Business is entering a new phase where communications and collaboration tools are collapsing distance, breaking down barriers between teams and speeding up decision making. Although many technology vendors are active in this area, the one that is at the forefront of this change is Microsoft with its highly disruptive Skype for Business (Skype4B) communications suite.
Skype4B now combines the familiar user experience of consumer Skype with the enterprise functionality and security of Microsoft Lync. The expected benefits include cost savings against traditional stand-alone technologies and improved productivity through better internal and external collaboration. However, for organisations thinking about adopting Skype4B, there are a number of considerations that should be given:
- The cultural readiness of the organisation to embrace its multi-faceted collaborative features
- The readiness of local and wide area network connectivity for the inevitable increase in real-time voice and video traffic
- The suitability of the range of user devices from smart phones to headsets to laptops for the functionality of Skype4B (i.e. voice and video)
In this two-part article, we’ll assess a few of these key decisions to help you ascertain what you should do when planning to implement Skype4B in your organisation. In this second article, we’ll be considering your technology and systems and the implications of adopting Skype4B. In short, is this technology fit for my business and then is my business ready for this technology?
Technology and systems – are you ready for Skype4B?
Here we’ll be looking at a few of the significant technology and system questions you’ll need to answer before successfully implementing and using Skype4B:
- Are your networks and systems fit for Skype4B?
- What QoS, capacity, reliability, design, security, monitoring and management criteria should apply to internal and external connectivity?
- Are your devices set up for Skype4B?
- Laptop, mobile, tablet, SIP phone, headset, conference systems, cameras/videos all need to be considered for their suitability
- What about Mobile Device Management (MDM), security and support?
The Skype for Business core software can be deployed in several models. On premise, in a private Data Centre or taken from Microsoft’s own cloud. You can find more details around the implications of these various options in our ‘Is Skype4B fit for business’ white paper.
But what all the deployment models have in common is the need for appropriately designed, configured, operated and managed Local Area Networks (LAN), Internet connectivity and terminal devices to operate on. Get these wrong and you’ll be instantly on the back foot when promoting your new capabilities to your users, and without user buy in the technology can’t have the impact it should. Let’s take each key technology in turn.
Local Area Networks (LAN).
Most organisations today run some, if not all, of their voice communications systems (their IP PBX’s) over their LANs. This enables them to utilise one internal network to carry all of their data traffic whether it be email, a networked print service or voice services (Voice over IP). In most cases organisations will have had their LANs specifically configured to either segregate or prioritise voice traffic, as this is the one application running over a LAN that absolutely must not suffer any delay or interruption due to its real-time nature.
Looking at Microsoft’s list of features, voice and video are listed simply as one of many applications. In reality though they will dramatically affect how you set up your infrastructure. And if they do go wrong, they will be the ones that will impact users most. Yet many organisations are entrusting their transition to people who are simply not experienced in managing real-time communications or organisations who cannot handle environments that mix the old and new world. If an Instant Message hangs for 20 seconds, chances are no one cares or notices – if it happens on a voice call with an important customer on the other hand an interruption of half a second could be catastrophic…
When Skype for Business is deployed it’s therefore essential that you ensure that your LAN is both capable (in terms of its capacity and Quality of Service capabilities) and then correctly configured to carry Skype4B services. Communications systems integrators and services providers such as Maintel can provide these Skype4B network readiness assessments and recommend any resultant actions. This readiness assessment will give you all the key information to understand the full scope of any challenges ahead and help you to put a transition plan in place that minimises any risk and maximises the undoubted gain.
Once your LAN properly is specified and configured, it’s also important to think about how it will be managed in the future. As a rule it’s very sensible to have continuous monitoring of your LANs performance. This will highlight not only if any of the switching or routing components are failing, but also if traffic levels are increasing overall or in bursts that might affect the performance of services, albeit intermittently. Far better to have advance warning and to proactively remedy situations rather than suffer outages or degradation of services which can badly affect productivity and reputation.
But it’s not just monitoring that’s important. A LAN carrying all of your communications traffic, in addition to normal business data, should be managed under strict change control processes. Any changes should be assessed in advance with a view to their potential impact, with appropriate planning and configuration management processes applied. This is another area where you may choose to partner with a communications systems integrator or services provider (such as Maintel) who can provide these monitoring and management services in line with ITIL best practice. In fact, the best of them will also offer to monitor and manage all of the network services including Internet, macro telecoms networks and end user mobile devices to give you total peace of mind that your integrated, unified communications will operate as and when you need them.
Internet and telephone network connectivity.
Skype4B is designed to operate across the worlds of traditional fixed and mobile telecoms networks, as well as the Internet. It blends all to deliver a seamless experience for end users however they may connect.
Where it is connecting to traditional telecoms networks, it’s effectively using the latest generation of data networking exchange lines to provide voice connectivity. Your traditional DDI or telephone number is still presented to the Skype4B platform but over SIP Trunks. Skype4B then acts just like your traditional telephone system to route that call to your pc, laptop, tablet, desk phone (there are specific Skype4B desk phone and speaker phones available) or mobile phone. As SIP trunks are effectively data circuits and they are protected by custom designed firewalls known as Session Border Controllers.
Skype4B also lets users connect via the Internet in a similar but more robust fashion to the familiar consumer Skype service. This offers immense flexibility for individuals and organisations but it should be considered that the service users receive will only be as good as their connection. Here again, by working your communications partner you can purchase this connectivity with agreed enterprise grade Quality of Service and end-to-end monitoring, management and security services.
We’ve already mentioned that Skype4B enables most if not all of its broad functionality to operate on a pc, laptop, tablet, desk phone or mobile phone - but it’s important to select the right devices. If your laptops or PCs are going to be your main terminal devices, a technology refresh may well pay dividends in terms of employee productivity. At minimum check out that their operating systems and patch levels comply with Skype4B requirements.
Microsoft offer their own terminal devices optimised for Skype4B ranging from Surface tablets to mobile phones to super smart Surface video white boards for immersive conference and collaboration. There are also a myriad of approved thirty party devices to choose from too.