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Feature Overview and Benefits of Microsoft Lync Server 2013

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Lync Server has transformed into a complete Unified Communications (UC) solution for business that encompasses presence, IM, web conferencing, audio/video (A/V) conferencing, and complete Voice over IP (VoIP) services. This chapter is a high-level overview of what Lync Server 2013 provides to an organization.

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Lync Server is a difficult product to summarize in a single phrase, but it can be considered a secure, flexible, and extensible collaboration platform. From many people’s perspective, it was simply considered Microsoft’s instant messaging (IM) product since its inception. However, Lync Server has transformed into a complete Unified Communications (UC) solution for business that encompasses presence, IM, web conferencing, audio/video (A/V) conferencing, and complete Voice over IP (VoIP) services. Lync Server is the leading real-time collaboration platform available in the market today.

This chapter is a high-level overview of what Lync Server 2013 provides to an organization. Its features can be deployed together or in pieces, as determined by business requirements. It seamlessly integrates with other Microsoft products including Office, SharePoint, and Exchange. This flexibility is exactly what makes the product so compelling and beneficial to organizations. Because this chapter provides a complete overview covering topics both new and unchanged, if you’re a Lync veteran you might find a bit of this redundant, but we also want to welcome our new Lync administrators to the fold!

Presence

Presence is the core feature of Lync Server and drives or enhances almost every other feature. In its simplest form, presence is defined as the combination of a person’s availability and willingness to communicate at any given time. This presence is published to colleagues and peers. It is what enables others to determine an appropriate time to contact a user and which communication modality makes the most sense at that time. A user has complete control over his presence state, which means he can choose when to appear available or unavailable to peers.

Without presence information, users tend to fall back on other communication methods such as sending email messages that say, “Are you free?” or, “Do you have time to talk now?” With presence information at their disposal, users have no need to send these types of messages. With a quick glance, users can see a contact’s presence and make a determination about when it’s appropriate to initiate a conversation. These conversations are not necessarily IM-based; they can be in the form of an IM, a phone call, or a video conference. However, the appropriate time and modality of communication are driven by the presence information. For instance, a user whose presence is currently Busy most likely isn’t going to be receptive to a phone conversation, but might be willing to communicate through IM for a short period.

Enhanced Presence

Many presence engines have only a few presence states, such as Available or Away. These provide some insight into availability but traditionally require manual user management and offer little control over what information is actually published.

The presence engine Microsoft has developed behind Lync Server is referred to as Enhanced Presence, which is a combination of numerous presence states, access levels, interruption management, automated updates, application integration, location information, and multiple points of presence (MPOP). These features interconnect to provide a prolific amount of presence information that is simply not possible in many other systems.

Presence States

Lync Server presence consists of a presence icon and a status text string. A number of colors are associated with each presence class, operating on a scale similar to a stoplight from green to red. Although these colors provide a good indicator of presence, they are paired with a textual representation of the user’s presence when published, providing even more insight into the current status. Some colors can take on separate text strings depending on the user’s availability. For instance, the color red is displayed when a user manually sets her presence to Busy, but red can also be associated with the In a Call, In a Conference, and In a Meeting presence states. These are unique presence states, but they indicate a similar level of willingness to communicate at that moment. The core availability classes are listed in Table 3.1.

Table 3.1. Microsoft Lync Server Presence States

Presence Color

Presence Text String

Green

Available

Yellow

Away
Out of Office

Red

Busy
In a Call
In a Conference

Dark Red

Do Not Disturb
Urgent Interruptions Only

Empty Color

Offline

Access Levels and Privacy Relationships

Privacy relationships are the component of enhanced presence used to control the amount of information visible to contacts. In prior iterations of Communications Server, these were referred to as access levels, but they are now called privacy relationships in Lync Server. Instead of publishing the same presence to all subscribers, a user can control the flow of information based on differing privacy relationships assigned to contacts.

The enhanced presence model publishes more than just a user’s presence name; it also includes email address, title, company, address, working hours, and a multitude of other attributes.

The privacy relationships available in Lync Server are as listed here:

  • Friends and Family—Shares all contact information except for meeting subject and meeting location. This level is intended for personal contacts.
  • Workgroup—Shares all contact information except for nonwork phone numbers. Contacts assigned to this relationship level can interrupt the user when his status is Do Not Disturb.
  • Colleagues—Shares all contact information except for nonwork phone numbers, meeting subject, and meeting location. This is the default relationship assigned to contacts in the organization.
  • External Contacts—Shares all information except for phone numbers, meeting subject, and meeting location.
  • Blocked Contacts—Shows only the user’s name and email address. Contacts assigned to this relationship cannot reach the user through Lync endpoints.

The functions allowed and information displayed for each privacy relationship are outlined in Table 3.2.

Table 3.2. Information Shared Based on Privacy Relationship

Blocked

External

Colleagues

Workgroup

Friends and Family

Offline Presence

Presence State

Display Name

Email Address

Title

Work Phone

Mobile Phone

Home Phone

Other Phone

Company

Office

Work Address

SharePoint Site

Meeting Location

Meeting Subject

Free/Busy

Working Hours

Endpoint Location

Note

Last Active

Interruption Management

Access levels control interruption management because they determine whether a contact can initiate a conversation with the user at a particular time. For example, a contact assigned to the Company access level cannot interrupt with a phone call or an IM message when the user’s presence is set to Do Not Disturb, but someone assigned to the Team access level sees the status as Urgent Interruptions Only. This provides a visual cue to the team members that the user doesn’t want to be disturbed, but can be interrupted for a critical issue. When a conversation is initiated, the receiver sees a pop-up notification called the toast in the lower-right corner of their screen.

Automated Status Updates

Presence is a great indicator of a user’s willingness to communicate, but if left to the users to manually manage, it tends to be inaccurate. A user cannot always remember to change his presence to Busy when walking into a meeting or back to Available when returning to his desk, so Lync Server leverages a user’s calendar and manages these kinds of updates on his behalf. If a user has an appointment on the calendar, his presence automatically changes to Busy during the appointment and then goes back to Available when the appointment concludes.

Endpoints also differentiate between personal calendar entries considered appointments and meetings with multiple attendees. In the preceding example, if the calendar entry is a meeting instead of an appointment, the status changes to In a Meeting instead of Busy, indicating that the user is most likely in the company of others and probably is engaged in conversation.

This calendar integration can be performed from Microsoft Office Outlook if installed, or if the user’s mailbox is hosted by a Microsoft Exchange Server 2007 or later, endpoints can use Exchange Web Services to log in and pull the calendar data directly from the mailbox using Lync Server credentials.

In addition to the calendar integration, Lync Server keeps track of a user’s activity at an endpoint and can automatically mark an endpoint as Inactive or Away after a certain period. This ensures that if a user has walked away from an endpoint without changing his presence, subscribers can see the last presence state with an Inactive designation as part of the status. Even though the user is still signed in, subscribers can tell they probably won’t get a response when trying to initiate a conversation.

Multiple Points of Presence

Lync Server presence has the added flexibility of being read from multiple endpoints simultaneously. This enables a user to be signed in at multiple locations or endpoints that publish presence independently. The server then aggregates these endpoints and forms a single presence class that is published to subscribers.

For instance, a user can be signed in to Lync on a desktop, again on a roaming laptop, at home on a Mac, and also on a mobile device. Each of these endpoints publishes presence independently, and the server then forms the user’s presence appropriately.

Having multiple clients signed in is generally considered a problem because how does a user know which endpoint to send a message to? Without multiple points of presence, there is a problem. However, when a user sends another user a message, the Lync Server determines which endpoint is currently most active for that user. For example, a user might be Away at three of the four endpoints, so the server sends the message only to the endpoint where the user is available.

If the server is unable to determine which state is most active, it sends the message to the endpoint it determines most likely active and waits to see whether the user acknowledges the toast at any location. If the user opens the toast at an endpoint, the server removes the message from the other endpoints. If an endpoint doesn’t acknowledge the message, the server leaves the message at only one location, the most likely endpoint.

MPOP might not be perfect at all times, but it does enable a user to publish presence from multiple locations and still receive conversations at the most likely endpoint.

Extensible Presence

The built-in presence states provide an excellent array of options for users; but the Lync Server platform is extensible, and businesses can build on these choices using custom presence states. These custom presence states enable the user to select one of the standard presence classes and colors, but customizes the text displayed with the status. Although a subscriber might still see a green icon synonymous with availability, the user’s presence can read “Catching Up on Email,” which gives subscribers an additional piece of information to consider before initiating a conversation.

Some applications use the extensibility features to provide more information about an endpoint’s capabilities. Mobile clients generally append a Mobile indicator to the presence status. This gives subscribers information that the user might be slow to respond because he is likely without a full keyboard or computer. Subscribers are aware that they likely won’t be able to have a lengthy conversation but can have a short conversation. This designation might also give users an idea that calling the user’s mobile at that time is probably the quickest way to initiate a conversation.

Application Integration

Another component of Enhanced Presence is the automatic availability of presence in other Microsoft products. This means that although a Lync client runs in the background, users are able to see presence for those contacts in Outlook right next to their names. This presence can be seen directly in the context of the mail message, so there is no need to switch between applications to view a user’s presence. Right from the email message or contact card, the user can see the presence and initiate an IM, email, or phone conversation with only one or two clicks of the mouse.

Lync Server can also integrate with Microsoft Exchange Server 2010 and 2013 Outlook Web App to provide presence and IM capabilities directly within the Outlook Web App interface. This allows users to see presence information within the context of email either from the full Outlook client or while using a web browser.

The same rich presence information is also available in Microsoft Office SharePoint, where users can view presence in the context of documents and files. The contact card displayed in other applications is the exact same card and interface displayed within Lync, ensuring that users have a consistent view of contacts and presence across any application.

With Lync any kind of telephone number displayed on a web page in Internet Explorer suddenly becomes a hyperlink and can be clicked to initiate a phone call. All of these integration points are not overwhelming by themselves, but collectively create an improved, unique end-user experience.

Location

Another component of presence is the concept of publishing a user’s physical location, which can be as vague as whether they are in the office or at home, or as exact as being on a particular floor of a building. Administrators can configure a Location Information Service (LIS) to integrate with Lync Server, which allows Lync Server endpoints to automatically identify what physical location they are connecting from and then publish that information with the user’s presence. If the Location Information Service cannot identify the user’s location, the user is prompted to enter one; the endpoint retains that information if the user returns to that location at any time so a user never has enter a location twice.

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