Want Microsoft Lync? Get an expert to deploy it

The unified communications tool is overcomplicated to deploy, and its concepts are alien to IT's typical Exchange experience

I've avoided Lync -- Microsoft's unified communications server -- for years. My dodging began when Lync was called Office Live Communications Server (released in 2003). It replaced the IM feature in Exchange 2003 that was originally introduced in Exchange 2000. I liked the IM feature originally being built into Exchange, but I understood why Microsoft split it out and grew its the features independently from Exchange. Still, I had lost interest.

But Microsoft has kept investing in Lync, and there's clearly growing interest among IT shops in using it. I needed to go deep into it myself, to see if this now-complex tool is worthwhile. It became clear from my work with Lync that it's a wholly separate animal from what you might already know about Exchange communications (where I'm deeply knowledgeable). IT shops that believe they can do Lync because they're good at Exchange will find themselves confused and lost -- I certainly was.

[ InfoWorld's Brian Chee reviews Lync 2010. | Stay abreast of key Microsoft technologies in our Technology: Microsoft newsletter. ]

The bottom line: Lync is way too complicated for IT to set up. If you decide to go for Microsoft's unified communications vision, save yourself a lot of grief and hire an outside expert if you actully want to deploy it in production.

Otherwise, you'll spend hours troubleshooting every little issue, from using the wrong flavor of SQL (don't go with SQL 2012!) to configuration problems and address book update failures. I'm from the old school, where we really had to troubleshoot software -- it wasn't like today's Next, Next, Finish installations -- yet I find Lync far too complicated for production setup. The installation wizard for Lync is certainly much improved over its predecessors' versions, but that fact won't make a difference when you are working with all the new concepts needed as you build your topology, configure your front-end pool, set up colocated server roles (audiovisual conference services and/or mediation server), establish your central management store, and then publish your topology.

Unless your IT environment is a paradise with plenty of tech-savvy staff, very few fires to put out, and users who are self-sufficient and never require your help, you simply don't have time to mess with deploying Lync.

Still, I recommend you set up Lync in a lab environment. Beyond the general imperative of keeping your IT skills sharp, the next version of Lync looks to be even more integrated with Exchange and SharePoint. Even if you don't deploy it yourself, you still may have to deal with it in a production environment.

Another reason for diving deeper into the world of Lync is to make yourself more attractive to employers. When I did a quick search for Lync consultant jobs, the huge demand for such expertise became readily apparent. You'll need to learn about audio and video communications, instant messaging, and all the other arcane aspects of unified communications, but doing so could lead to a lucrative career -- if you can find a passion for it and it clicks for you.

One thing's for sure: Every time I talk to a Lync admin these days, he or she is always incredibly busy.

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