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Skype for Business review

Microsoft’s Lync replacement provides sophisticated communications but doesn’t yet feel entirely finished

Skype logo
Price
Subscription starting from £1.30 per user, per month (limited feature Skype for Business stand-alone); server licensing as per individual quote
  • High quality audio and video; Supports large group calls
  • Mobile app not yet released; Can’t disable telephony options in client

Update 18/11/2015 - As of October 2015, an iOS app is available for both Office 365 and Skype for Business Server users. The app can handle full-screen video conferencing, although it doesn't yet allow mobile users to view shared PowerPoint slides during presentations. A Windows Phone app is also available, while the Android version of the app is still in beta. Users interested in beta testing the Android app can apply to join the Skype For Business Preview programme.

The roll-out of Microsoft Skype for Business is intended to be a complete revamp to the Lync communication service, although its availability immediately after release is limited, with the new server software available via MSDN, but not TechNet. Microsoft Lync Server 2013 gets a free update to allow you to support the Skype for Business client, while Lync Server 2010 users will have to upgrade to the new Skype for Business Server 2015.

A third alternative is available for all Office 365 for Business users, from the all-online Essentials version, priced at £3.10 per user, per month, through to the Premium version, with gives you a full desktop office suite at £7.80 per user, per month, all the way up to the Enterprise E4 edition. Further subscription models are available for Skype for Business as a stand-alone product, starting at £1.30 per user.

Client Anatomy

Although there are multiple ways to administer Skype for Business, the client-side experience remains consistent. The client bears some resemblance to the old Lync client, and some to the personal Skype client, but it’s very much a new product. It’s better looking than either Skype or Lync, with a clean, fairly narrow window that by default displays your contact list. Other tabs show your communication history and scheduled meetings. Skype for Business integrates with Outlook, allowing you to schedule Skype meetings in advance.

At the top of the Skype window, toolbar options open pull-down menus, giving you quick access to features such as audio and video device settings, and the recording manager, where you can access meetings you’ve recorded in the past. The Meet Now option immediately spawns a Conversation window, which you can also do by left-clicking on one of your contacts.

Your conversation window starts by letting you choose whether you want to use Skype for Business to handle your audio and video communication, whether you’d rather have it via the work phone number associated with your account – an option that requires full telephony provision - or whether you’d prefer to run a purely text-based meeting session. Once launched, you’ll be placed in a chat session, from where you can invite other participants from your contact book or, if you’ve enabled telephony integration, by dialling their phone number. Annoyingly, the latter option remains present even if you haven’t enabled telephony services.

Buttons at the bottom of the window allow you to open a chat pane, turn on your video feed, end the session, and enable presentation features. You can give a PowerPoint presentation via Skype, or share your desktop, specific programs, or one of your monitors. You can also share mouse and keyboard control with a selected meeting attendee. This is handy if you need technical support, although when it comes to remote maintenance by an administrator, an RDP session is far more useful. It’s easy to hand over the presenter role, and a shared whiteboard is available for brainstorming.

The client works well, and we were pleased with the video and call quality we achieved via both a local Skype for Business Server 2015 setup and Office 365. It’s easy to go into voice, text, or video chat with a colleague, a good option for office communication. However, we’d have liked the confusing prompts for users to contact people by phone to be disabled by default, as a third-party service or additional hardware are required. File sharing is also rather messier than we’d like. There’s no internal document viewer, so the simple file manager instead opens files using your default external viewer.

Life online with Office 365 

As we’ve established, there are a number of different ways to run Skype for Business, but as the server-based options all involve a significant investment in both hardware and software licences, small and many medium enterprises will be best served by the version that comes bundled with all Office 365 subscriptions. Bear in mind that subscribing to Office can prove much more expensive over time than buying permanent software licenses.

Each of your users has immediate access to Skype for Business, but you’ll want to tweak Skype’s settings in the Office 365 Admin portal to ensure that everything works smoothly. Some of Skype for Business’s most useful features are disabled by default for security reasons. For example, if you want to allow users to communicate with clients and contractors, you’ll want to enable Skype for Business’s ability to communicate with Skype Personal and external Lync users.

You can edit which features specific users have access to from within their Skype for Business client, including whether they’re allowed to use audio and video conferencing, and whether they can record meetings and conversations. The user features configuration is also where you’ll enter the settings for any third-party telephony service you may wish to use.

Skype for Business Server

Running your own dedicated Skype for Business server environment is a major operation best suited to larger businesses with a significant budget for hardware, licences and, unless you have an in-house specialist, expertise. If you already have a set of Lync 2013 servers, an update is available to add support for Skype for Business clients, but we tested using Skype for Business server 2015.

The number of servers you’ll need depends on which features you want to enable and the size of your organization. All the servers must be members of your AD domain, and they have to be dedicated to providing only Skype services. You’ll also need to have at least one server on the domain acting as a Certification Authority.

The core Skype for Business servers consist of the main Skype server software and a database back end. You can choose the Standard edition server, which keeps the Skype core and the database engine on the same server, or split it into a pool of front end servers for the Skype core functionality, and a back end pool to hold the databases.  An Edge Server provides external access to your Skype server for clients outside the local network and manages external communication. A number of other services can be deployed depending on which specific features you request, such as Persistent chat, monitoring, archiving, operations management, and SIP trunking and mediation. A PSTN gateway device is required if you wish to be able to make standard phone calls from within the Skype client.

Once you’ve decided on your layout, you choose a server to host the central configuration and run setup to install the management tools, prepare Active Directory for Skype for Business 2015, and prepare the server to host the central management service. With that done, you can define and publish your topology – a map which defines the role and relationship of each server in your Skype for Business back end. You can now run setup on all the servers that will make up your deployment, which will install the required features onto the servers as defined by the topology. Once all the servers are installed you can start the services (a reboot is easiest here) and you’re ready to start adding your users to the system.

A huge range of administrative options are available via the Skype for Business 2015 Control Panel, many of which are dependent on which features you’ve included in your deployment. These range from call recording and archiving, to blocking specific file types from being sent across the service, and preventing users from sharing URLs. Conferencing policy options allow you to define how many people can participate in a meeting, how they can connect and which features are enabled, from PowerPoint presentations to the ability to take remote control of a participant’s system. If you’ve integrated Skype with a telephony service, an even wider range of fine-grained options become available, allowing you to specify everything from which telephony trunks your various offices use to dial-in access numbers for meetings.

Verdict

In terms of practical roll-out and administration, the Office 365 and Server-based versions of Skype for Business are radically different prospects. However, while both have certain advantages to businesses that are already heavily invested in a Microsoft software ecosystem, neither provides the kind of “killer app” experience needed to definitively trump its rivals, although a high group call capacity – up to 250 people for the SaaS version and as many as your server hardware can handle for the local version – is noteworthy.

When it comes to Office 365, Skype for Business provides a convenient way of communicating with users within your company or, if you enable its ability to communicate with personal Skype accounts, outside it. Audio and video quality are decent, and the presentation, file sharing, and desktop sharing features are all up to the task, although we’d have liked to see an integrated file viewer and the ability to annotate presented screens. It’s not as easy to create shared meeting rooms on Skype for Business as it is on Google Hangouts for Work, but you can invite more people to participate via Skype. If you’re already an Office 365 user, Skype is the obvious choice for internal corporate communication, although the need to go to a third-party provider to add external telephony services is an inconvenient extra step for those who want a complete communications solution.

For large enterprises, moving from Lync to Skype for Business is an inevitable upgrade path, but doesn’t have to be carried out immediately. We were impressed by the audio quality of the new SILK codec, but in practice Skype for Business provides your users with few features that aren’t already supported by Lync beyond the ability to make video calls to personal Skype accounts. By combining aspects of the Skype personal and old Lync clients, the Skype for Business client may create more user confusion than it solves, requiring staff to get used to a new interface.

During the review process for both Server and Office 365 users, parts of the experience felt unfinished. A couple of weeks after launch, we’re still seeing lots of Lync branding and documentation that doesn’t completely apply to the new software. On top of that, mobile apps haven’t yet been released for any platform. Office 365 now only provides Skype for Business, but businesses running Lync Server 2013 should wait a while before rolling out the new client to their users.

Skype for Business doesn't provide the "killer app" needed to beat rivals, but if you are already on Office 365, it is the obvious choice for internal corporate communications.

This review was originally published on 15/05/2015 and has since been updated, most recently on 18/11/2015.

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