In a previous blog, I discussed the added benefit of PSTN Conferencing capabilities when used in conjunction with Skype for Business Online. Meeting participants could continue to join from their Skype for Business client or a web browser, but now they could also choose to join via phone: very much still an important use case. In addition to this, Microsoft have made available dozens of PSTN access numbers across the globe that your meeting participants can dial and participate in your Skype for Business Online meeting – very handy.
It’s also important to point out that, for the user creating the meeting invite from their Outlook client, the workflow didn’t change to support this added capability. The only difference was that there was now an additional piece of information added to the meeting join information block:
It's important to emphasise the importance of a single, consistent workflow when it comes to creating scheduled meetings for Skype for Business. Since the release of Lync 2010, the method of creating a Skype for Business meeting has remained more or less the same: Open Outlook, click on the meeting tab, select New Skype Meeting. For an external participant joining the meeting, all the information they require is contained in the meeting invite. At no point does the meeting organiser need to change their approach (i.e. choose between workflows) to accommodate a different join scenario: a single workflow to support all meeting join capabilities.
Whilst having access to the above-mentioned methods to join conferences was sufficient for many organisations, the picture was still not complete. What if I wanted to ensure users on any “standards based” endpoint could also join my Skype for Business meetings?
What is a “standards based” endpoint anyway?
The term “standards based” essentially refers to any video conferencing endpoint that uses either SIP or H.323 to communicate with other endpoints using SIP or H.323, but aren’t necessarily from the same manufacturer. For example, both Cisco and Polycom have standards based endpoints that can call each other without the need for some kind of gateway sitting between them. Skype for Business native endpoints, however, are not standards based. They communicate using their own flavour of SIP and media codecs that gives a great end user experience, but do not allow direct calling between themselves and standards based endpoints.
When working with on-premises deployments, this issue was overcome by deploying additional infrastructure side by side with the Skype for Business environment that was capable of transcoding traffic between disparate endpoints. We were also able to add in additional information at the bottom of the Skype for Business meeting invite, making sure that the ever-important single, consistent workflow was not deviated from whilst also adding additional meeting join capabilities:
It’s easy to see how adding this capability without changing the workflow would benefit many organisations. But what about organisations that use Skype for Business Online? What’s the solution for them?
Introducing Polycom RealConnect for Office 365
What is it?
Simply put, RealConnect for Office 365 enables non-native (standards based) video conferencing endpoints to join Skype for Business Online meetings. Specifically:
- It’s a cloud based interop service, offered by Polycom globally
- It’s hosted in Microsoft Azure, side by side with Skype for Business online
- Users are enabled for this service directly from within the Office 365 portal (more on this later)
- It supports a wide range of devices connecting to your Skype Online meetings: Polycom, Cisco. Lifesize, etc.
- Simple scheduling and join experience (no change to the standard Skype meeting workflow)
- Supports desktop and application sharing across both Skype for Business and standards based endpoints
Architecturally, the Polycom RealConnect <> Skype for Business interop is similar to on-premises Skype for Business environments where RealConnect is also deployed side by side. Any non-native endpoints joining the Skype for Business Online meeting "cascade" into the meeting via the hosted Polycom RealPresence platform:
The term "cascade" is important here. I’ve mentioned numerous times though this article the importance of maintaining a single consistent workflow for end users when creating Skype for Business meetings. The benefits of this are obvious: a single workflow for all scenarios ensures there’s no complexity or confusion for end users when it comes to creating a meeting invite. To support this, Polycom first introduced the concept of cascading with their RealConnect platform when deployed on-premises. Essentially, cascading means that the meeting itself is managed and hosted entirely within Skype for Business, with the RealConnect platform facilitating the cascading of media into and out of the Skype for Business meeting:
For organisations embracing Skype for Business Online as the centre of their conferencing world, who also have no desire to deploy expensive on-premises infrastructure, this posed an issue. With RealConnect for Office 365 not yet released globally, there has been a need to plug the hole in interoperability with standard based video conferencing endpoints. Other third-party alternatives exist; however, they have not been able to interop with Skype for Business Online meetings using the cascading method. This means that Skype for Business Online users would need to dial into a separately hosted MCU when wanting to meet with users joining from standards based endpoints, which, you guessed it, means that end users have a decision to make when creating a meeting invite: are all my participants joining from native Skype for Business endpoints? Or is there at least one joining from a standards based endpoint? For the average end user, we're expecting a little too much for them to know the difference. The single consistent workflow has been compromised.
RealConnect for Office 365 to the rescue.
There are two main scenarios where I see RealConnect for Office 365 being used:
Organisation wants to move to Skype for Business Online, has investment in standards based endpoints
In this scenario, an organisation has a large investment in non-native Skype for Business endpoints that will not be replaced in the short to medium term. It’s understandable that, particularly in larger environments, there won’t be a rip and replace with Skype for Business native endpoints on day one. With RealConnect for Office 365, the organisation can enable the Skype for Business Online meeting workflow, while still ensuring on-premises standards based endpoints can participate (as well as external standards based end points of course):
Organisation is implementing Skype for Business Online using native endpoints, wants to ensure external non-native endpoints can join meetings
In this scenario, the organisation utilises Skype for Business Online, with all on-premises video conferencing and collaboration endpoints natively registered against Skype for Business Online. The addition of RealConnect for Office 365 is purely to ensure external parties using standards based endpoints can participate in scheduled Skype for Business Online meetings:
There is now a wide variety of endpoints that will natively register against Skype for Business Online. These are the most common I see/recommend when designing an end to end Skype for Business Online solution:
- Polycom VVX (standard handset)
- Polycom Trio 8800 (conference speaker phone/small meeting room video conference endpoint)
- Skype Room System (small/medium/large video conference endpoint)
- Polycom RealPresence Group Series (medium/large room video conference endpoint)
- Microsoft Surface Hub (team collaboration device)
How is it Deployed?
Standards Based Endpoint Requirements
If when referring to the use cases you’re an organisation that has an existing investment in on-premises standards based endpoints, you will need to ensure that these endpoints can successfully communicate with RealConnect for Office 365. This typically means that you have an existing SIP or H.323 registrar (e.g. Cisco VCS, Call Manager, etc) as well as infrastructure to support firewall traversal. If you want to test this, dial firstname.lastname@example.org from one of your standards based endpoints, you should be able to get to the test call bridge:
For organisations that don’t have any on-premises standards based endpoints, you can skip this step.
Skype for Business Requirements
Prior to adding RealConnect for Office 365 to your Skype for Business environment, you’ll need to make sure that Skype for Business is fully provisioned, with users licensed to consume Skype for Business. Your Exchange environment must also be online.
Client wise, you must be using Office 2016 Click to Run (C2R) 16.0.7668.2048 or higher. At time of writing, support for the Skype for Business Mac client and Outlook Web Access client was coming soon.
To enable the service, licensing is acquired from a Polycom partner, which is then injected into the standard Office 365 Licensing portal.
After licenses are obtained, your Office 365 tenant admin visits http://webapp.plcm.vc. This is an application that activates the Polycom RealConnect for Office 365 cloud video interop license within your Office 365 tenant. Follow the prompts to first authorise the app against your tenant and activate the licenses. Once licenses are obtained and associated with your tenant, they are treated like any other first party licenses. IT admins can assign licenses directly from the Office 365 portal UI or via PowerShell:
End User Experience
Skype for Business Online Meeting Invite
Once the video interop license has been assigned, the only change an end user will see is an additional piece of information added to the bottom of their standard Skype for Business Online meeting invite. The same single consistent workflow is maintained:
Clicking on Alternate VTC dialing instructions will also give some additional options for dialing into the Skype for Business Online meeting from a standards based endpoint:
With this additional piece of information added to the invite, we can now ensure that all external participants can participate in scheduled Skype for Business Online meetings, regardless of endpoint.
The Skype for Business Online environment manages the standard limit of five active video tiles which can display any combination of Skype for Business or standards based endpoint participants. The Polycom RealConnect environment cascades every connected standards based endpoint into the same meeting with some additional enhancements, such as injecting Immersive Telepresence rooms into the Skype for Business panorama video stream (which was previously only used to display panorama feeds from the Polycom CX5000/5100/5500 Unified Conference Stations):
Content sharing is transcoded between environments, with support for both Video Based Screen Sharing (VBSS) and Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) for Skype for Business native content sharing, as well as H.239 and Binary Floor Control Protocol (BFCP) for standards based content sharing. This ensures that displayed content appears native on both Skype for Business and standards based endpoints:
RealConnect for Office 365 is already available in the US, with an ANZ release date slated for Q3 2017. This has been on the priority road map for Polycom and Microsoft, as such I would not expect time frame to slip - perhaps we may see it even sooner...
If you want to know more about Skype for Business Online, Polycom RealConnect for Office 365, and how they could work for your organisation, be sure to get in touch.