Exchange 2010 Architecture: Microsoft's Adam Glick Talks About Unified Messaging

I can still remember the first time I received a voicemail in my Inbox while I was working at home. It was a few years ago, and not long after the company had moved onto Microsoft Exchange Server 2007, which introduced this feature whereby phone messages could be routed through email. What an age we live in, I thought! Unified messaging in action, in my Inbox! (Never mind the fact that I probably ignored the actual message, along with most subsequent voice messages during the intervening years.)

And now a couple months ago, we upgraded to Exchange Server 2010, so I was able to receive my first voicemail with the voicemail preview feature that I'd been reading about for nearly two years. (And with the interesting mistranslated messages, who knew how many laughs that would be good for?) But seriously, it's a great feature, as are so many of the other features that make up the unified messaging (UM) piece of Exchange. If you're looking at the Exchange Server 2010 Architecture poster, which you can receive free in the March 2011 issue of Windows IT Pro, the new UM features are pictured at the middle left. To get the inside story of what's going on in this space, I talked to Adam Glick, senior product manager for Exchange.

Don't forget to check out the other interviews in this series on Exchange 2010 architecture, linked below. And finally, next week I'll post the final interview, with Microsoft's Rajesh Jha, corporate vice president for Exchange, who talked with me about what the future holds for Exchange.

BKW: So, Adam, what's going on with unified messaging? Tell us what it is and what it's good for, if you can.

Adam: Unified messaging is one of those growing areas. An easy way to think about it is, think of a universal Inbox. All of your critical messaging data shows up in your Inbox, building bridges across the silos of communication—how's that sound? This is a way of bringing those pieces together in one place. When you think about what that enables for users, there's obviously a high-level benefit. You've got one place where you can create and consume and find your information. For IT pros, you have just one place to manage—you have one set of servers and technologies to manage, one set of drive space, one set of legal compliance pieces that you have to search and maintain control of. This is really about simplifying, organizing, and consolidating information for both users and IT pros alike.

When I think about unified messaging, it's why you'll never have to remember you voicemail PIN, ever. I don't know if you've had that experience; I certainly have—I had it last week, actually, where I'd forgotten my voicemail PIN and had to reset it. We're not a very voicemail-centered culture at Microsoft. We're very email-centric. But people still call me, especially externally, and leave voicemails, and I need to get those. They show up in my Inbox, so I'd forgotten my voicemail PIN. The reality is you don't need it. It's another hassle, it's another set of Help desk calls that people are going to get to reset these things. When the voicemail shows up in your Inbox, there's nothing to worry about.

BKW: I'm right there with you. I couldn't begin to guess what my PIN is for voicemail. If it's not in my Inbox, it might as well not be there.

Adam: Exactly. Users benefit from the the fact that if you're on a mobile phone, that message shows up—you don't have to see the blinking red message waiting indicator in your office to know you've got new voicemail. You can read it, you can see it, you can hear it all from the web or from your phone, from Outlook. Users benefit from that. The benefit for IT pros is it's a much more simplified infrastructure. Many of them are running voicemail systems that could be 20 years old. Parts may not even exist anymore for them. We've heard horror stories from some of our customers trying to find parts for the 20 year old system from a company that's gone out of business, and they can't find them while their whole system's down. \\[Unified messaging\\] allows them to put everything on an infrastructure they can trust. You can manage it one way. You don't have different sets of data staying in different places. You don't have different sets of administrators have to administer these different pieces all over the place. It simplifies it for them, and simplifying things for IT, we've found, is always a good thing. No IT pro has ever complained to me that we made something too easy.

BKW: What are some of the new features and enhancements to unified messaging that came specifically with Exchange 2010?

Adam: Unified messaging has a number of new features. The biggest one that's going to pop up for most people is voicemail preview. That's the ability for the machine to listen to someone's voicemail message and then to print that out in text and send it to them in an email. I don't know if you're a Stephen Covey fan or not, but long ago I read The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. One of the things in it is don't mistake the urgent for the important. The quintessential example of this is the phone ringing. If the phone rings, you don't know what the person on the line wants to tell you. So, do you leave the meeting to answer? Many people will answer the phone, depending on who the person is, how important. But they don't know that information.

With voicemail preview visibility, they leave a message, it shows up a minute later or so, depending on how long the message is they left—it's usually faster than that—and it will tell you what they said. You can read it. If it's my girlfriend calling and asking me to pick up food on the way home from work, great, I probably didn't need to walk out of a meeting for that. If it's her telling me she went into labor a month early, I probably didn't want to wait until after the meeting in order to deal with that. I can get that message right away, and I can act on it. The same thing is true with calls from people's bosses, calls from external vendors. It allows us to get information.

I used to work for a company that sent out quarterly information through a 15 minute voicemail call that they sent out to everybody. Or there are people that keep data on voicemail. Because you have pieces of information in your Inbox, you can use your Inbox search features to pull up that information. So if you left me a voicemail six months ago with your email address in it and I didn't write it down, if I want to go and find that, I can just type that in, and \\[the search feature\\] will pull it up because it's in that single universal environment that I have.

Adam (cont.): That's the search benefit for users. The flipside of that for IT pros is when they have to do legal discovery, especially if you're in a larger organization or one that has to deal with litigation. If you're at least a medium-sized company, you'll probably have to deal with this at some point. Voicemail has been found to be discoverable. How you discover it and how expensive that is becomes a question for the company. Are you going to have to go buy special software that will work with your old PBX system in order find that voicemail, pull it out? You're going to have to pay somebody to literally sit and listen to all the voicemails and transcribe them. This is actually happening in some cases.

Here, you're able to use search technology to pull out the voicemails right away, easily, the same way you do an email search in Exchange. Then you can take those messages, look at them, and decide which ones are appropriate for the discovery request and which ones aren't. It's about saving IT time. Then, to stretch just one step beyond this piece of it, Exchange 2010, with the Role Based Access Control—with RBAC—gives you the ability as an Exchange admin to delegate that search to someone in say legal, so it doesn't become IT's challenge, IT doesn't become the bottleneck in this process. They can offload it to someone who really cares, which is the bulk of legal and litigation.

BKW: A UM feature I seem to have read a lot about is the message waiting indicator. Seems like such a simple little feature, and yet I know a lot of companies really clamored for it and held off of Exchange 2007 initially because it wasn't there. What happened with that feature?

Adam: The message waiting indicator is one of those little things that matter so much. People want to see—they're so used to seeing that flashing red light on their phone to tell them they have voicemail. Some people are Inbox-focused, they focus on their Inbox. Some people just look for that light, and that's what tells them if they have voicemail. People understandably wanted that as a feature.

We built that into the functionality. I was speaking at a conference, and people broke into applause when I said that. People want to see that light there, and we put it in there. What's interesting about it is, depending on what kind of system you have for your phone system, it actually translates the information in different ways. So for certain products, it works, and for some other products, they may choose to be incompatible with the standard. So we've tried to work with vendors. We've worked with most of the vendors out there to make sure it works.

BKW: What is the reason it wasn't included in Exchange 2007?

Adam: I believe we put it into 2007 as one of the service packs. What it normally comes down to is that to ship a product, at a certain point you have to draw a line, you've got to decide what's in, what's out. You only have so many resources, and that feature fell outside of the resources line. Some of those things might seem so small but actually take more work than people think because although all of the different VoiP, PBXs, old PBXs using VoiP gateways, and other software that's out there all use SIP in order to communicate with each other, the versions of SIP that people use, and which commands they support in their particular version of SIP, is not always the same. Making sure that your system can recognize the other systems that it's connected to, that it knows how to speak the versions of the protocol that they speak, is an important part of making sure those things can actually show up.

It sounds like, hey, you're just lighting up a light, right? I did this in an electronics class when I was in fourth grade with a little battery. But it's actually a far more complex challenge because of the way people implement protocols. You take a look at a standard, but not everyone is working to the same standard.

BKW: That's a good point. So, what else did you add for UM in Exchange 2010?

Adam: The Auto Attendant was another one of the new things we built in. This is the ability to call out Call Answering Rules. I think you'll see this on our poster if you look at about 9 o'clock from center. This is basically your ability to set up a decision tree on your phone—to make rules the same way you do for your inbox for a phone. So if someone's calling me, and I'm on vacation, I can have it answer, "I'm on vacation, please leave a message." I can have it take a look at the caller ID and say, "Oh hey, it's my boss." It can use the GAL to look it up, so I can just say my boss's name, rather than if it's a call from number X—it actually has intelligence behind it. If it's a call from my boss, go ahead and forward this call to my cell phone number because even though I'm on vacation, my boss can still get hold of me. But if other people call, they'll go to voicemail.

I can set rules based upon time, based upon who's calling. I could give options saying "I'm unavailable. If this is an urgent question about unified messaging, push 1," and I can have it forward to someone else for that. After that, I can have it say, "If this is about Exchange ActiveSync, push 2," and I can have that forward to someone else. We've given users the ability to really take control of their phone experience rather than just giving them a voice mailbox, a place for stuff to go into, and maybe they can change the message to say they're not in the office. We're actually giving them control to manage that the way that they want.

BKW: And these different answering options are something that end users can set up themselves? They don't have to go through IT?

Adam: Correct. IT enables users. In other words, you have a right to do that. As with everything with Exchange, we give IT the ability to decide: Can you do something or not. Once we do that, then we shift the ability for people to do those things to the users. IT gets to choose if it's on or off, and set up any boundaries within those things. Then users can set them up themselves. If IT wants to, of course, IT can set them up, but we give the ability to users because we feel, let users do it, take that load off IT. IT can always choose to keep the load on themselves if they want, but we find most IT pros look to offload things like this. Same thing with resetting your voicemail PIN. You can call the Help desk to do it, but we give people that ability right from the web page to click Reset Voicemail PIN, They don't need to go through IT to do that. Let the IT pros focus on the stuff that really matters.

You can also go through the Auto Attendant to set call answering rules. Say, for instance, try my cell phone. If my cell phone doesn't work, try my work phone, try my home phone. You can plug in various numbers and have it try those different numbers. As much as you want to give people ways to contact you, and you want to specify who can contact you, and such things, users have the ability to set that up. And it's done the same way that people set up Outlook rules. So if you go into Outlook or OWA and you can set up those kind of rules, it the same basic experience, just for your phone.

BKW: Any other new features you want to discuss?

Adam: Those are the big new ones in Exchange 2010. One of the new things that came in 2007 was Outlook Voice Access. It's one of the things that we find people are awestruck by. I usually use it when I'm driving in to work. While I'm driving, I don't want to be looking down at my phone to see when my next meeting is or if there's an important email. I can just use the voice dialer on my phone to call into the system, and I can just talk to it. It'll tell me when my next meeting is. It'll read the email to me. You really have that voice-to-text, text-to-voice on both sides. I can have it read my email, and if someone leaves me a voicemail, I can switch it to text.

The way that I think of it is you get to interact with your messaging in a way that's most comfortable for you. If you like to hear it spoken, the system will speak it to you. If you like to read it, you can read it in your Inbox. If you want to read it on your phone—however you want to have that interaction, our goal is to make that goal available to you. Unified messaging touches that phone and voice side of it.

BKW: So this feature, Voice Access, has been around since Exchange 2007. You've no doubt had time to get user feedback. Are people using Outlook Voice Access? Or is it not well enough known?

Adam: I hear that people use it as a supplemental feature. I don't know anyone who uses it as their sole mail experience. There are still places where they only have access to a voice line, and they need to be able to get information or check something. Driving in the car is one I hear a lot from people. Or the ability to find a contact: They want to find someone who might be connected to the company directory. You might not have someone's phone number in your phone. Say, for instance, someone says you should contact David Pay. OK, well how do I get a hold of him? I can call my voicemail and I can say, "Company directory, call David Pay." And it will look up in the system—it has his office number, and it will call him. So it's really a way to access people in the company directory without having all of the contacts—Microsoft has, what, 89,000 employees, and I don't have all of them in my phone. I can say the name, and it will connect with that person.

BKW: The UM role is one of the Exchange Server roles that Microsoft doesn't support in a virtualized environment. Can you talk about why that is? And is it possible the UM role will be supported for virtualization down the line?

Adam: The short answer to that is yes. We're currently working on putting together a posting that will outline guidance for virtualizing the UM server role. I've talked to customers who already do it. I have a test server that I use when I do demos, that I use for my own kind of tinkering, and that runs in virtual. So, it can run virtually. The challenge with supporting it in a virtualized environment is when you're dealing with real time data—so, voice codecs—they're not always ready to deal with the fact that you have something in virtualization that's actually processor and time shifting. You can end up with a lot of jitter. That jitter can cause problems with things like doing the voicemail preview pieces, or giving an acceptable level of call quality. Because of those codecs, we weren't always comfortable with \\[supporting\\] that.

We are looking at issuing guidance on what you would do in order to be able to virtualize the Unified Messaging server role the way that you do others. There are people who do it now. Typically it's if they've got a low load on it, or they're willing to accept some of these trade-offs. We're looking at how we can ensure that we give people a great experience when they're virtualizing it so that all the users can benefit fully from the product that we've created.

BKW: So you will lay out some specific guidelines?

Adam: Correct, the same way that we have guidelines for server sizing, and how many servers you're able to use, and what kind of box should have how many mailboxes on it—we have a calculator for those things. We will issue guidance on what would be an appropriate way to handle unified messaging in a virtualized environment.

BKW: Do you have a timeline of when you expect to be doing this?

Adam: I don't think we have an announced timeline on that right now.

BKW: I'm kind of curious also to know what sort of integration Exchange and specifically the unified messaging piece of the puzzle is doing with Lync 2010? They have some similar or overlapping features, so I imagine the teams are working together to make sure they do work together.

Adam: Oh yeah, they sit right down the hall from me, actually. They have complementary pieces of functionality, they don't have overlap. The way that the two products work together is that when you have Lync in an environment with Exchange unified messaging, they notify each other so they don't overlap. When Lync has a more robust set of functionalities around call handling or voice trees, Lync takes over that. Lync doesn't do any of the unified messaging voicemail pieces, so anytime it gets one of those pieces of information, or incoming fax tones, it knows how to route that over to Exchange. They work complementary with each other. They started as separate products, but it was clear these two would work well together and be very complementary. The teams have worked together to make sure that those pieces hand off and that that hand off is good for users and organizations as they use both products.

BKW: Since you deal with this topic a lot, do you have any sort of definition or distinction between the terms unified messaging and unified communications?

Adam: Yes. These are somewhat generic terms that get thrown around. Unified messaging generally tends to refer to voicemail that shows up in a user's Inbox. Various companies and organizations do that various ways. We take a very integrated view on that versus others people who just try and package it up as a sound file and email it as an attachment. But unified messaging generally refers to voicemail delivered to an email Inbox.

When people say unified communications, that tends to be an umbrella term that contains lots of different things. As we think about that, it's about unifying all of your communications—so your IM's, your presence, your emails, your voicemails, your calendaring, your contacts—all these things together in one place. You can even extend that out to SMS messaging and some parts of Exchange ActiveSync. We take a very expansive view on that. I know that certain other people have taken a much more narrow view. What I find is that the organizations that tend to take a narrow view tend to take a narrow view based upon the products that they have available and the products that compete in certain market areas. Unified communications, I'm unaware of any given definition, but it tends to be the bringing together of all the different communications streams in one place. When I talk about the universal Inbox concept, it's because everything comes together in one place.

BKW: This is a term that's been around for a while now, and Microsoft might have been one of the first companies that I know started using the term unified communications really heavily. But when we started publishing articles on the topic two or three years ago, our audience at that point really didn't seem ready. Our IT pro audience back then just wasn't ready to hear it. Do you have a take on where things are now out there in the field?

Adam: When I take a look at how people view unified communications, what I'm hearing from IT pros and what I see is that people see it as this kind of inevitability that's moving in. There are some organizational challenges in some cases, or sometimes it's around IT spend, you know, what they have now and seeing where they could go, which is the right thing. There tends to be pieces outside of the actual technology that are sometimes limiting \\[adoption of unified communications\\]. When I talk to organizations, I find much more awareness about it. When I talk to them about when they're going to move, it usually has to do with when they're planning to upgrade the various systems they're looking at. Does it have to be something that can be done piecemeal, or does it have to be done as an overall switch of all their systems?

What we see is a decent sized minority of our customers that are on unified communications already and a good number of them looking at it for the 2010 wave. So as they're looking at upgrading to 2010, they're having that discussion: "Do we want to start bringing in the whole unified communications piece of it, do we want to grow that?" The Lync team growth numbers are just astronomical. Looking at that today in a meeting, they're growing very strongly, and they grow as part of unified communications used with Exchange. When that goes in, it tends to go along with things like unified messaging in Exchange, it tends to be that growth, that escalation of that technology stack.

BKW: Thanks, Adam.

Follow B. K. Winstead on Twitter at @bkwins
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