Category: Intelligent Communications

How the Video Interop Server Fits into Skype for Business

Entry #6 into the “How it Fits” series is…the Video Interop Server, or VIS!

Of all the Server Roles, I have the least experience with this one. We’ve only done one install of it, for a customer with an older Cisco conferencing setup. It did the job, and made the customer happy.

Newly-introduced in Skype for Business Server 2015, VIS made a bit of a splash on debut. Because it leveraged existing video conferencing hardware, you didn’t need to spend extra on new hardware when deploying Skype for Business. You could reuse what’s already in place. We all love cost-saving!

This post, like the other “How it Fits” series, will give an overarching take on the Video Interop Server’s function and use case. It has not markedly changed since introduction, and ships with both Skype for Business Server 2015 and 2019. You may never need to use one…but if you do, you’ll be glad it’s there!

The Video Interop Server’s Primary Role

The VIS acts as an intermediary for Skype for Business and legacy Video Teleconferencing Systems (VTCs). These are older conferencing room systems businesses have used for years. Cisco, Polycom, and several other brands make VTCs. It appears Microsoft meant the VIS to work primarily with Cisco TelePresence VTCs.

Video Interop Server Diagram

There it is!
Photo courtesy of Microsoft Docs.

By creating the server, Microsoft helped many companies with older conferencing hardware extend its useful life. Remember all the money you sank into that conferencing room’s video setup? Big screen, high-quality (for the time) cameras, expensive phone/speaker equipment, wiring? With a VIS, you don’t have to scrap all of that for new hardware. The VIS allows those video systems to connect to & join Skype Meetings.

You can also use VIS for peer-to-peer calls on the same hardware, with some limitations.

VIS is primarily designed to interoperate with the Cisco Unified Communications Manager (CUCM) and its connecting endpoints. I’ve seen mentions of people connecting it to non-Cisco conferencing systems, but I don’t have a concrete example. (Do you? Please comment with the details!)

Main Components of the VIS

1. Video Converter. A VIS is almost single-purpose: it converts video streams between the formats used by Skype for Business and legacy VTCs.

Let me explain a little more about how this works. Skype for Business uses the H.264 video codec. However, it also maintains support for the RTVideo codec for interoperability. This allows legacy conferencing systems to transmit their video data into the system. But the Skype4B servers may not fully understand the legacy video transmissions.

Which is why we have Video Interop. It performs the conversion & translation functions necessary to make everyone see & talk to one another.

As you can imagine, this takes a little more bandwidth. When implementing Video Interop, it’s wise to make sure you have a comfortable amount of bandwidth available. Otherwise the VIS will bump streams down to a lower resolution, causing poor video quality & even attendee drops.

2. SIP Trunk. Not necessarily a Server Role, but the VIS needs a video SIP trunk to communicate between itself and a legacy VTC.

 

Skype for Business VIS

The guy on the far left: “Thanks to our VIS, everybody in Dallas sees this too. Now what is Mark holding again…?”
Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash.

Other Servers a VIS Communicates With

Front End Server. VIS talks directly to the Front End Server. Please note, you cannot collocate VIS with a Front End Server; it must have its own server/pool.

Edge Server. Since VIS must venture outside of the internal network for some third-party VTCs, it needs to associate with an Edge Server/Edge Pool. This is set up within Topology Builder.

How a Video Interop Server Works in a Hybrid Environment

You implement the VIS as a standalone server, in on-prem topologies. As such, this is the only way it will work in a hybrid deployment. Microsoft may have reasoned that since larger companies are more likely to use (and want to keep) Cisco legacy VTCs, they’re opting for on-prem deployments anyway.

The VIS in Skype for Business Server 2019 & Teams

Skype for Business Server 2019 does include Video Interop Server. I expect that future Cumulative Updates (CUs) for Server 2019 will expand its interoperability to more legacy video platforms.

Teams however is a different story. Since it’s all cloud-based, and Microsoft built VIS as an on-prem Server Role only, we don’t have such an option for Teams users. Nor will we. Those companies with legacy VTCs still on-site are out of luck.

Or are they? You do have one option…a third-party Cloud Video Interop service. An add-on service that performs the same function as VIS, made by a Microsoft Partner like Polycom or BlueJeans. If you invested thousands into a now-older Cisco conferencing setup, and are looking at Teams, go with this option.

VIS Extends the Life of Your Video Conferencing Hardware

Personally, creating an entire Server Role to handle one use case seemed like overkill to me. At first.

However, since then I’ve come to understand the reasoning behind VIS. Given how bandwidth-intensive video is—not to mention how demanding older teleconferencing systems can be!—it does make sense to include a gateway devoted to it. In so doing you also make said hardware last longer, saving on costs. Which makes Management happy!

For additional documentation on Video Interop Server, consult Plan for Video Interop Server in Skype for Business Server.

Which legacy conferencing platform would you like to see VIS support next?

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How to Preserve Unified Messaging

3 Ways to Keep Voicemail & Auto Attendant when Upgrading to Skype for Business 2019

Those of us who use voicemail in Skype for Business face a quandary.

We did get a new Skype for Business Server, as well as a new Exchange Server. But we’re missing one component: the Unified Messaging service in Exchange Server 2013/2016. Exchange Server 2019 will NOT have Unified Messaging.

The sysadmins reading this already know what that means. They can feel it as a sudden clench in the chest. Skype for Business’ voicemail needs Unified Messaging. Without it you’ll end up upgrading a part of the office’s phone system away!

Two, actually…the Auto Attendant’s gone too. No more, “Press 1 for Customer Service. Press 2 for Sales…”

What do we do? If your offices use Skype for Business on-prem and employ Unified Messaging for voicemail and/or Auto Attendant, it’s time for some alternative thinking.

Fortunately, we’re all IT pros. We’re good at creative solutions. That’s what we’ll have to do here, to preserve Unified Messaging.

The Path to IT Solutions

The IT professional’s configuration thought process. (Sure feels like it sometimes, doesn’t it?)
Photo by Jaromír Kavan on Unsplash.

Right now we have 3 ‘preservation’ options, each with different levels of expense & usable time. Time to run some comparisons!

Voicemail/AA Preservation 1: Keep Your Exchange 2013/2016 Server On-Prem

This is a way to preserve UM within the Microsoft infrastructure. It involves juggling between different versions of Skype4B and Exchange. Essentially, you upgrade your Skype for Business Server to 2019…but not your Exchange Server. It stays at its current version. Accounts and configuration intact.

You’ll need to undertake several processes. Changing the UM dial plan, voice policies, etc. It all depends on your existing Exchange Server’s configuration. Here are resources to help you:

VERDICT: The most direct solution. With a critical flaw – it has a lifespan. Exchange 2016 will run out of mainstream support in October 2020. Extended Support runs until October 2025, which lets you stretch things more. You’re still faced with the potential of higher support costs the longer you go.

This is the option I prefer, frankly. Even with the lifespan boundary. You retain the most control, and it requires almost no new hardware.

If you don’t run Exchange 2016 already, or the lifespan boundary doesn’t work, then we have Option 2.

Voicemail/AA Preservation 2: Switch to Cloud Voicemail/Cloud Auto Attendant (Hybrid Deployment)

Cloud Voicemail is Microsoft’s response to yanking Unified Messaging out of Exchange. It’s (predictably) a part of Office 365, and requires a tenant to operate. Same with Auto Attendant—now it’s a cloud service too.

Cloud Server Ports

Setting up Cloud Voicemail isn’t that complicated. You must have hybrid connectivity enabled first, of course. I’d even recommend doing this a week in advance, so you can test & verify successful connectivity.

To configure Cloud Voicemail, you’ll need:

  • Your Office 365 tenant account login/password
  • The domain assigned to your tenant
  • Administrative access to your Skype for Business Front End and Edge Servers
  • Administrative permissions on PowerShell
  • At least one test user account

Once you have those together, follow the steps here. It’s basically a handful of cmdlets: How to Configure Cloud Voicemail – Microsoft Docs

If you already have a hybrid deployment, using Exchange Online, Microsoft will transition you to Cloud Voicemail in February 2020.

Cloud Voicemail is not a 100% drop-in replacement for Unified Messaging though. According to ExPTA.com, Cloud Voicemail doesn’t include Play on Phone, call answering rules, text notification, or Outlook Voice Access. Doesn’t mean those won’t show up down the line, but for now, Cloud Voicemail’s sticking to the basics.

VERDICT: If you want to move to Exchange Server 2019, you’ll have to switch either to Cloud Voicemail or Option 3. Exchange 2019 doesn’t have the Unified Messaging service. This might help to gradually introduce Office 365 tools to the company. You also get Teams this way, which could provide a transition path for all staff…if you’re going that way.

Voicemail/AA Preservation 3: Integrate a Third-Party Voicemail/Auto Attendant Service with Skype for Business

This option essentially abandons using Exchange Online, Cloud Voicemail, and Office 365. Instead, you add in a third-party service to provide your users voicemail and/or an Auto Attendant feature.

We have a curious reversal on this track. It’s relatively easy to add in Auto Attendant…several third-party providers exist to do just that.

However, voicemail’s a little harder to add in. I came across two solutions that appear to work with Skype for Business Server:

As far as I know, we haven’t worked with either of these solutions directly in a Skype for Business topology. If you have, please share your thoughts in the comments.

VERDICT: If you do want to upgrade to Exchange Server 2019, but don’t want anything to do with Office 365, this is your only option to preserve voicemail and/or Auto Attendant.

Preserving Unified Messaging: Unfortunate, but Necessary.

I can understand why Microsoft chose to remove Unified Messaging. It falls within their “cloud first” mission, consolidating things like voicemail & Auto Attendant into the Azure/O365 ecosystem. (Must have taken a LOT of coding…)

That said, those of us who appreciate on-prem control now have another instance of “technical gymnastics.” Trying to find a new solution for a resurgent problem.

Unless of course you want to drop Unified Messaging? I can’t think of a scenario when a business would voluntarily drop its voicemail/Auto Attendant…but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Perhaps you’re considering the idea?

Auto Attendant Virtual Assistant

Maybe use a Virtual Assistant instead? “Hello, you have reached XYZ Corp. Press 1 for Sales…”
Photo by Fezbot2000 on Unsplash.

In terms of how these processes shake out…we do have a full Skype for Business Server 2019 installation planned this year. We’ll most likely use Preservation 1, maintaining our current Exchange 2016 server. (Exchange 2019 will have a separate test.) I will document EVERYthing as we go, and produce plenty of blog posts from that.

If you’re planning a Skype4B 2019 upgrade, which Unified Messaging preservation method will you use?

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The Skype for Business Insider Year in Review – 2018 Edition

Just like that, we’ve reached the last post of 2018!

I do have a post on the Mediation Server for our “How It Fits into Skype for Business” in the works. But since it’s already mid-December, I thought a ‘year in review’ post made more sense.

2018: Year in Review

  • After the Skype for Business/Teams Merger Announcement in late 2017, Microsoft moved fast. Teams reached feature parity in August.
  • Teams Growth Extraordinaire. New desktop client, upgrades to mobile apps. It even surpassed Slack to take the #2 enterprise chat spot, after Skype for Business Server.
  • The ChatOps War raged. The space has both broadened its user base, and lost some of its offerings (HipChat, Stride).
ChatOps War
Not quite this violent, but you get the idea. Photo by Henry Hustava on Unsplash.
  • The launch of Skype4B Server 2019 in October. We haven’t deployed it for internal use yet, but I know the IT Consulting team has done some testing. Initial impressions good.
  • 26 posts on this blog. Only a little growth this year, but that’s my fault more than anyone else’s. I’m still glad to see we get plenty of traffic, helping hundreds of thousands of people!

2018 wasn’t all great news though…

  • No Linux client for Teams.
  • O365 Outages/Crashes.
  • MS auto-moving new O365 customers to Teams (no access to S4B Online)
  • The announcement of Skype4B Server 2019 came begrudgingly. As I’ve said before, I suspect we won’t get any more on-prem versions after this.
  • We lost one of our office dogs. RIP Patches.
Patches Office Dog

Tumultuous, to say the least. But we’re IT pros. We make things happen no matter what.

What’s Coming in 2019 for the Blog

I know the posting schedule diminished a little this past year. Don’t worry; we’re far from done! Here are some planned posts coming up next year:

  1. A Skype for Business Server 2019 Install Series. We haven’t deployed Skype4B Server 2019 internally yet. But it’s on the docket. Once we do, I’ll blog about everything I can involving the setup, deployment, capabilities, and snags.
  2. Teams Integration/Sunsetting of Skype for Business Online posts. A monumental change coming…what will its aftershocks result in? We’ll all find out.
  3. Software & Device Reviews. I love doing these! Thanks to Yealink, Modality, and Plantronics/Polycom for sharing your hard work with us.
  4. Collaborations. I’d like to do more collaborations in 2019. We’ve done a few in the past here, and they came out great. Are you a fellow tech blogger? A Microsoft tech with years of experience? Let’s talk! Shoot me an email at chris.williams@planetmagpie.com.

No poll this time. But if you have thoughts about the state of Skype for Business/Teams, please feel free to share.

Merry Christmas to IT Pros Everywhere!

We at PlanetMagpie hope everyone has a safe & happy holiday! We’ll see you back here in January, refreshed and ready for another year.

As always, if you have a topic you’d like to see addressed in 2019, please share it with us.

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Device Review: Yealink T58A Skype for Business Phone

Today I’m reviewing the Yealink SIP-T58A desk phone. Like its little brother (which we reviewed last time), this is a softphone designed for Skype for Business users. I put it through the same paces as the T56, within the same Skype for Business deployment.

Not surprisingly, it had very similar results. But they’re not identical phones…and they aren’t meant for identical uses.

As promised, I’ve included some use cases in this post. Instances where one phone works better than the other. Consider this post as a ‘Part 2’ to the previous post.

Ready? Let’s get to the T58A review!

Initial Impressions

The Yealink T58A is, like you’d expect, just a slightly more feature-rich iteration. It has the same dimensions as the T56A, the same desk footprint, and the same standardized phone layout with touch screen.

Here they are side-by-side. Can you spot the difference?

Yealink T56 and T58 Phones

Hint: Look at the touch screens.

Design-wise, the only notable difference between the T56 and T58 is that the T58’s screen is adjustable. In nearly every other aspect, they are identical.

Yealink T58 Adjustable Screen

Because they’re so similar, I took a little more time with this model. Just in case it had any quirks only prolonged use reveals.

(Impromptu test: I accidentally dropped the handset before I could connect it to the cord. Luckily, nothing bad happened! It didn’t even scratch on our concrete floors.)

I did face the same sign-in challenge on the T58A as I did the T56A. It’s set to accept only Trusted Certificates by default. My contact at Yealink says they do this as a security measure. So it’s not really an issue as I said before…I can certainly envision topologies where this makes sense.

The same change we used last time worked here. Here’s the documentation again: Phone Cannot Get Provisioned with Certificate Error – Yealink Support

Once I flipped that switch, zero problems signing in to Skype for Business.

The Major Difference: Video Call Capability

If the T56 and T58 are so similar, why make two different models?

The answer is on the T58’s back. It has a vertical slot in its back, above the USB port. You can remove the cover over this slot and reveal a second, upward-facing USB port.

Yealink T58A Back

From Yealink.com’s page on the T58A:

“You can easily turn your SIP-T58A smart media phone into a video phone ready with an optional removable two-megapixel HD camera CAM50.”

Yealink T58A Camera USB Port

The T56A doesn’t have this slot available. A co-worker commented on the camera slot’s use of USB. It meant you could also plug a USB cable in, moving the camera to a better angle if desired.

Yealink T58A Camera USB Port from Above

It is a USB 2.0 slot, by the way.

Now we know why they made two models. One can take a video expansion module; the other cannot. This makes for a huge difference in use cases. I’ll go over that in a moment.

Please note: This is the SIP-T58A model. That means its camera works with SIP…NOT Skype for Business. Another phone version does that.

That said, let’s go through some testing!

Using Skype for Business on the T58A

Like its brother, the T58A shows favorited Skype contacts on its Home screen. The options, and simplicity of use, are the same too.

I also discovered that both models preserve account details. I disconnected both the T56A and T58A from PoE. Left them idle for a day. Then plugged them both into another PoE cable at a co-worker’s desk.

Both models saved my Skype4B account login. I only had to unlock the phone, and poof, there’s my Presence status & contacts. Nice going on this one Yealink.

Call Quality: Almost an exact mirror to the T56A. One thing I did notice was that the “Noise Proof” technology came through a little better on the T58. That could be due to my listening for it, though.

Voicemail: In a stroke of good luck, I had several voicemails come in succession one day. (Murphy’s Law, you walk away from your desk, and everybody calls…) This gave me a chance to test out the voicemail controls more heavily than before.

You reach voicemail on the T58A through its “Menu” button.

Yealink T58A Menu

I tried both ways of dialing into voicemail:

  • Dial in, then pick up handset
  • Pick up handset, then dial in

No trouble either way.

Bluetooth: The Yealink team encouraged me to test out Bluetooth on the phone. I had to update the firmware in order to do this; the version shipped with the phone didn’t have Bluetooth enabled yet.

(NOTE: A new firmware just came out a few days prior to my review. If you buy a Yealink after reading this, your phone’s screen will look different.)

Updating the firmware took 5 minutes. Well, 10, if you count the download time.
Yealink Support – T58A Downloads

Once I’d updated, Bluetooth appeared as a rocker switch in Settings. You can enable Bluetooth and WiFi from the Web admin menu, or directly on the phone.

Yealink T58A Bluetooth Setting

From there it’s the typical pairing process: Open the Bluetooth screen on the phone, wait for BT devices to show up in the “Available Devices” list, and tap to pair.

I paired my Jabra Motion Office headset. I keep its base wired to my laptop dock. To test, I disconnected the base from my dock, so it couldn’t field calls coming from my laptop.

Shortly afterward, two calls came in. The Jabra started beeping right away, just like it normally does.

I did notice a slightly shorter ‘walking range’ while taking these calls though. When my Jabra takes a call from the laptop, I can walk clear across the office and still have a nice clear call. When my Jabra took the calls through the T58, I got a little crackle of static when I walked about ten feet away.

Nothing huge. All in all, the phone did a good job of working with my Bluetooth headset.

Issues: Security/Hacking Concern

A reader messaged me after the T56 post went up. “Yealink phones get hacked all the time. Don’t use them!”

I checked on this, and did find several reports from people dealing with hacked Yealinks. All older models though. I searched specifically for the T56A and T58A, but didn’t come across hacking reports on them.

That doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Far from it! But the reader’s warning raises an extremely important point, not just about Yealink phones:

Whenever deploying a new VoIP phone, no matter the manufacturer, make sure it’s fully secured before issued to the user.

Default passwords changed. Firewall in place. Logging enabled. Ports closed. It’s another computer on the network…thus, a potential cyberattack vector. Treat it like one.

Use Cases for the T56A and T58A

Given how similar these phones are, it took me a while to determine separate use cases. They’re both solid phones, with an extremely useful Web administrative menu per device.

I did though! Here are some use cases where each of the Yealink T-Series phones would serve well.

T56A:

  • Run-of-the-mill desk workers.
  • Compliance-heavy workstations, if regulations prohibit display of certain materials in a video feed. Even accidentally.
  • Multiple branch offices, in a bulk deployment (especially if you manage the branch offices’ IT remotely).
  • Common Area Phone. Both models have a CAP function in their settings. I prefer the T56 here since it’s a simpler device with no video.

T58A: All of the above, as well as the following.

  • Branch Management phones, for frequent conferencing.
  • Sales/Marketing team phones, for quick video calls.
  • Customer Service phones…in case you really want to embody ‘customer-facing’!
  • Small-team conferencing phone (though Yealink does have a series of conferencing phones, called the “CP Series”).
  • Non-Skype for Business VoIP deployments. The camera add-on works with SIP video…but this version doesn’t work for Skype for Business video. That’s the Yealink T58A Skype for Business Edition.

Now, what are some use cases where Yealink makes a good choice, as opposed to other SIP phone brands (e.g. Polycom, AudioCodes)?

  • You run Skype for Business Server on-prem or hybrid.
  • Moving to Teams IS on your radar. Yealink has T56 and T58 models configured for Teams use.
  • You have multiple offices, but similar communications needs (which means you can standardize deployment & save time/money).

The Verdict: An Easy-to-Use, Expandable Desk Phone for Power Users

Now that I’ve completed my reviews, I handed the T58A over to the co-worker I mentioned last post. His turn to play. He’ll also put the phone through its interoperability paces, in our own network and at customer sites. It has to work within our security parameters before he’ll sign off on customer use.

Yealink T58A SIP Phone

I do like the T58A’s video expansion option. But I personally don’t use video much. It’s a nice-to-have for standard users. For power users though, it’s necessary. Which is why I say power users would get more value from the T58A than the T56A.

You can get the Yealink SIP-T58A from Jenne.com.

Does your office use Yealink SIP phones like these? Please share your impressions in the comments.

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A Tour through the Teams AppSource (App Store)

Did you know you can add third-party add-ons to a Teams channel? Let’s see what happens when you do!

Microsoft calls these add-ons “Teams Apps.” They work like Chrome browser add-ons…a way to integrate third-party software into the Teams experience.

They even have their own app store: AppSource – Microsoft Teams
(You can also view Apps within Teams, by clicking the “Store” button in the left column.)

For this blog post, I installed some Teams Apps in our internal Teams channels and tested them out. I went with some fairly simple Apps, but you can find much more complex ones in AppSource.

I chose Asana and MailChimp for this test. Asana is a project management tool. We already use Asana in our office, so it’s a natural choice. We switched from MailChimp to Campaign Monitor years ago, but we know plenty of businesses who still use & love MailChimp. (Plus I still have a MailChimp account for testing!)

Teams AppSource CRM

The CRM Category in Teams AppSource. Kind of wish they had a Hubspot connector; would love to see how their CRM works within Teams. I’m sure it’s coming!

 

Installing Apps into Teams

Apps are connected to Teams channels, not the overall Team. Installation is pretty darn easy…just a few clicks to select, grant access, login to the third-party account, and voila!

Teams Apps Added

First, the steps for installing Asana.

Add Asana to Teams 1

The Install screen tells us what the Asana add-on will do.

 

Add Asana to Teams 2

Office 365 must have permission to grant third-party access through its Connectors. Click Allow.

 

Add Asana to Teams 3

You’ll need to sign into your Asana account on the next screen. Then select an Asana workspace & project to follow. Click OK and done!

Next, installing MailChimp.

Add MailChimp to Teams 1

Same as before; the Install screen tells us what MailChimp’s add-on will do.

 

Add MailChimp to Teams 2

Some Apps will display an extra screen for permissions: one for the app/service, one for Office 365.

 

Add MailChimp to Teams 3

Here’s the Office 365 Connector, requesting permission. Use your Office 365 account username & password.

 

Add MailChimp to Teams 4

Fewer options for MailChimp, but the same process – select the appropriate MailChimp account, and report frequency.

 

Add MailChimp to Teams 5

The MailChimp App is added! This screen shows in your Teams channel.

 

Now, the next big question—how do we USE these Apps?

It actually depends on the App. For Asana, we only need to configure the Asana projects the App will monitor. Whenever someone creates or comments on a task within those projects, we get a notification in Teams.

Asana Task Notifications

Two instances of Asana tasks appearing in my Teams channel flow. Note how easy it is to jump over to Asana if needed, or just mark tasks as Complete right from Teams.

 

Zero effort. Plus, getting notifications like this shaves one window off your daily checks.

MailChimp will display campaign performance reports, likewise eliminating a window to check. Connectors like these simplify the workday by consolidating information flow into the Teams channel.

Other connectors, like Help Scout (updates from customer support emails) or Pingdom (notifies you about website incidents) facilitate add-on services from within Teams. You may need additional configuration.

Caveat: Apps Can Overwhelm Your Channel

The old adage is true…you can have too much of a good thing. In this case, too many Teams Apps can blot out normal conversations.

Most Apps automatically notify the Teams channel when their event is triggered. Asana will report a new task, or MailChimp will pop up a new campaign performance report. The automatic setup lends convenience. But the more you use Asana and MailChimp, the more frequently you get notifications in Teams.

It’s easy to see the problem. One notification-clogged Teams channel, coming right up!

Of course, you could create a fresh Teams channel and assign App notifications to it. But then you’ve just created another checkpoint for yourself and your team. Instead, I recommend limiting the number of Teams Apps you’ll need. Only add the ones whose notifications add value to your conversations.

Use Teams Apps Whenever They Help You Stay Productive—And Don’t Disrupt Everyone Else

When deciding which Teams Apps to add, consider the whole team’s priorities & daily activities. Does everyone use Asana? Then chances are everyone will spend time in Asana anyway. You don’t need to add it to Teams. Conversely, if half the people on this particular Team use Asana, then adding the Teams App helps them save time and doesn’t cause too much disruption.

If you use many other online services, but only need to interact with them occasionally (e.g. Pingdom only sending alerts when a site’s down), then adding them as a Teams App makes sense. Provided they HAVE a Teams App, that is. Not everyone does yet.

Still, there’s plenty of choices in the AppSource already. Go take a look!

Which Teams Apps do you have installed?

 

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The Skype for Business Quagmire Creeping Up on Enterprises

Skype for Business Server has one new version coming. After that, enterprises could get stuck between an economic rock & a financial hard place.

Skype for Business Server 2019 is coming. However, given all the pushes toward O365/Teams, it’s not unreasonable to presume that 2019 will be the last on-prem version of Skype for Business.

This presents a major problem for larger businesses. They will either have to move to Teams, or investigate another on-prem Unified Communications provider.

What’s wrong with moving to Teams? Nothing! …except possibly cost. When you scale up to enterprise-level user bases, a cloud service like Office 365 could really strain the budget. What if your business has 1,000 users? 5,000? 10,000+? Even if you’re paying a few dollars per user per month, the total monthly cost for all those O365 subscription licenses adds up fast!

Let’s look at the whole conundrum enterprises using Skype for Business will have to face. It’s a quiet, creeping financial snarl…and it’s coming in just a few years.

Does Teams Cost Less than Skype for Business Server? No, and Here’s Why.

First, let’s talk numbers. Microsoft touts Office 365 and Teams as its “Intelligent Communications” option for businesses, and wants everyone to move to the O365 platform. Okay, fine. How does that work out cost-wise for enterprises?

Let’s say we have three businesses—one with 1,000 users, one with 5,000 users, and one with 10,000 users. How much would these businesses spend if they all used Teams (and Office 365)?

I’ll use two subscription levels here: E1 and E5. Why these? Because we’re finding that our O365 customers, even smaller ones, need one of these two levels the most. They need the backend services E1-E5 gives them. If they already have Office licenses, they go to E1. If not, E5.

I am using the Office 365 ROI Calculator for the monthly cost per user. It gives slight discounts on the regular costs.

E1 Monthly Costs*:

  • $6.59 x 1,000 users = $6,590/month x 12 = $79,080/year
  • $6.38 x 5,000 users = $31,900/month x 12 = $382,800/year
  • $6.18 x 10,000 users = $61,800/month x 12 = $741,600/year

E5 Monthly Costs*:

  • $28.82 x 1,000 users = $28,820/month x 12 = $345,840/year
  • $27.93 x 5,000 users = $139,650/month x 12 = $1,675,800/year
  • $27.04 x 10,000 users = $270,400/month x 12 = $3,244,800/year

(*Monthly values do not include initial setup fees or hardware maintenance.)

These numbers quickly move from ‘doable’ to ‘ridiculous.’ Dropping 3 million a year for Office 365?

Let’s compare these numbers to the cost of an on-prem Skype for Business Server. I’ll use numbers from a previous post on this topic:

Skype for Business Server with 1,000 Users:

  • 1 Front End Server License (MSRP) – $3,646.00
  • 1,000 Standard User CALs – $36.00 each, or $36,000 total
  • 1,000 Enterprise User CALs (Conferencing & desktop sharing) – $124.00 each, or $124,000 total
  • 1,000 Plus User CALs (Voice & call management) – $124.00 each, or $124,000 total

Total: $287,646

Exchange Server (for voicemail):

  • 1 Exchange Server (Enterprise) License – $4,051
  • 1,000 Standard User CALs (MS Open License) – $5.00 each, or $5,000 total
  • 1,000 Enterprise User CALs (MS Open License) – $55.00 each, or $55,000 total

Total: $64,051

Grand Total for 1,000 users: $351,697
(This is a three-year cost, and assumes no discounts.)

 

Skype for Business License Cost

You’ll need a few stacks of these…

Photo by Pepi Stojanovski on Unsplash

So if an enterprise with 1,000 users opted for an on-prem Skype for Business Server, it would cost roughly the same as 1 year of Office 365 E5. Fair enough. But the Skype for Business Server has a three-year usability period…

Assuming a 5% maintenance cost (about $17,500) for Years 2 and 3, they would end up paying $386,697 over those three years. If they went with E5 and didn’t have any maintenance costs at all, they’d end up paying $1,037,520.

At enterprise-level, Teams actually costs more than its predecessor!

The Quagmire: Skype for Business is Going Away

This is a serious cost discrepancy. Big enough to push larger businesses away from Office 365, back to on-prem.

Now, some enterprises would have no problem paying these amounts. They also get additional value from the related O365 services (see Addendum below). If so, great, more power to them! However, Accounting usually likes to save money. These numbers may cause them to balk.

What will the enterprise do if they want to save money? At these user counts, an on-prem server actually saves money. Sticking with Skype for Business Server makes economic and organizational sense.

But what about after Skype for Business Server 2019? Microsoft has not clarified if another version is on the roadmap. Given their merging all Skype for Business tools into Teams, it does not look likely. If there’s no on-prem version coming after 2019, then enterprises are stuck! They’ll have three choices:

  1. Move to Teams anyway,
  2. Keep their Skype for Business Server running as long as possible, and/or
  3. Switch to another on-prem Unified Communications provider.

On-Prem Skype for Business Alternatives for Future Succession

I cannot accurately speculate the Unified Communications landscape in 2020 and beyond. All I can do is look at what’s available now, and prognosticate their future offerings.

 

On-Prem Unified Communications Choices

2019 is coming fast.
Photo by Eric Rothermel on Unsplash.

If all you need is video conferencing and the cloud is OK, you should still have alternatives like Join.me, Appear.in, Workplace, or Slack. I don’t think any of these will go anywhere.

If you’ll need an on-prem, full-capability Skype for Business Server successor, I expect the following will still be around:

I’m NOT saying these solutions are better than Skype for Business Server (or Office 365 for that matter). Just presenting alternatives that have staying power.

Enterprises: The Time to Start Thinking about your On-Prem Skype for Business is Now

Microsoft’s push away from on-prem to the cloud has merits, in many respects. That said, just because a larger business has the budget to spend on lots of cloud services, doesn’t mean it’s the best use of the money. Office 365 may just not be the choice for them.

Unfortunately that presents a serious financial quagmire. It’s not here yet…but it’s coming.

(By the way, we will gladly support on-prem Skype for Business Servers into 2020. And beyond!)

Enterprise IT employees, what’s your Unified Communications outlook for the future?


ADDENDUM 5-17-18: As Mark pointed out in the comments, I didn’t factor in other Office 365 services as a pricing justification. This is true, and a good point for him to make. Office 365 does come with more than Teams – Exchange, SharePoint, OneDrive, etc. It also reduces the need for on-prem hardware and staff.

I don’t want to minimize the value here. O365 can be a huge help for businesses who need full-fledged IT infrastructures, and may not have the budget to build them on-prem. That said, I’m still not sure enterprises would gain financially from an Office 365 move as opposed to on-prem. At least as far as Skype for Business is concerned.

(I may do a follow-up post to address this part of the situation in more detail. Stay subscribed!)


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Scenes from the ChatOps War

Group Messaging/Chat continues to expand, as each challenger battles its competitors. Here’s where we stand.

Slack and Teams Stay Neck-and-Neck

These two are ‘the’ names when it comes to ChatOps (business-grade chat/messaging platforms).

Slack VS Teams

“En garde, Slack!” “I say, Teams!”

Teams continues to expand its user base. It’s up to 200,000 organizations as of March 2018. But we don’t know how many individual users that is; Microsoft hasn’t said. It has huge potential to grow further, especially once it’s finished absorbing Skype for Business by end of year (give or take).

Conversely, Slack has more than 6 million daily active users! 2 million of these are paying customers. Even without the free tier, Slack stomps all over Teams in terms of business usage.

Two heavyweights battling it out encourages good competition and ultimately benefits the user. However, the market has more contenders…and they aren’t sitting idle either.

Integration Comes to Workplace (though Slack and Teams are Well Ahead)

Facebook’s Workplace just added an integration feature with a bunch of potential add-ons. Thanks to the integration, Workplace users can now connect services like Microsoft SharePoint, Hubspot, Jira (project management), and so on.

Workplace by Facebook LogoThe full list is here: Workplace Integrations.

While this is a welcome move, it’s also a catch-up move. Slack and Teams have had third-party integration capabilities almost since inception. They also have many more integrations available.

Looks like Facebook wants to keep Workplace as a separate, work-friendly brand. If so, they’ll continue to face an uphill battle, due to the Cambridge Analytica scandal and ongoing privacy concerns. Because of these concerns, my Workplace trial ended with the question of whether businesses would try Workplace out.

So far, it would appear they have. At least 30,000 businesses now use Workplace. Still in third place, and they’ll have to keep pushing. But the user count does put Workplace in striking range of Teams. A new theater has opened up in Facebook vs. Microsoft.

Other Competitors Nipping at the Big Dogs’ Heels

There’s more than just Workplace to watch out for though. I’ve mentioned Atlassian Stride and Google Hangouts on this blog before. What’s going on with them?

Atlassian StrideStride (formerly HipChat) hit General Availability in March. As it’s so new, user numbers aren’t readily available. I’m curious to see how this one goes…it looks near-identical to Teams, although some beta users complained about audio/video quality.

Google split Hangouts in two last year, creating Hangouts Meet (video meetings) and Hangouts Chat (group chats, like Slack/Teams). Not sure why they split them, but hey, I don’t work at Google.Google Hangouts Icon

This strikes me as an after-the-fact change…after Slack roared past Hangouts, they had to race to keep up. However, there are two smart moves within the split:

  1. Voice is part of Meet only. Google restricted Chat to…chat. Meet focuses on video calls, of which voice is just a part, but it centralizes the audio/video experience into one app. Makes it easy to know which app to use.
  2. Google integrated Hangouts Meet/Chat into the G-Suite. Like Teams is part of Office 365, Hangouts Meet & Chat are there for G-Suite business users. The tactic worked for Teams; I bet Google’s hoping this will work for Hangouts.

The Reason Behind the Battle: Chat’s Multi-Generational Appeal

Why is chat so popular all of a sudden? I think it’s because chat is an intergenerational medium. It’s something the past few generations have grown up using. It’s also something that’s ‘grown up’ through successive generations of the technology.

In the Internet’s early days you had BBSes and IRC.
Then along came AIM, ICQ, and Yahoo Messenger.
Next came Skype, Facebook, and WhatsApp.
Now we have Slack, Stride, Teams, Fuze, Hangouts, and several more.

Each generation had a chat platform for communication. Chat itself went through generations, advancing in capability, expanding in reach. Now we have a generation of chat platforms that can handle almost any form of communication.

arm wrestling photo

Hey hey, no cheating!
Photo by mcgrayjr

But it’s all centered around the oldest, simplest, and most familiar communication method most of us have ever known…plain, direct, text-to-text messaging.

Where the Battle Goes Next: Long-Term Teamwork Value

ChatOps have one mission: to facilitate teamwork. You can generally tell how well they do this by adoption and frequency of use.

However, short-term numbers aren’t the best indication of value to a team. Long-term adoption rates, after the novelty wears off and the team becomes accustomed to using the platform, determine who will win the “ChatOps War.”

So far, Slack and Hangouts have been around the longest. Between those two, people obviously prefer Slack. It has greater long-term teamwork value. Teams and Workplace are coming up, and Stride is a wildcard. By this time next year, we may see the triumph of Teams, the emergence of Stride, or another challenger rise.

Which ChatOps platform does your workplace use? What are your thoughts on it?

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17 Reasons to Hold Off on Using Teams for Voice Calls (Until Mid-2018)

After reviewing the new calling capabilities added to Teams last month, I have to say…moving to Teams in the next few months is a bad idea.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Introduction of new calling features is great! However, we have holes in the deployment. Holes which put Teams in a precarious situation. Its feature set expanded…but not enough to take over for Skype for Business.

In case you missed the December announcements: Microsoft added calling tools to Teams, so that Teams users could make & receive phone calls from within the client. In order to use these tools, you need two Office 365 services:

  1. Phone System (formerly known as Cloud PBX). This comes with E5 licenses, but you can buy it as an add-on to other plans.
  2. A Calling Plan (formerly known as PSTN Calling). We covered Calling Plan rates (and an international surprise) back in July 2017.

You would need these services to make/receive calls in Skype for Business Online as well.

Calling Features in Teams Now

Some of Teams’ new calling capabilities.

Adding voice calls to Teams makes perfect sense—it can’t absorb Skype for Business without them. But this wasn’t a complete move. The next batch of updates won’t come until mid-2018.

Meanwhile, Teams is stuck in a sort of productivity limbo. It’s able to do some things Skype for Business can do…but not enough of them. Phone calls through Teams, coming from Skype for Business (or any full-featured VoIP provider), will frustrate users and slow down work.

Let me illustrate why I’m taking this position. I know it may not make sense for a Skype for Business blog…but I promise, there’s a good reason!

The 17 Calling Features Missing from Teams – As of January 2018

Brian R., an author at the No Jitter blog, put together an exhaustive list of call features available between Teams’ new Phone System, Skype for Business Online, and Skype for Business Server with Enterprise Voice.
Teams Phone System: Back to Call Feature Drawing Board – No Jitter

I looked at some other sources to verify this, including the Office 365 Roadmap. Brian most definitely did his homework…the post is superbly thorough!

crashed rocket photo

Oops. Forgot a few things.
Photo by tobo

His list does tell us which calling capabilities are now in Teams. Here are the major ones: Call Forwarding/Hold/Transfer, Voicemail, Do Not Disturb, Suggested Contacts, and E911.

However, in the same list we also see some painful limitations to Teams’ calling rollout. Several features are still missing. Features that I discussed with our team.

We all agreed – these missing features would prohibit Teams adoption for pretty much all of our customers.

Here are several which stood out. Along with why they put the brakes on Teams voice call adoption.

  • No Consultative Transfer. One of our customer’s front desk personnel rely on this feature. They currently use Skype for Business Online. Without it, they would dump the whole service tomorrow.
  • No USB Devices. Which cuts headsets like my Jabra Motion Office out right away.
  • No IP Phones. Every Polycom phone we’ve deployed becomes useless. How is anyone supposed to make calls?
  • No Transferring Calls to PSTN Numbers. Want to transfer a call to your cell? Too bad!
  • No Boss/Delegate. Without this one feature, two of our customers could not function day-to-day.
  • No Call Waiting or Music on Hold. These don’t even have an ‘expected’ date. Is Microsoft just dropping them for Teams?!

Brian marked a total of 17 features as, “expected mid-2018” or “expected late 2018.” 26 other features are simply marked “No.” As in, “No, these features are not coming to Teams. Don’t hold your breath.”

I hope the ‘Expected’ features are deployed in the promised time frames. That would at least give users something to wait for!

Teams Still Handles Chat. Don’t Rely on It for Voice Calls Just Yet.

Can your business still use Teams? Of course! It still has its chat and conferencing capabilities. If you’re already on Teams, you can proceed normally. Maybe try out the new calling tools, if your tenant has Phone System and a Calling Plan.

But relying on it as a phone system is premature. It’s not ready for that yet. Not until all of the above features (and a few more besides) are implemented and working.

We’re STILL waiting on Guest Access anyway…

Which feature would you NEED to have to use Teams for chat and voice?

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