Beginning December 1, 2015, Microsoft will be officially rolling out a number of new features within Office365 that significantly enhance the Skype for Business workloads. These features have been in preview form for a few months now, but December 1 marks the date where it becomes generally available (GA) for all tenants within Office365, across the entire globe. What’s new, you ask? Let’s take a quick look…
Cloud PSTN Conferencing
For years, on-premises Skype4B/Lync deployments could integrate a PSTN dial-in number to access meetings generated by Skype4B/Lync Server. When Office365 initially came to the scene, PSTN dial-in number integration was only offered only through third-party Audio Conferencing Providers such as AT&T, PGi, or Intercall. Those ACP providers offered a wide breadth of local numbers but the feature set was limited, required separate ACP administration, and required additional costs above and beyond your existing Microsoft licensing costs.
Starting today, Microsoft now offers the dial-in service natively and best of all, Microsoft is making it very attractive from a licensing perspective. 42 local dial-in numbers are currently available, spanning APAC, EMEA, LATAM, and NOAM, with more regions and countries coming online during CY 2016. If you were looking for a reason to ditch your current dial-in provider and save on your TCO for conferencing, you should definitely take a look at what Microsoft is offering.
Skype Meeting Broadcast
For years, on-premises Skype4B/Lync deployments were limited to hosting meetings of up to 250 users in a single meeting. Large Meeting support was added within Lync Server 2013 to allow up to 1,000 users in a single on-premises meeting, but that support came with certain limitations & restrictions that often made it not feasible to implement. Office365 meeting support has always been limited to 250 users in a single meeting…until now.
Skype Meeting Broadcast is a component of Office365, Skype for Business Online, and Azure Media Services that lets you organize and host meetings of up to 10,000 attendees. Skype Meeting Broadcast is primarily targeted for town-hall style events where there is a one-to-many presentation that may include audio, video, recording, Bing Pulse, Yammer, and PowerPoint deck sharing. The service is offered digitally only, meaning you can only access the event through an HTML5 capable device – PSTN dial-in is currently not offered. Skype Meeting Broadcast is free, which means you could easily enable this feature for your Office365 tenant and replace other broadcast services with Microsoft’s free offering!
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Cloud PBX is actually a compilation of several topologies, one of which that has existed as far back as Lync Server 2010. The differences in the various topologies isn’t always clearly communicated, but the basic tenant of Cloud PBX is that instead of using on-premises Skype4B/Lync servers for call control, you can utilize Office365 servers for call control. The differences really boil down to whether you already have Skype4B/Lync servers on-premises and where you desire the PSTN access to come from. I’ve tried to boil down the different options below:
Option 1 – You Have On-Premises Skype4B/Lync Servers and Want to Keep PSTN On-Premises
If you have existing servers, you can utilize Cloud PBX by using a feature called Cloud PBX with On-Premises PSTN Connectivity (aka – Hybrid Voice). What this means is that you can move users to Skype4B Online, and still allow those users to access the PSTN through your existing on-premises Skype4B/Lync Server deployment and whatever IP-PBX or ITSP your deployment may be already connected to. From the user’s perspective, nothing really changes (including your telephone number), but from an administrator perspective, you’ve offloaded users from your on-premises Skype4B/Lync Servers to Office365. There are some feature limitations here so be sure to check out what is available and what is not to see if this solution is a good fit for your users.
Option 2 – You Have On-Premises Skype4B/Lync Servers and Want to Move PSTN to the Cloud
If you have existing servers and you want to deprecate your on-premises PBX environment, you can utilize Cloud PBX by using a feature called Cloud PBX with PSTN Calling. What this means is that you can move users to Skype4B Online and allow those users to access the PSTN through Microsoft via Office365. PSTN Calling requires you to port your PSTN numbers from your existing on-premises provider, such as AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, etc, to Microsoft or request new numbers from Microsoft and assign those new numbers to your cloud users. The whole porting process is easily captured within the Office365 portal and can be centrally managed as such. Administrators will rejoice in that you’ve offloaded users from your on-premises Skype4B/Lync Servers to Office365 and offloaded PSTN access from your on-premises infrastructure as well, but at the end of the day you still maintain the same seamless integration and communication between your on-premises users and your cloud users. There are some feature limitations here so be sure to check out what is available and what is not to see if this solution is a good fit for your users and your environment.
Option 3 – You Have No On-Premises Skype4B/Lync Servers and Want to Keep PSTN On-Premises
Prior to a month ago, this wasn’t even an option, but the recently announced Cloud Connector Edition (aka – MinTop, or Minimum Topology) allows customers the ability to integrate on-premises IP-PBXs or ITSPs with their Cloud PBX users. While Microsoft will say “no on-premises server deployment”, the reality is that this solution implements on-premises servers, just in a special and unique way. This particular solution is still very new and has several feature restrictions that don’t make it viable for all organizations. Based on what I’ve seen thus far, there is a very small set of organizations that may benefit from this approach, but due to the current technical restrictions of CCE, it may be a while before this becomes a truly viable solution.
Option 4 – You Have No On-Premises Skype4B/Lync Servers and Want to Move PSTN to the Cloud
If you don’t have existing servers and you want to deprecate your on-premises PBX environment, you can utilize Cloud PBX by using a feature called Cloud PBX with PSTN Calling. This particular option is essentially the same as Option #2 above – port your numbers or obtain new ones from Microsoft. Your reliance in this scenario is solely on Microsoft itself which will provide Skype4B services along with PSTN access, as there are no on-premises integrations required for this approach. There are some feature limitations here so be sure to check out what is available and what is not to see if this solution is a good fit for your users and your environment.
Wrapping it Up
These new features significantly enhance the collaboration capabilities offered within Skype for Business Online and make Office365 attractive for a much larger audience. If you were holding off on the cloud prior to now, these features may be the tipping point that gets you to start thinking “cloud first” instead of “on-premises first”. All of these features will be enhanced over the coming months, so start thinking about your strategy to utilize these services to not only save yourself money, but improve collaboration across your organizations.