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Unified communications Battle Royale: Cisco, Avaya feel the heat from Microsoft Lync

It seems Microsoft's unified communications system Lync is becoming so popular among businesses that it is the No.1 threat to the top vendors Cisco and Avaya. Cisco this week launched an online blogging campaign to point out Lync's shortcomings, and Avaya volunteered a nearly identical list of what it perceives as Lync limitations.

[BACKGROUND: Microsoft shows off iPhone, iPad and Android clients, voice between Lync and Skype

[MORE: Lync moves closer to proverbial PBX replacement

The fighting words started on the eve of Microsoft's first Lync Conference last Tuesday and where it announced a combination of upgrades and road map destinations that address some of the issues raised by its competitors.

But the dramatically increasing popularity of Lync in the past two years may have Cisco and Avaya running scared, says Irwin Lazar, an analyst with Nemertes Research. "The Microsoft threat is top of line for both of these companies right now," he says. According to Nemertes, the percentage of businesses planning to replace their existing phone systems with Lync or already had replaced them more than doubled between 2011 and 2012 [see graphic].

While their circumstances are different the two UC leaders Cisco and Avaya have reason to worry. "Cisco customers are more reluctant to move [to Lync] because [Cisco UC] is a more recent investment," Lazar says. "Avaya customers are a little more open [to the change]. They have [invested in] just voice and maybe a contact center. Microsoft is a huge threat for both companies."

In launching what it describes as both a conversation and a debate, Cisco outlined what it sees as Lync limitations.

It says Microsoft doesn't provide phones, video endpoints, voice and video gateways, networking and cloud PSTN connections - leaving customers to find them elsewhere, increasing cost and complexity to implement, manage and troubleshoot Lync installations.

Cisco says Microsoft has no clear path for Lync cloud deployments that support the same functionality as on-site Lync deployments.

Microsoft's Surface tablets and laptops compete against other hardware vendors, Cisco says, which poses a conflict of interest when it comes to supporting bring-your-own-device programs. Microsoft might restrict full Lync features to Microsoft devices rather than making them all available to all devices.

Cisco faults Microsoft for not supplying all the infrastructure elements needed to support unified communications and collaboration. This means involving integrators and a laundry list of vendors to flesh out Lync deployments.

A Cisco white paper criticizes Lync license structure, choice of video codecs and lack of full Lync support in Microsoft's cloud service Office 365.

Cisco attacks what it interprets as Microsoft's strategy for Skype. It says in the white paper that Skype will evolve to run better on Microsoft's own software platforms than on others, at least according to this statement from Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer: "We always want Skype to be first and best on Windows."

For its part Avaya raises these issues plus a few more. It questions whether Lync is resilient enough to provide 99.999% uptime for telephony services, long the industry standard among telecom carriers, says Vincenzo Signore, vice president of marketing at Avaya.

He says Microsoft's video collaboration in Lync won't support as many on-screen images of other participants as Avaya's Aura platform and by requiring longer contract commitments for enterprise support may force businesses to be locked in to Microsoft.

Signore cites a Nemertes study that finds Lync's first-year total costs are higher than those for any of the top contenders [see graphic]. While Lync client access licenses may be inexpensive other costs - capital, implementation, operational - jack up the price.

In presentations at Lync Conference 2013 Microsoft executives made several announcements that address some of these concerns. "Microsoft filled some major holes," Lazar says.

The most gaping of these is a lack of broad support for mobile devices. Microsoft announced support for voice and video over iPhones and Android devices, as well as the capability to handle voice over Wi-Fi, Lazar says, along with administration tools to use Wi-Fi when available vs. cellular connections as a cost saving measure. "That takes away one Cisco line of attack - 'Good luck using Lync on an iPad,'" Lazar says.

Microsoft needed a Web client that lets Mac devices participate in meetings, and having one takes a good talking point away from Cisco and other competitors, Lazar says.

Skype integration with Lync for voice calls and a promise to include video calls in are attractive to business users, Lazar says. Skype remains an annoyance to Cisco, Avaya, IBM and others because their VoIP platforms are not integrated with it. That's significant to businesses in which Skype has become a de facto standard for business communication, he says.

Microsoft says it will integrate Lync fully with Office 365, its cloud application service, which would address another of Cisco's criticisms. But Lazar says it's been promised before, so keep an eye on whether it's delivered.

Lync does lack a collaboration vision, Lazar says, in which Lync is integrated with other Microsoft platforms such as SharePoint and Yammer. But Microsoft seems willing to forego that and remain focused on competing for enterprise voice business. "They think that's where their win is," he says

Lync's attractiveness breaks down when it comes to mobile devices because it lacks a unified client. Customers with an Avaya mobile client but a Lync IM client force end users into switching among separate applications when they want to shift from one mode of communication to the other, Lazar says, "That's not really user friendly."

Despite the announcements, Lync installations still require three to five other vendors to supply phones, video gear, client gateways, session border controllers, contact center software and the like, he says. That is still a side from which Lync is vulnerable to attack by Cisco, and the attack is effective among potential customers. "That resonates," says Lazar. It calls into question whom to choose as a professional services partner, how to get a clear picture of upgrade paths and whose neck to wring when problems arise.

Microsoft customers see the possibility of buying a voice license and getting rid of the expense of Cisco or Avaya licenses to save money. They see Internet-based conferencing as a way to cut out conference bridges and reduce long-distance charges.

Typical RFPs for voice systems call for getting them up and running in six months. For Lync that period is more like three to five years, Lazar says, "There's a lot of moving parts."

Challenges include dial plan management and converting voice trunks into IP addresses when migrating from a traditional PBX. Lync is more software centric than PBXs and requires a resilient infrastructure that Microsoft doesn't control. Businesses have to figure out how to provide 911 services to endpoints that can move around.

The advice Lazar gives to his enterprise clients is to seek a holistic answer to unified communications problems that can provide a seamless user experience - one that supports all modes of communication readily.

Microsoft has been extremely aggressive, pushing hard for customers that use Lync for instant messaging to adopt it for voice as well. "It just makes sense to ask, 'Could this be my voice platform, too?'" he says.

Tim Greene covers Microsoft for Network World and writes the Mostly Microsoft blog. Reach him at tgreene@nww.com and follow him on Twitter https://twitter.com/#!/Tim_Greene.)

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Tags unified communicationsLANs & RoutersskypeNetworkingMicrosoftAvaya

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