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Hybrid or No Hybrid? Skype for Business

One of the key decisions Skype for Business administrators are going to have to make in the near future is whether to implement a hybrid solution or keep it on premise only.

Why is this a more pertinent question for Skype for Business than it was for Lync?

Firstly, the decision to deploy Lync on premise was driven by the simple business requirement of: “Does your business require enterprise voice?” If the answer to that question is Yes, you have no choice but to deploy on premise. If the answer was No, then it is far more cost effective to use Lync Online.

So for the businesses who required enterprise voice, Microsoft came up with the idea that a hybrid deployment could save your business money. How?

To make licencing costs for Lync on premise cheaper. They said users that do not need enterprise voice capabilities could be moved into Lync Online and this will save your company an expensive Lync plus CAL. The other benefit of Lync hybrid was you could use Lync Online to host all your web conferencing needs. This took the pain away from your business having to invest in the infrastructure to host large external conferences where external participants dial in from the PSTN. The savings here is that you don’t have to pay for additional SIP trunks or ISDN lines to support 31+ simultaneous conversations. However, in Lync Online you have to sign up with Inter-Call to provide the dial in conferencing PSTN connection, which is free to setup, but you pay a relatively expensive cost per minute per call. Only businesses would be able to calculate if this would bring a cost saving or not.

So really in Lync the choice was down to you to make. Hybrid or No Hybrid? The decision didn’t leave you with a reduced or limited feature capability so most businesses adopted the on premise only approach if they required enterprise voice.

Now, is this the same story for Skype for Business? – Let’s evaluate.

It has been well publicised that Microsoft now actively encourage and recommend that all Skype for Business deployments adopt the hybrid model. In fact they have stated that some new features that will be released to Skype for Business customers will only be available to those who adopt a hybrid model. Should we be panicked into adopting this?

Let’s look briefly at Office 365 and in particular Exchange Online. We all know Microsoft have a cloud first, on premise ~ sometime in the future delivery approach now. There are far more features in Office 365 and Exchange Online such as the new Clutter feature and Office 365 Groups that have been available Online only for nearly a year. Have they made this available to on premise only deployments? Not yet. Will they be? That is open to interpretation. Clutter is apparently coming to exchange on premise in Q4 2015. Office 365 groups, there are no plans to filter this down to on premise. Why?

Simple, Office 365 allows Microsoft to have a consistent and standardised platform on which they can build and develop. As they know the underlying infrastructure and configuration they can quickly adapt and develop working to a relatively simple architecture. This has the added benefits of saving development costs, increasing their productivity. Most of all it means they are able to release new ideas and functionality to the Office 365 platform every 30 days. Whereas before we would be waiting 180 days. I read somewhere that something gets changed on Office 365 several times a day! The more Microsoft have to invest in time and development to take in to consideration every on premise deployment of enterprise features the longer we have to wait and the more we have to pay. In today’s consumer driven market and the economic environment, we simply do not have the luxury of time or money anymore.

So what doe this mean for Skype for Business?

  • We know that Microsoft will release Skype for Business features and updates to Office 365 first. Only users who have a SfB account online will be able to take advantage of these features.
  • We know that for a indeterminate amount of time Skype for Business on premise will have limited functionality compared to its online counterpart.
  • We know that Microsoft wants to make it easier for businesses to adopt a cloud only infrastructure, so implementing a hybrid makes that transition a lot easier.

Does this mean we have to adopt the hybrid model? I would say at this moment in time No. Why?

  • Microsoft have yet to announce what these cloud only features are. We do not know if we will ever require them immediately.
  • We do not know at this moment in time the true cost of a Skype for Business hybrid deployment.
  • There will undoubtedly be limitations to what features a Skype for Business Online user can use. Do the available features actually warrant a hybrid model for your business? Will your users use it?

But haven’t Microsoft announced Skype for Business Online will be able to use enterprise voice?

Yes they have, but lets look at what we can expect from this service before we jump on that band wagon. Microsoft have announced that they will offer PSTN breakouts on SfB Online provided by AT&T in the USA by the end of the year. They have also stated that although this is being rolled out there are some limitations. What they are is a closely guarded secret at the moment. However, I’d expect to see basic call control capabilities such as hold, transfer, divert to voicemail etc. What will probably fall out of scope will be advanced calling features such as call park, response groups and advanced call routing. Skype for Business Online Enterprise Voice will be rolled out to the rest of the world from 2016 onwards, no firm date, so we do not need to panic. To guarantee QoS, Microsoft recommend an Azure ExpressRoute between the on premise and Online deployment. A substantial investment that many SMEs may not be able to afford.

All in all, I’d expect the SfB Online Enterprise Voice capabilities will be broadly similar to that of what Skype consumer is today. The other thing you have to consider is the legalities of adopting this. What hasn’t been openly discussed by Microsoft is how their Online service will cater for countries that make tail end hop off (toll bypass) illegal. How they cater for countries that ban the SIP protocol and most of all they haven’t released the price list for this service yet. I would expect that the pricing will be aggressive in the early stages so early adopters may get a good long lasting deal. However, this pricing can be expected to rise as Microsoft start taking over the UC space.

At this moment there are many questions unanswered and Microsoft have a lot to prove before we comply and agree to adopt a Skype for Business hybrid model. My advice is don’t think about it now, let’s wait and see. I would suggest that we have at least until the next major release to decide. So don’t panic and keep Skyping but keep one eye on what Microsoft do next… Time will tell.


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