Microsoft Lync 2010: Unified communications comes of age

Microsoft's seamlessly integrated IM, VoIP, and videoconferencing put users in touch and in control

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Automatic call distribution ("press or say 1 for sales...") is not only built-in, but the announcements are created using a 32-language text-to-speech system. Thus, wildly customized announcements can be created at the drop of a hat, simply by typing them in. The same text-to-speech system also means no more waiting for someone to record a new greeting.

My favorite feature is the ability to apply business rules to communications paths. A great example is the executive who goes into a meeting, but needs one last set of numbers for a budget. Because the executive's presence status is now set to "in a meeting," he or she won't be disturbed. But members of the same workgroup are allowed through to deliver the precious budget numbers.

These sorts of communication rules have been part of the system since LCS, but they are richer and easier to apply in Lync. Features like private line calling and caller prioritization mean the boss or the platinum customer always gets through. Features like role delegation and ring groups ensure that calls don't go unanswered when workers are absent or away from their desks.

Live communications in the real world
A demo by Francois Doremieux of Microsoft seemed to tie all of Lync's advantages up in a bow. Doremieux had his laptop connected behind my SonicWall firewall in the lab without any special rules or accommodations. Yet he was securely logged into his Lync server back in Redmond, and he was able to browse the presence information of his contacts through a federated trust connection.

Although it was nearly midnight in Georgia, we could see that Doremieux's friend Drago Totev was online and available. After a quick IM, we switched to a videoconference. The HD-quality video was stable, and instead of errors causing drops or mosaics, all I saw were tiny pauses. The audio was crystal clear, and I was even able to see the swirls of smoke as Totev took a drag on his cigarette.

Now stop and think: A high-definition videoconference without any special firewall rules, over a connection that transitioned from the Internet2 in my lab to the commodity Internet and finally to the cable modem in Totev's home. Such a scenario may be familiar to Skype users, but it's a game changer for anyone used to traditional videoconferencing over H.323 using Polycom, Tandberg, LifeSize, and so on. Lync is not the first conferencing system to use a "dating service" arrangement for call setup (server connects the endpoints, and after a peer-to-peer connection is established, the server gets out of the way), but it's a superclean implementation. 

Lync isn't dead in the water if Active Directory goes down. Even if Active Directory is unavailable, the Lync clients are still able to communicate with anyone in the local address book.
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