network Manager (formerly Cisco Unified CallManager) call-processing product, to provide more-complete UC solutions. In an upcoming article, I’ll discuss how to configure LCS 2005 to integrate with Cisco Systems’ IP telephony product to add to LCS’s UC capabilities.