Almost every conversation I have with customers involves Microsoft Lync to some degree. The vast majority of those customers are trialing it in some way. I always assumed that when a customer said they were trialing it, that they were trialing voice, i.e. – the “Plus” client access license (CAL). I’ve since realized that most of their trials are still just using basic Instant Messaging and Presence. Very few are actually using voice or video. In fact, I find that most people love Lync for Screen Sharing more than voice or video. Lync’s Point to Point screen sharing is very popular. As I’ve mentioned in previous Tech Weekly’s, the vast majority of Lync users aren’t using voice or video for anything more than internal point to point conversations. Using Lync as their sole enterprise telephony solution still seems to be a long way off.
Every Avaya customer that I talk to would love to be able to place Avaya phone calls with their Lync client, though. Assuming they don’t have the “Plus” CAL, there is only one way to do that now. It requires adding some kind of middleware that interfaces the two together. The middleware that I want to talk about this week is Avaya Client Applications (ACA) for Microsoft Lync. (In a future tech weekly, I want to talk about some cool software our very own developers are creating. Just got a demo of it today. It’s really cool. But we’ll save the rest of that story for later.). This is an extension to Lync that gets installed on the desktop and can be deployed using standard deployment tools . ACA for Lync basically installs a call control window and an embedded Avaya softphone engine into the Lync client. So, the user thinks they’re using Lync to make a voice/video call, when in reality they’re using Lync to make the voice/video call through Aura. The best part is that this ACA software is a free entitlement to ALL Avaya Aura suite license bundles. So, if the customer has Aura 6.2, they get this ACA for Lync as well as click to call capabilities from Outlook, Office suite and Internet explorer and it works on even the inexpensive “Standard” Lync CAL (either hosted Office 365 or on-prem).
There are definitely some areas for improvement with the ACA plugin that is currently available (i.e. – ACA 6.2.2). For starters, it only works with Microsoft Lync 2010 and OCS 2007 R2 (Office Communication System) and Lync 2013 is not an option. Even Microsoft dreads the idea of customers still being on Lync 2010. Lync 2010 and 2013 are two very different platforms. We’re finding that many third party applications that integrated to Lync 2010 just don’t work with 2013. And the ones that do integrate to 2013 aren’t very backwards compatible to 2010. The second improvement area that I have with ACA 6.2.2 is that it doesn’t work with SIP endpoints. The communication mechanisms of SIP are wildly different from the communication mechanisms of everything else. We always seem to think that it’s VoIP that’s different from non-VoIP. Nope. H.323 is built off of Q.931, which is the call setup protocol for ISDN. So, traditional telephony and H.323 based VoIP signaling are actually very similar. But the signaling of SIP and H.323? Wow, not even close! So, SIP phones are completely not possible with ACA 6.2.2. The last pain point I have with the current ACA plug-in is that if you are a fan of the Lync Mobile Client for your iPhone, there’s really no way to tie that to the Avaya system with a plug-in. So, no connectivity options without full “Plus” CAL’s. This last one isn’t a big breaker for me, because I happen to LOVE Avaya’s One-X Mobile SIP for iOS and Flare Experience for iPad. The current versions are flawless (well, mostly flawless). Sure I might want to use the Lync Mobile client for IM and Presence, but I’d personally never care to use it as my voice client.
The good news is that Avaya is about to go into beta testing of their new ACA 6.3 for Lync. The beta is scheduled to begin mid October. Avaya’s been very busy with this software. If Avaya has successfully implemented all the things that they have in their documented plan of record, this thing is going to rock. Yes, as the name implies, it works with Lync 2010 and 2013 (no, it does not support OCS 2007 R2). Yes, it now works with SIP phones and will support the SIP version of the 96×1 phones. Note the 96×0 phones (SIP) can’t be controlled by any Avaya UC client and hence are not supported. The 96×0 devices continue to be supported and controllable as H.323 end points. For example, the new ACA 6.3 plug-in has the same options that the One-X Communicator softphone has. You can use Lync to Control an Avaya deskphone, do a dual-connect or telecommuter mode to any external phone (home, cell, etc), or use it as a true, Avaya-powered softphone doing VoIP on the PC itself.
Because ACA 6.3 for Lync has an embedded Avaya softphone engine, you get the same level of video interoperability support with Avaya Aura, Radvision and Polycom (H.323 and SIP). Avaya gives you several user-administrable options to help you manage your use of video. For example, no more surprise video calls. You can choose whether you want to automatically add video to a call or block video when answering calls. Obviously, you get all the normal call control every telephony user expects such as multiple call handling, mute, hold, transfer, DTMF digits via a keypad, etc. And finally, escalating and de-escalating from IM to Voice, to Video, to voice/video conference, and back down are documented features! For ease of use of the Enterprise Directory/GAL, Avaya gives you a fully customizable way to convert from E.164 to Communication Manager’s Dial Plan (if it’s not also E.164).
The biggest downside is that the ACA 6.3 client installation still de-activates the Lync-powered peer-to-peer voice/video inherent to Lync for that client. It’s because Standard and Enterprise CAL based Lync clients can’t communicate to an external PBX and the Avaya softphone engine that is embedded in the ACA client is powered by Avaya Aura (i.e. – a separate PBX). For most customers this isn’t a big deal. As long as everyone has ACA for Lync no one will know the difference. They get to use Lync that happens to have their voice/video powered by Avaya, and they have IM, presence, and screen sharing powered by Microsoft. It’s kind of a dreamy environment. If the customer has the Lync “Plus” CAL and has been administered to provide external SIP connectivity, this kludgy hybrid approach could be made seamless for voice calls, but Microsoft’s proprietary video implementation makes video connectivity impossible between ACA’d Lync client and non-ACA’d Lync Clients. I’m not sure if de-activating the Lync audio/video is an Avaya “feature” to reduce user confusion or something forced upon developers by Microsoft, but I really wish this de-activation was an administrable choice.
I’ll definitely keep you posted on these preliminarily documented features as we participate in the Avaya ACA 6.3 for Microsoft Lync. This is going to be a great solution for a lot of Avaya customers that want to leverage their investment in a proven, reliable communications architecture to enhance the capabilities of a very powerful, easy to use, tightly integrated desktop experience. You have many options when it comes to integrating Microsoft and Avaya. Avaya ACA is not the answer for all customers. One size does NOT fit all. Know your users. Know their needs. Know your options. Connect the dots and be the trusted advisor.