Hello Readers.  I hope you’re well.  

I like to mix it up a bit with content type on my blog.  Some technical (and hopefully useful), some product review and some (like this one) which falls under consulting or maybe advice.  Whatever you call it, I hope it is useful to you.

I get asked this question almost every day.  How do I choose a Microsoft UC deployment type that’s right for my company? 

One thing I’ll say right up front is that when I drafted this post last year, Microsoft hadn’t yet announced that Microsoft Teams was eventually going to replace Skype for Business Online.  The intention was to compare Skype for Business deployment types.  Because Teams is an eventuality for pure Office 365 deployments, I’ve had to adapt the post somewhat.

Most organisations have a clear mandate to save money and drive business efficiency.  The best way to do both is to unify your communication channels into a single, easy to use interface.  Skype for Business and Microsoft Teams combines chat, presence, meetings, video, internal and external telephony in one.  This means you can get rid of all of those point solutions such as your telephone system, AV deployment, audio and web conferencing solution and consumer based chat tool.  Consolidation alone can pay for itself quickly.  Removing the complication of multiple, hard to use tools and adding features such as rich presence and real-time collaboration make employees more productive.  Doing both could mean that you actually make money on your investment.
Now that you’ve chosen Microsoft as your Unified Communications (UC) solution vendor, you now need to decide which deployment type suits your company best.

On-premises or Cloud?

The first choice you have to make is whether you want to host it internally on your own infrastructure or consume it as a service, hosted by a 3rd party. 
  • On-premises – If you’ve already made a big investment in resilient server infrastructure and all of your other applications are hosted internally, you’ll probably choose to deploy on-premises.  Skype for Business Server can be designed to support companies of any size, shape and complexity.  An on-premises Skype for Business Solution requires a number of high spec servers to offer all of the features available.  A “one of each” deployment with no resiliency will require a minimum of 5 servers.  Adding in resiliency can make that number grow significantly.  Skype for Business Deployments with Enterprise Voice capability require expert knowledge to support effectively.
  • Cloud – If you’re already starting to move other applications to the cloud, such as moving Exchange Server or SharePoint to Office 365, you’re probably open to using Skype for Business from the Cloud.  Cloud deployments are supported by the provider of the service which means you can focus on your business.  Some solutions, like Microsoft Teams are only available in the cloud and many organisations are already using Teams alongside Skype for Business wherever it is deployed.

Private or public Cloud?

Skype for Business has two distinct product roadmaps.  These are Skype for Business Server and Skype for Business Online.  I’ve listed Teams under the SfBO banner.  
  • Skype for Business Server can be deployed on-premises or as a Private Cloud instance, hosted by a 3rd party provider.  Skype for Business Server is the full product with every feature available. 
  • Skype for Business Online is a multi-tenanted, Public Cloud version of Skype for Business Server, hosted by Microsoft in Office 365.  Phone System (formerly Cloud PBX) is an add-on service to Skype for Business Online which adds telephony functionality.  Last year, Microsoft announced that their Teams product was to get all of the features of Skype for Business Online including Phone System.  So, although there is no formal end date for SfBO, at some point in the future it will be gone.
Both are Skype for Business, however there are a number of key differences.  Such as; 
  • Feature parity – Skype for Business Online is a solution shared by multiple companies globally.  This architecture introduces a number of limitations in the features available.  Rather than deliver the features as written into Skype for Business Server, Microsoft has built custom add-on solutions that emulate the equivalent Server based feature.  The feature list deficit is shrinking all the time and eventually, Skype for Business Online and Phone System (formerly Cloud PBX) will offer parity or at least the equivalent of parity.  Teams adds a new dimension to this.  Just as Skype for Business Online started with only a basic set of features, Teams also had to start somewhere and then play catch up.  Teams should have feature parity (according to Microsoft’s public roadmap) with Skype for Business Online by the end of June 2018 (Q2 CY2018).  By the end of CY2018 it should overtake it by adding additional features that were previously only available in Skype for Business Server (Call Park and Call pickup).
  • Application integration – Skype for Business Server has a rich and mature set of APIs and SDKs that allow application developers to integrate their solutions directly with Skype for Business server and the Skype for Business client.  Applications such as Contact Centre and Recording need deep integration with Skype for Business in order to allow the applications to control the call flow.  This requires application components to be installed directly on the Skype for Business Servers.  Again, because of the multi-tenant nature of Skype for Business Online and because of the number of 3rd party solutions available, it isn’t possible to install these components and isolate them to just a single tenant.  Microsoft is developing a new set of APIs and SDKs which could allow 3rd party developers to integrate their solutions with Office 365.  Microsoft started delivering a new set specifically for Skype for Business Online/Phone System however this stopped following the announcement about Teams.  Microsoft is now working on new stuff for developers for Teams.  It is already possible to build apps that can be added to Teams.  But this doesn’t offer the same experience for software vendors.  It could be some while before these new Teams APIs are ready for deployment and it isn’t yet clear whether the solutions that use them will be able to offer the same capabilities as the more mature ones for Skype for Business Server.
  • Connectivity Private hosted solutions are often directly connected to a customer network to ensure end-to-end quality of service for voice traffic.  Skype for Business Online and Phone System is typically used over the internet which means that it isn’t possible to control the quality.  Additionally, most MPLS Wide Area Networks are designed with central internet breakout.  This means that all PSTN voice media must first cross the WAN and then break out centrally.  Although it is possible to get Express Route to connect your organisation to Office 365, it is hard to get it specifically for voice workloads.
  • Resiliency – Skype for Business Online and Phone System is resilient in itself, however private hosted can be made more resilient by utilising features that aren’t available in multi-tenant deployments such as branch survivability. 
  • Support – While the platform for both public and private cloud offerings is managed and supported by the provider of the service, public cloud provider support stops at the platform.  Private cloud providers can provide support far beyond the platform itself, helping with configuration, troubleshooting user issues, problems with software, hardware and even the network.  Public cloud is more self-service based, while private cloud providers are much more hands-on.
  • Cost – Pricing for Skype for Business Online, Phone System and associated add-ons are somewhat fixed at a set value no matter how large the deployment is.  Private hosted solutions can benefit from economies of scale, which means that the per user cost decreases as more users are added.  Additionally, Phone System requires the addition of fixed price calling plans with minutes bundles for every user.  The price for these minutes bundles could be much higher than the typical average spend for each user on a pay-as-you-go model.

What about Hybrid?

There’s a third choice which is a combination of the two.  A Hybrid deployment has a few use cases.  Such as;
  • Geography – If a Public Cloud provider can’t offer the full range of services in every country your organisation operates in, it is possible to augment the service by deploying some infrastructure on-premises or in a Private Cloud in those regions to fill the gap.  This is especially true for the new Direct Routing capability in Microsoft Teams which adds local PSTN breakout for Teams users using SBCs.
  • Controlled Migration – Larger organizations with complex infrastructure spread across multiple sites and with many hundreds or thousands of users require a more controlled migration.  Migrating large, complex infrastructure usually requires a period of coexistence with users on both platforms.  Deploying on-premises or in a private cloud infrastructure can facilitate this coexistence between the PBXs and the hosted service.
  • 3rd party integration – It is not always possible to directly integrate 3rd party applications or systems with Public Cloud based services.  For these situations it is necessary to deploy some infrastructure on-premises or in a private cloud to integrate into these applications or systems and then integrate this infrastructure with the Public Cloud service.
  • On-premises Dependencies – One of the last steps in migrating a telephony service is to move the numbers that feed into the system.  If you have months or even years left on your line contract that prevent you from porting numbers, you could use on-premises infrastructure to use these lines to deliver on-premises calling capability to users in the Public Cloud.

  • Different workloads for different users – A lot of companies are using Skype for Business and Teams side-by-side.  They use Teams for team based collaboration, chat and meetings in context with the content.  Some have a mix of users.  Some prefer the simplicity of the Skype for Business client and others need the richness of Teams and all it can do.  I know there is no end date for Skype for Business Online, but at some point it will be gone and all users will have left is Teams.  Hybrid could be a good option for companies that want choice after the decision has been made for them.

In Summary

If you’ve already invested in internal infrastructure and you have the capacity to host the required servers with a level of resilience that meets or exceeds your expectations, then an on-premises deployment makes perfect sense. 
If, on the other hand, you’re faced with the decision of a hardware refresh to add more capacity or you’re already starting to move services to the cloud, then a hosted model is probably for you. 

If you need a best of both, a mixed estate, integration for cloud users or just choice, a hybrid is definitely for you.
Whatever deployment method you choose, you’ll definitely want to work with an expert partner that can help with everything from assessing the network, user adoption and training, set-up and configuration, user and service migration to business as usual.  Working with a partner will help ensure a successful migration to unified communications.

That’s all folks!


Thanks for reading.

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