One of the surprises that came with the release of Exchange Server 2019 (at least for me) was that one of the well established and widely used roles was missing.

Unified Messaging or UM for short was introduced in Exchange Server 2007 as a voice and fax messaging solution for orgs with IP telephone systems. Exchange already had electronic mail of course, so it wasn’t really out of place.

Electronic Fax was a pretty decent alternative to other software solutions. Plug in a modem and you could receive faxes as emails. You could even send documents by printing them to fax or sending an email. I actually thought the fax role disappeared several years ago as point solutions got better. But apparently it is still there. I’m not sure how widely this feature is used as many use cloud based Electronic Fax solutions as alternatives to physical fax machines.

Voicemail was the star of the show for the UM role. Quite simple in setup and execution. It was easy to connect any IP based PBX to the role. Cisco estates often use UM for voicemail instead of their own Unity service. And of course it’s the only supported/qualified voicemail service for Microsoft UC (OCSR2, Lync and SfB).

It was easy to UM enable a user to give them a voicemail box. When someone leaves a message it gets sent to the user as an attachment to an email. From there it was possible to play through PC speakers or even on their desk phone. And since the attachment was just a music file it was possible to listen on a smart phone capable of playing the file. Users could even call in to their voicemail box and retrieve messages, change their greetings and more.

It doesn’t end there, however. Many users don’t know that they can also configure call answering rules. Basically taking control of how calls get to them without admin intervention. This was introduced in Exchange 2010.

It doesn’t stop with voice messaging either. UM can also be used as an Auto Attendant solution. I won’t go into all the options, but I can assure you that it really is quite good (or was). Often used by PBX systems and Microsoft UC since OCSR2. In Microsoft UC, UM Auto Attendants are often used alongside the built in Response Group Service.

UM started as a separate role that could be installed on your single server setup or as s standalone server instance. Eventually it was just built in to the mailbox role. It’s been changed and enhanced in little bits ever since. And is now available in Exchange 2007, 2013 and 2016 Server.

It wasn’t just an on-premises feature either. It was even added as a feature of Exchange Online. Perfect for those moving Exchange to the cloud. It was, of course, possible to connect a 3rd party PBX or Skype for Business to Exhange Online UM.

Microsoft announced last year that they would be discontinuing support for 3rd party PBXs to use Exchange Online UM. They set some dates and deadlines and extended them a couple of times to give companies more time. But the writing was on the wall I think. Definitely a signal for things to come.

Now that the role is gone from Server 2019 it was only a matter of time before Microsoft wanted to upgrade Exchange Online to 2019 and get rid of the role once and for all.

Two days ago on 8th February Microsoft released a post announcing that the end is closer than we thought.

In a You had me at EHLO post – Retiring Unified Messaging in Exchange Online

The Exchange team states that…

“Microsoft is retiring Unified Messaging (UM) in Exchange Online and replacing it with Cloud Voicemail and Auto Attendant services.  This impacts voicemail processing and Auto Attendant in Exchange Online for all customers using these workloads. The following servers connecting to Exchange UM Online will be transitioned by Microsoft to Cloud Voicemail on or before February 2020:

  • Lync Server 2013
  • Skype for Business Server 2015

Please note this announcement refers to Unified Messaging which is the processing of voicemails and Auto Attendant in Exchange Online. Storage of voicemails will continue to be supported in Exchange Online and Exchange on-premises Servers.”

and that…

“Customers using the above-mentioned servers to connect to Exchange UM Online will be transitioned to Cloud Voicemail by Microsoft. The transition timing will vary depending upon how your company has utilized the UM features.”

And they aren’t hanging about on this either. The first group of customers will be notified starting February 2019 and transitioned in March 2019.

These first groups are what Microsoft considers easy targets and good candicates for the migration.  These are likely to be customers that only use Exchange Online UM for voicemail and not for call answering rules or auto attendants.

Microsoft states that…

“The experience for each customer will be transparent – Microsoft will switch your users over to Cloud Voicemail and perform the necessary validation and testing.”

They also say that if you’re not ready for the move and want to block it, you can do so by submitting a request in the support tool in the Office 365 Admin Portal. They do go on to say that the final retirement date is February 2020. They want to be clear that if you do postpone the move, that they are turning off the feature in a year whether you like it or not.

Based on what they did for extending the deadline for 3rd party PBXs, it is a safe bet that Microsoft will extend this deadline too. However, I think it will need to be a big, strategic customer or more than one of them to make them push the deadline much further than that. After all, they aren’t just turning off a standalone service. They want to upgrade Exchange Online to 2019 to give customers the latest features and security enhancements. Ans as I said, the role doesn’t exist in 2019. If they had to support it for a customer, Microsoft would have to keep running Exchange 2016 for each company that wants it. And they probably don’t want to keep two versions going for long.

What’s next?

There is of course an accompanying support post here.

Customers using any of the following features in Exchange Online are affected:

  1. Voicemail service
  2. Auto Attendant service
  3. Fax integration

Microsoft outlines a Migration Plan and says

“Microsoft has identified various customer deployments that are consuming features from ExchUMO and will be helping customers migrate based on the following plan.”

It should be noted that although the You had me at EHLO post said voicemail only migrations would complete by March 2019, the support post shows May 2019. See below.

Customer group Timeline Details
Customers who are ready to migrate Features to migrate:
  • Voicemail
March – May 2019 Examples:
  • Customers with simple voicemail deployment and usage
  • Customers that have all requirements established for Microsoft to execute the migration
Customers with prerequisites Features to migrate:
  • Voicemail
  • Auto Attendant
May – December 2019 Examples:
  • Hybrid configuration is not established/completed
  • Hybrid PSTN numbers are not set up
Customers who require admin involvement & customer investment Features to migrate:
  • voicemail
  • Auto Attendant
  • Fax integration
By February 2020 Examples:
  • ExchUMO service is consumed by 3rd party PBX
  • Customers with PSTN Subscriber Access requirements
  • Customers on SFB 2010 (not-supported)
  • Fax integration

Companies using Lync 2013 and Skype for Business 2015 (and probably 2019) who use Exchange Online for voicemail will be migrated to Cloud Voicemail. The service is similar in that it records a message and delivers a file by email. The message can be played in all the same ways. It doesn’t include fancy call answering rules. But I don’t know many, if any, users using that service. I’m sure they are out there though. Microsoft say that it is a roadmap feature and coming in Q1 2019.

Those using the Auto Attendant feature will need to migrate to Cloud Auto Attendants in Phone System. It is quite good, although not the same. I wrote a post on it around the time it launched and became generally available. There is a huge feature matrix in the support post that shows what is available in each service.

Unlike voicemail which is a Microsoft driven migration. Auto Attendant is an admin-driven migration and customers will need to re-create the existing ExchUMO Auto Attendant trees in the Cloud Auto Attendant cloud service.

They don’t really mention what to do with fax integration but I would say to migrate to another cloud based service if you can.

What are your options?

For PBX vendors they need to find another service to deliver voicemail and auto attendants. Most PBX vendows have their own products. There are also 3rd party products that can provide these if they don’t want to use their own.

For Lync/SfB Server customers that can’t have connections to cloud based services.

One option is to install an Exchange 2016 UM server and keep it going as long as you can. This would work for both PBXs and Lync/SfB Server installs.

Another is to use a 3rd party service. There are a couple of them around, but I won’t vouch for them because I don’t have any experience with them. Also, Microsoft hasn’t actually certified any 3rd party voicemail products. Exchange is the only one they support.

For Lync/SfB Server estates with Hybrid set-ups, use Cloud Voicemail.  It works well. Also, evaluate cloud auto attendants and see if that can work. If you need more, look at contact centre vendors that do advanced skills based call routing. These go way beyond first party options. Some even have voicemail built in, at least for the queues.

One last option. Don’t have voicemail. I know this won’t work for everyone, but ask yourself whether you actually need it. Could you forward to your mobile and use your mobile voicemail? Could you forward to a Team Call Group and let one of your colleagues assist? Could you use the SfB mobile app and answer more of your own calls? Do people really leave you voicemails? And if they can’t, will the world end? Chances are, they will try again, or call your mobile.

Final thoughts

I can’t say I’m surprised by this move. Exchange UM pre-dates voice in Microsoft products and was used by PBX vendors before Microsoft’s own products. The dates surprise me a little. But they might change anyway.

I wouldn’t count on that though. Best thing you can do is understand whats coming and what options you have. And start doing something about it sooner rather than later. Time flies, as you know, so don’t sit on this.

That’s all folks!