Unraveling the Communications Server mystery

The Office in Office Communications Server provides a clue as to what the product's all about

Certain things exist without explanation: Ben Affleck's career; the micro PC; Tofurky. For many, LCS (Live Communications Server) 2005 fell into this category. Is it IM? Is it voice over the network? Does it use Messenger or something else? Redmond has recognized the Great Mystery of LCS and is looking to make things easier to understand with the platform's upcoming release, now to be called OCS (Office Communications Server) 2007.

OCS will be in public beta by the end of this month, which is a slice of pink-sugary deliciousness for Northwestern dwellers, but the question for the rest of us is: So what's it do? I'll laundry-list some of it, but be warned: The fact that the new name incorporates the word Office is no coincidence.

First and foremost, it's instant messaging -- internal instant messaging, to be precise, and messaging that maintains user controls off of AD (Active Directory) and Exchange and that uses a proprietary client, the notorious Office Communicator (which is also getting a 2007 makeover). OCS can also be federated with another OCS server running within an external organization, such as a partner or a big customer, with no need for an additional identity management package.

But IM is now the least significant feature that the OCS/Communicator combo can provide. For one, Communicator is no longer the only -- and it might become the least popular -- way for users to make use of OCS. That's because OCS now integrates with Office 2007 in such a manner that users will be able to send alerts from inside the Office UI. Users can kick off a chat from within an important Word document or PowerPoint presentation, for example, with the ability to transfer the file.

Another 2007 enhancement is "presence management." Basically, this just means that OCS knows whether you've logged on and will automatically pump this information to anyone clicking your name in an address list. You still have the ability to change your state (available, idle, away, back soon, sleeping in the bathroom, and so on), but OCS manages these views for other users trying to communicate with you. Additionally, if those users set up meetings via OCS's new meeting capabilities, presence management can access Exchange 2007's calendar information and let other users know if their meetings conflict with your busy schedule.

Yes, I've seen more advanced implementations of presence management. A couple of years back, for example, the DiRAD/Vonexus platform (a full-on VoIP PBX and unified inbox system) promised to use presence management right down to the device level so that managers know whether employees are in the building, on their home machines, or roaming on cell phones. However, Microsoft wasn't looking in this direction. OCS's presence management is simply meant to provide an easy way to know with whom you can communicate and when.

And speaking of voice, here's the VoIP scoop on OCS 2007: Communicator can act as a full-on VoIP softphone out of the box, as long as you're staying inside the domain. Numbers aren't necessary because the whole system works strictly on AD identities. Jumping beyond the firewall and onto PSTN is certainly doable, but not without help. OCS needs at least a VoIP-to-PSTN gateway to manage that. Similarly, if you'd like to start up a VoIP conversation with another user off a Word 2007 doc, for instance, this needs to happen through the Communicator client. Dropping that conversation to a VoIP handset, for instance, is going to need some third-party work.

On the management side, OCS has chunky new features as well. Federated identity management, for example, is handled from inside OCS, as are most day-to-day management duties, and the server supposedly has a good auditing system, too. System Center extensions are in the works, but a real nice integration is that of OCS and SharePoint, where higher-level users can utilize OCS functions as part of Office SharePoint workflow designs.

OCS has many more nifty features that we'll explore in an upcoming Office Server review: Live Meeting, conferencing, tablet support, a full-on Web client, and more. Meanwhile, solving the Great Mystery of OCS 2007 is simply about realizing that it's trying to become a network communications hub behind the firewall. Whether it's IM, shared meetings, or VoIP, it's all there, which really isn't anything new these days. But the way in which it integrates with Office 2007 and the other Office Server platforms, that's where OCS might really stand apart.

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