A New Era in Real-Time Communications
An enterprise level IM server with enhanced presence management and integration with a wide range of Microsoft products.
Live Communications Server has been, for the most part, an Instant Messaging (IM) server not much different from dozens of similar products all called IM servers by their vendors. However, Microsoft has a history of not adhering to industry-defined categories for its products of not calling a spade a spade, but instead a "rich soil moving device." Microsoft Office Live Communications Server 2005 introduces enterprise IM users to new levels of presence management as well as integration with applications, network services and VoIP.
It's probably harder for Microsoft reps to explain a "live communications server," but that name is not misguided marketing. It reflects a vision of communications that includes text (IM, e-mail), audio and video, along with a number of computer services such as file transfer and electronic whiteboard.
With the release of Microsoft Office Live Communications Server 2005, IM and other services are folded deeply into the Office family of applications and given a window on the world of VoIP. It's a step or two closer to a vision of integrated communications and, as such, an important product.
Microsoft Office Live Communications Server 2005 (LCS) is sold in two editions. The Standard Edition (server: $769, users: $31 per seat) is distinguished by its use of MSDE (Microsoft Data Engine), a free, usually embedded database manager. It supports up to 15,000 users (up from 10,000 in LCS 2003) and can be used only in a single-server configuration. The Enterprise Edition (server: $3,119, users: $31 per seat) requires Microsoft SQL Server 2000 and supports up to 100,000 users with two-tier, multiple-server configurations.
First Impression: It's All About Integration
We tested the Standard edition in a small office environment, which provided a number of impressions quickly: The 2005 version is more complex to configure than the 2003 version if for no other reason than that it does more. It's also very reliant on Microsoft Active Directory, a powerful piece of software but not a comfortable fit for small enterprises. To get full value from LCS 2005, a raft of Microsoft products is necessary, which is not an inexpensive conglomeration and increases the complexity of initial and ongoing administration.
Complex or not, the name of the game for LCS 2005 is integration. Nothing exemplifies this better than the emphasis LCS places on presence. Presence, loosely defined, is information about the status of other people's availability (e.g., are they online, or taking phone calls, or away from their desk?) Presence is the foundation of IM, but in the last few years it has acquired a cachet of futuristic convenience at the touch of a button, we should be able to know how we can communicate with people, when they are available and so forth. Microsoft is making much of presence, especially for people using Microsoft Office in connection with Live Communication Server. However, complete presence management also requires Microsoft SharePoint Services and Active Directory. Microsoft can deliver integration that few (or no) other companies can match.
The Highs and Lows of Installation
Installation and configuration of LCS 2005 is where both the joys and the tribulations of an intensely integrated product first become apparent. Here is at least a partial list of other Microsoft products that are either required or can provide useful services for LCS 2005:
- Microsoft Windows Server 2003 (required)
- Microsoft Active Directory (part of Windows Server 2003, required by both Editions)
- Microsoft Office 2003 (in particular Microsoft Outlook)
- Microsoft Windows Messenger (or MSN Messenger)
- Microsoft Live Meeting (components used for application sharing, conferencing (there are plans to merge this product with Live Communication Server)
- Microsoft Exchange Server
- Microsoft SQL Server 2000 (required for archiving and the Enterprise Edition)
- Microsoft SharePoint Services (for advanced presence and workflow features)
- Microsoft Message Queuing (MSMQ, required for archiving)
Although LCS 2005 has improved over the previous version in offering assistance in the installation and configuration process, it's readily apparent from the above list that there is a lot of jiggering to be done for successful integration. The starting point for LCS (either edition) is Windows Server 2003 and Active Directory. Both are required for installation. It is important that Active Directory already be in "working condition" (i.e., running and loaded with most of the information needed by LCS).
For configuration, LCS 2005 Standard Edition is much like LCS 2003 in that each user has one home server. LCS 2005 Enterprise Edition is far more flexible (supporting many topologies) with its separation of message and presence processing from the back-end data management (supporting any number of MS SQL Servers).
Active Directory integration is supported in far more configurations by LCS 2005 than the previous version supported. Considering the amount of work and backtracking we encountered integrating a single Active Directory server to LCS, this process is not as easy as it could be and requires detailed planning (and we would hope) testing. Managing Active Directory in its relatively complex relationship with LCS 2005 may be a barrier for some smaller and medium-sized enterprises.
One of the distinct advantages for companies like Microsoft is it can afford good documentation. In this case, Microsoft may have outdone itself, not only in the depth, but in quality of its support material.