As part of its Office 15 revamp Microsoft is releasing new versions of Exchange and other back-end servers, including Lync, the Windows vendor’s Unified Communications (UC) platform designed to integrate together voice, instant messaging (IM), video and Web conferencing.
Due for release in Q1 2013 and, somewhat appropriately, called Lync Server 2013, the new implementation builds on the architecture of the 2010 product, simplifying deployment while at the same time enhancing and adding to the feature set to address the needs of an increasingly demanding and mobile workforce.
Lync software has always been something of a challenge to deploy, requiring multiple servers to host a variety of front-end and back-end server roles. The same architecture continues to apply in Lync Server 2013, although the previously separate monitoring and archiving roles have been consolidated into the front-end server and the director role made optional. All roles can also be virtualised, reducing the number of physical hosts required to support this release.
Just as with Lync Server 2010, the new software is 64-bit only which, in practice means Windows Server 2008 R2 for most setups, although Windows Server 2012 looks set to become the preferred platform when it ships. Full support for IPV6 has also been added.
On the availability front server pools and role redundancy continue as the principle option such that, if a Lync server fails, others running the same role in the same pool can take over the workload. With Lync 2013, however, front-end pools in different datacentres can also be paired so that, if one pool goes offline, users can be failed over to the other.
Back-end high availability has also been added, with a new option to allow two back-end servers to be attached to a single front-end server pool, with SQL mirroring employed to synchronise the Lync databases.
Instant messaging gets a makeover too, with a Persistent Chat option implemented using a set of new server roles. These replace the third-party Group Chat server application, making the Persistent Chat option a lot easier to both install and manage. There are other tweaks to management, although user functionality remains much the same, “persistent” referring to the maintenance of chat history to enable users to quickly get up to speed with the conversation when entering a chat session.
In Lync 2013 conferencing users will be able to experience HD resolution up to 1080p in both peer-to-peer and multiparty conferences, with the H.264 video codec now the default option providing support for a greater range of resolutions and frame rates. There’s also a gallery view for multi-party conferences, to allow users to see video from all the participants, although this can only handle up to five active video links with any additional participants represented by still images.
Microsoft has also opted to use Office Web Apps and the Office Web Apps Server in Lync 2013, to improve handling of PowerPoint presentations as well as extend mobile device support. Coincidentally this change will also enable users with the appropriate privileges to scroll through a PowerPoint presentation independent of what the presenter is showing on the main display.
Other enhancements include the ability for and document shared during a conference to be archived into Exchange 2013 including PowerPoint presentations, attachments, whiteboards and polls. Added to which a new unified contact store will enable Lync Server 2013 users to access contacts in Exchange with the option of using high resolution images for identification.
New clients for old
Close integration into the latest Office suite goes without saying while client support has been extended to include Windows 8, Windows Phone, iOS, and Android devices. The user interface is revamped across the client portfolio with lots of attention given to users with touchscreen-driven smartphones and tablets with capabilities tailored to suit the format involved.
Unfortunately the new mobile clients haven’t been widely previewed, making it hard to gauge exactly what they are capable of or how well they will perform. However, the new implementations are promised to be available at launch and should make it easier for users to make VoIP calls, check for presence and both initiate and take part in conferences on the move.
Additionally there’s a new version of the Lync Web app with full voice and video conferencing capabilities. As a result the Lync Attendee client is no more, with users without a Lync client able to take part in multiparty HD conferences from their browsers as well as use VoIP, instant messaging, and application sharing tools.
Following Microsoft’s acquisition of Skype it comes as no surprise to find a new Skype Federation service added to Lync Server 2013, enabling calls to be made to anyone connected to Skype. On the downside Skype support is limited to presence, IM and voice for the time being.
Talking of which, Lync Server 2013 features enhancements to Enterprise Voice, the option that enables customers to host their own IP-PBX. A number of new routing capabilities have been added here, including support for multiple trunks between mediation servers and gateways, plus inter-trunk routing to enable a Lync Server to connect different telephony systems together.
Other enhancements to voice routing include support for manager/delegate simultaneous ringing, voicemail escape, caller ID presentation and conference dial-out for users not enabled for Enterprise Voice.
Deployment and packaging
Although a complex solution, Lync Server 2013 offers more flexibility when it comes to deployment with those wanting to use Enterprise Voice and other high-end features steered towards on-premise deployment using either local or hosted servers. Alternatively, Lync 2013 can be hosted in the cloud with a number of vendors set to offer the updated Lync Online service, including Microsoft as part of Office 365.
Unfortunately options such as Enterprise Voice won’t be available via the cloud. But that’s not a major issue as the new release allows for a much more integrated hybrid deployment where the majority of functionality can be delivered via Lync Online services and voice processed by on-premise servers.
For those looking to try out Lync Server 2013, a preview of both the on-premise and Office 365 implementation is available. Pricing and packaging options have yet to be finalised but are likely to be similar to those for Lync Server 2010.