Microsoft Adds Virtualization to Unified Communications

Microsoft continued its foray into unified communications (UC) with an announcement last week of support for a virtualized topology in Microsoft Office Communications Server R2 (OCS R2).

Microsoft now supports virtualization in several OCS R2 components, including presence, IM and group chat. The virtualization is enabled through Microsoft's Hyper-V hypervisor, as well as "other SVVP (Server Virtualization Validation Program) certified virtualization technologies," according to Microsoft's announcement.

The new capability is a plus for some organizations, noted B. Robert Helm, vice president of research at the Directions on Microsoft, a research firm that tracks the company.

"IM and presence have become important features inside companies as a sort of a way station between e-mail and the phone for communication, and they've proven particularly popular in the financial firms that are Microsoft's biggest customers," Helm stated in an e-mail.

OCS R2 will support virtualization for a fully distributed or single-server virtualized topology, according to Microsoft's announcement. The distributed topology can handle up to 40,000 users, and can include 10,000 chat users. The virtual machines must run on 64-bit Windows Server 2008.

Virtualization of UC components reduces hardware footprints for organizations, according to Helm.

"Virtualization helps simplify the management of large-scale installations," Helm explained. "In some companies, IM and presence are big enough and critical enough to benefit from it. However, Microsoft is also trying to sell Communications Server to telcos and other kinds of service providers who turn around and resell IM and presence services to their customers, and those companies could be the biggest beneficiaries of virtualization."

The promise of UC is to unify all communications over a common platform. However, Microsoft hasn't enabled virtualization for all components in OCS R2 quite yet. Virtualization of voice, video, Web conferencing and other collaboration apps are not supported. Microsoft cited "possible" quality-of-service issues with real-time media as the reason.

"The fact that Microsoft does not support voice virtualization suggests that it still isn't anticipating big voice deployments," Helm noted. "Voice does pose some special problems for virtualization, because it's very performance-sensitive and some components rely on specialized hardware. However, Microsoft is really counting on voice to take off with its next release of Communications Server, currently planned for sometime in 2010. When it gets to that point, it will give virtualization of the voice components more attention."

Currently, physical servers must be deployed to support VoIP and other real-time media, according to Microsoft. Microsoft provides architecture guidance in a white paper here and also offers an OCS Capacity Planning Tool.

OCS R2 was unveiled in October of 2008, in part, as an alternative to legacy PBX (public branch exchange) "switches" for voice, according to statement made by Gudeep Singh Pall, corporate vice president of engineering in the Microsoft Office Communications Server group.

About the Author

Herb Torrens is an award-winning freelance writer based in Southern California. He managed the MCSP program for a leading computer telephony integrator for more than five years and has worked with numerous solution providers including HP/Compaq, Nortel, and Microsoft in all forms of media.

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