Now that Ignite is coming to an end and all the hearsay has turned into fact, I wanted to gather my thoughts and formulate an opinion and recommendation on the impacts of what’s been announced. Microsoft’s announcement to concentrate on Microsoft Teams as the cloud offering as the unified communications platform going forward has been met with both enthusiasm and bewilderment across the IT spectrum. It seems that unified communications is now done with and enter intelligent communications that leverage the power of cloud AI and service based workloads. I joked before Ignite that the saying “Let me Skype you” will disappear to “Hey I’ll Teams you on Teams”, just doesn’t sound right. But now perhaps its more “Hey IC You!”… nevermind, i’ve never really cracked the dad joke scene..
I am not going to go into detail as to what is coming to Teams and all that, it’s been well covered in Ignite sessions and fellow blogs. I want to strip back all the hype around it and discuss the enormous challenge that Microsoft has laid out for itself and us as well. Seeing new ideas, new tech and the cloud evolve is great for cutting edge innovation that has the WOW factor, but the harsh reality of enterprises means that this innovation and in particularly the speed of it often raises more worrying questions than positive ones. Before we look at this, I am a supporter of Microsoft Teams, and I can see real benefits of what Microsoft are doing with it in the cloud. It makes sense. But it has put legacy UC into the washing machine on full spin, because the fact is that most of us aren’t quite ready for IC just yet. Although if you waited for people to be ready, then you’d never push the boundaries. However, having said that I do feel that this move to Microsoft Teams is a bit premature. Not so much the strategic decision, but more the marketing message timing has only added confusion rather than clear understandable direction. In my view, the sensible approach to the strategy would have been to continue developing Teams capabilities and releasing them without the fanfare of Ignite 2017. At a point that Teams had comparable capabilities with Skype for Business Online, it would then make sense to broadcast the messaging to the world. In my opinion the earliest that this should have happened would be probably Enterprise Connect 2018, possibly Ignite 2018.
The reason for this is that enterprises would slowly see the direction Microsoft are taking and would have time to adjust their approach with more comfort. Yes, by the time Microsoft officially announced the direction it would not be so impactful, but at least enterprises would have more context and be prepared. However, by announcing this now, I think Microsoft have potentially caused themselves more damage than success. The reason I think this is because Microsoft Teams is not at a point where customers can truly believe that it is the direction they should take. Microsoft have a monumental task of building not only back end but also a whole new front end application and service, an entire ecosystem if you will and through the customers eyes they haven’t even left the starting gate before announcing their plans.
This of course is not an entirely accurate statement to make. Microsoft have been dogfooding calling in Teams for a month or so, so behind the scenes they are further around the track that publicly visible, but nevertheless, enterprises judge an application based on what is supportable and generally available not preview, or preview preview. So today Microsoft says Teams is the future and Skype for Business Online is going away, leaves them worried because they have not seen the new kid on the block develop to a point where they feel the potential. Aside from this, we have been in a constant battle with customers over the last 2 years to convince them Cloud PBX is a suitable platform for their voice workload. It’s taken 2 years because enterprises never want to be the first ones to test a new service, especially where their communications are involved. At least 70% of my customers have said to me, “we want to go cloud, but it isn’t mature enough, it hasn’t got this feature or that and we just are uncomfortable with it because we don’t understand a lot about it, we want to see how it develops first”. Ok, you could argue that it is my job to convince them, and you’re right, but I will only recommend a solution to a customer that I know fits their requirements. Sometimes that is cloud, others on-premises and hybrid. But even if I convince them to go hybrid or trial Cloud PBX they go with some trepidation and struggle to commit fully to the cloud first model, for the simple reason is they cannot get over the maturity mental block.
By Microsoft declaring that people should look towards Teams instead of Skype for Business Online now, only serves to re-ignite (see what I did there?) the same concerns that we have battled to overcome over the last 2 years. To some degree I feel like we are starting again. Now factor in that Microsoft have not committed to an accountable roadmap for Teams development, how can businesses plan to migrate to the cloud or Teams without a solid roadmap that they can rely on? I was looking at a slide from ignite and it stated that if you’re a customer and you haven’t got Skype for Business Server or Online and are planning to go cloud, then you should look to deploy Teams. On one side it seems sensible, but the fact is Skype for Business Online today meets probably 90% of their requirements from a UC tool, while Teams meets about 30%. If you’re a customer who has finished or in the middle of a cloud UC transformation project this is a particularly worrying and confusing time. On one hand Microsoft are telling us to move to Teams, but teams lacks the basic features of UC like federation and more advanced stuff like advanced voice capability, you will question that direction!
Yes, all this great stuff is coming and soon, but we just don’t know if it will be next month, next year and where in next year, so how can you plan for it? If Microsoft follow tradition, they’ll announce a new feature is coming, then release it in preview, then 2-3 months later it will be GA. This often means when you plan for a Q release it ends up being Q+1 by the time your tenant has a version that is supportable. The Teams roadmap is broken down into two halves of the year, 1H and 2H. That’s 6 months guys, that is a huge window for error. How can I possibly rely on this? Again, I appreciate these things take time, which is why I am somewhat perplexed as to why Microsoft has chosen to announce this now as it seems like a right recipe for a false start.
We cannot fight the direction of the cloud. For those of us who have embraced cloud and the evergreen model, this should come as no surprise and you should be prepared to react to the ever changing fluidity of the agile cloud. However, regardless of whether you are cloud today or planning for cloud in the near future (0 – 12 months) you should be using the time to consider carefully your options.
For anyone considering Microsoft Cloud UC today, it is my recommendation that you ignore the messaging from Microsoft to look at Teams as your only UC/IC platform. Instead plan for leveraging the tried and tested platform that is Skype for Business Online. For the next 12 months at least it is going to offer you all the requirements you need from day 1 through to 365. Your investment will not be wasted as when features transition the process will be largely academic, rather than a migration from one system to another. Skype for Business Online Enterprise Voice capabilities fall under Cloud PBX. This is a separate component to Skype for Business Online today. Cloud PBX is being renamed to Phone System and Microsoft Teams uses Phone System for its enterprise voice capabilities. The same with Audio Conferencing. Therefore, if you invest in Microsoft calling plans and Microsoft Phone Numbers and have users assigned, nothing changes. If you have ported your numbers over to Microsoft and assigned them to users, nothing changes. If you have purchased Skype for Business Online compatible phones and meeting room devices, these will still work with Phone System and video will still work with Teams, nothing changes. Org AA, Call Queues, and Voicemail these aren’t Skype for Business Online components, they are independent services built in Azure, nothing changes. Your investments are not wasted, they are just delivered to another client experience. Essentially it will be a matter of a policy change to tell Office 365 to use the Teams client for Chat and Audio rather than Skype for Business client. Of course, there may be subtle changes, we may need future firmware, DNS, Firewall updates to devices and networks as Skype for Business Online gets retired and nativity develops in Teams, but these are superficial maintenance changes rather than a full blown migration project.
However, you should not ignore Teams until the final moments of Skype for Business Online existence. Instead you should introduce Teams shortly after people have got used to Skype for Business Online to avoid confusing use cases. I’d recommend a 3 phase approach, releasing initially Skype for Business Online quick win modalities such as Chat, federation and conferencing. In Phase 2 introduce Teams with restricted functionality to group based collaboration while Microsoft develop and the roadmap becomes clearer. In Phase 3 look to migrate your voice workload to either Skype for Business Online or Microsoft Teams whichever makes the most sense and meets your requirements at the time. This approach buys you time while still pressing on with your cloud migration and leveraging the benefits of cloud. It also means that your users will understand Teams and how to use it, so that when you transition from Skype for Business to Teams, you don’t need to deliver a whole new training and adoption programme.
If you are considering using OPCH with cloud, then the announcements around Cloud Connector Edition probably means that you are somewhat confused as to wait or commit? My advice here is that if you need CCE today then look to purchase separate units rather than combined SBC and CCE appliances. Purchase your SBC and use CCE as a standalone server. This protects your investment moving the next gen phone system when Microsoft will support direct SIP trunks from your SBC into Teams. If you purchased appliances with SBC and CCE integrated, then you can still use these devices, just but only the SBC component. So long term the separate approach is probably going to work out the most sensible and cheapest solution in my opinion.
If you are a hybrid customer today with Skype for Business Server 2015 and Skype Online, the story for you is far more grey. It is likely that this story will not become clear until at least Ignite 2018, so for the moment you do not need to worry. Skype for Business Online is not going away any time soon, personally I cannot see it going away for at least 2-3 years. So you have time on your side here a little. However, you too should be looking to introduce your workforce to Teams. Again start with the quick wins and the easiest possible messaging around use cases e.g. persistent chat is now in Teams etc. Even On-Premises users can take advantage of Teams because Teams has no dependency on Skype for Business hybrid or Skype for Business Server.
Skype for Business 2019 vNext server announcement is a positive statement from Microsoft that they consider on-premises to be firmly catered for. They went so far to claim that 2019 is unlikely to be the last edition as well. This should on face value please a lot of customers that going to cloud is just not possible for them. However, there was certain messaging around vNext that implied a hard dependency on cloud features. vNext is a topic that us MVPs have been engaged with Microsoft on prior to Ignite and we worked with them to define what we see as progress and what is important to our customers. It appears that some of this has made it in to the early commit at Ignite, being that we saw massive value in leveraging cloud services included in your E5 licencing SKU for on-premises users, such as Azure Voicemail, Call Queues, Audio Conferencing and Org AA. However, this won’t be a hard dependency and there will be on-premises alternatives. I know many of you consider vNext to be a downgrade, but really who used a Director server these days realistically? I totally get the negativity around the drop of Standard Edition and this caught me by surprise. I know one server is supported but requires separate SQL which means the cost of a comparable 2019 deployment to 2015 Standard Edition is quite a jump with the added SQL licence.
The message here seems to point that if you only require a standard edition server, then probably cloud is the route you should take. However, I think there have been use cases that Microsoft have missed for enterprises who have deployed a Standard Edition server within an Enterprise topology for local branch connectivity and features. This also brings me to the next point in that they have also dropped the SBA role too. I need to wait to see how this story develops as they cannot afford to ignore branch survivability in vNext, they’ll need a solution to that, maybe they will allow you to deploy a mediation server with the registrar component in colo in vNext? Who knows but I am sure we will find out.
They also announced that vNext can only run of 2016 OS and SQL, no surprise since by the time this is released 2012 will be 6 years old. But the most concerning point was that there appeared to be no coexistence story with Lync 2013 or Skype for Business 2015. This is pretty worrying as I cannot see how you can migrate to vNext on a global deployment where a big bang approach is not possible. There is going to have to be some kind of interop story there, whether it is all done over federation or some kind of proxy or something else maybe. But clearly there is a mass of work to do on vNext and at this stage it hasn;t even made it off the cigarette packet yet.
It seems that vNext has been architected to promote your journey to the cloud, or to at least make it easier than it is today. The new cloud / on-prem aware portal is a sign of how to leverage hybrid cloud to maximum benefit. It will be your choice as to use it or not. Whatever happens, there are many unfinished stories, it will become clearer as time passes by. We should not be worried or come to premature conclusions but approach this with an open mind. I have no doubt by the time this latest plan around cloud and on-premises comes to pass we will have wondered what all the fuss was about.