Microsoft Office Communications Server: Reaching Critical Mass?

Microsoft Office Communications Server: Reaching Critical Mass?

Microsoft is busy touting Office Communications Server 14 (expected to be called OCS 2010) at the VoiceCon conference in Orlando. OCS 14 answers some questions, but raises others -- especially as MSPs consider on-premises vs. hosted unified communications strategies. Here's a look at Microsoft's latest unified communications moves, and the implications for MSPs.

First, a little background. Roughly 39 percent of MSPs are promoting unified communications solutions to their customers, according to our most recent MSPmentor 100 survey, which closed in December 2009. Now comes the hard part:

  • Lots of MSPs grew up as Microsoft or Cisco Systems VARs. Now, Microsoft and Cisco are locked in a unified communications war.
  • At the same time, upstarts like Intermedia -- which specializes in hosted Exchange -- are introducing alternative UC solutions in order to break free from Microsoft's development cycles and SaaS pricing models.
  • And giants like Siemens Enterprise Communications and VMware are shifting the conversation to virtualized UC.
Also worth considering: Are customers ready to shift some UC components into a hosted model, or do they prefer on-premises? Either way, Microsoft claims to have MSPs -- and your customers -- covered.

For on premises, Microsoft promotes Office Communications Server. The next release, slated for sometime in 2010, is filled with social media capabilities. The effort reminds me a bit of Novell Pulse, a corporate social media and collaboration platform that Novell will soon promote to hosting providers.

For SaaS, Microsoft promotes Office Communications Online -- part of the Microsoft BPOS (Business Productivity Online) suite.

Enterprise Momentum vs. Partner Opportunity

Microsoft says "Office Communications Server is one of the fastest growing servers at Microsoft, with double-digit growth over the past three years. Fortune 500 companies, top pharmaceutical firms, successful financial institutions and large communications providers now use Office Communications Server, including A.T. Kearney, Infonavit and Sprint Nextel."

Microsoft says the forthcoming OCS 14 offers full enterprise telephony; a Communicator client that works with Microsoft Office, Microsoft SharePoint Server and Microsoft Exchange; and a platform that allows customers to embed communications in applications. Plus, customers will be able to use instant messaging, presence and other capabilities of the software both on-premises and in the cloud with Microsoft Office Communications Online.

Impressive. But where's the channel hook here? Is OCS reserved for Global 2000 companies? Or is there room for solutions providers to play here?

Despite OCS's momentum, Microsoft's track record with VoIP (voice over IP) isn't perfect. Plenty of VARs felt burned when Microsoft killed Response Point -- a small business VoIP platform -- in June 2009.

Looking ahead, Microsoft Channel Chief Allison Watson has called on VARs and MSPs to test Microsoft's BPOS applications. That call to action certainly includes Office Communications Online. But many VARs and MSPs remain wary of hosted unified communications. During the recent Intermedia Partner Summit in Silicon Valley, some attendees said they'd hesitate to push beyond hosted Exchange to hosted Unified Communications because they didn't want to put customers' dial-tones at risk.

Gotta Make a Move

Regardless, I think MSPs have to give Office Communications Online a look -- either to embrace the platform or compete with it. There's still room for growth in the hosted Exchange market. But margins are tight.

Hosted Unified Communications seems like a next natural step for MSPs to stay ahead of the hosted email masses. But I wonder: Will MSPs side with Microsoft or Cisco -- or someone else?

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