Thursday, September 13, 2012

My journey to unified communications over 13 years

I have not commuted to a corporate office for about 13 years. This isn't because I've been self employed, unemployed, or working as a consultant or sales traveling to my customers full time. This is purely enabled because of the technology I've had available to me and the willingness of my employers (yes multiple companies) to not care where I live. During those 13 years I moved 7 times... sometimes to another state.

I started this whole notion while I was a network manager at a University. The technology at the time was largely enabled by modem. The first step was hooking up a modem to one of our Windows NT servers and then I was able to manage the servers and network from anywhere I had a phone line. For a while it was largely an IT only thing, but I was the one that mostly used it. This meant I could totally work from home some days, but unfortunately with the type of work I did, which was just about everything IT related, I needed to be at the users computer sometimes.

Fast forward a couple of years and I was offered a job I couldn't refuse from Nortel. I lived in Lakewood, CO at the time and the manager that hired me lived in Hartford, CT. I asked him during the interview about location and working arrangements and his expectations. His reply in 1999 was a dream come true... "As long as you have a phone line and an airport nearby, I don't care where you live". Think about that statement even today. That kind of attitude toward hiring employees is unheard of.

One of the things that annoyed me fairly quickly with this working arrangement is that I had no idea when my manager was available... and working for Nortel he spent most of his days on conference calls either finding new jobs or working through issues on current jobs. I came up with the idea to use AOL Instant Messenger to be able to ping him with questions or find out when he could talk. I knew when he was in the office or away from his desk. When we were on conference calls we could exchange critical information between each other out-of band (though IM) and become much more effective and professional. Little did I know... this idea would be so prevalent 10 years later with Unified Communications.

Even though I worked out of my home, I traveled to do work for Nortel because a lot of it still was hardware and wires.

Quickly after my manager recognized the benefits of asynchronous communications, the whole Professional Services organization under him was required to get AOL Instant Messenger accounts so they could communicate the same way. Yes they still used phones, pagers, email, and all the other tech available at the time. But this was the best way to have conversations with the guy at the top. When he had a technical question he would just go down his AOL friends list until he found an engineer with the skillset to answer it.

Fast forward a few years and I switched over to ISDN with a real Nortel PBX phone in my home office and when the phone wasn't being used I had 128k to burn! My communications were now unified... but only from a layer 1 perspective. Data and voice traveled down the same pipe... but they didn't know about each other.

In the middle of my years working for Nortel I moved to Duncan, OK (don't worry it didn't last long) But part of this move was getting access to DSL. I started to use VPN for access to Nortel, but Voice over IP was really not capable of going across the Internet at the time. So I was still stuck using the PSTN to make and receive calls. Nortel used technology from MCI at the time called VNET which allowed me to receive calls and make calls as if I was in a Nortel corporate office. VNET Worked pretty well at the time and I was able to move from Colorado to Oklahoma and continue working for the same employer and manager. I still had to travel to do work for Nortel and cell phones largely replaced pagers while we were away from our home office.

After about a year and a half I moved back to Colorado and switched to Cable modem, but for the most part the way I communicated when I worked didn't really change for about a year.

In the early 2000s (I don't remember when for sure). I moved into an apartment with a wireless ISP provided. Nortel at the time started to play around with a new technology called SIP. Up until this point when I worked with VoIP it usually involved H.323. The product for the enterprise at the time was called Succession MX. The enterprise product started out as a carrier IMS platform, but was quickly recognized to be something that corporations might pay for. I got up on the dog food trial inside Nortel and became instantly hooked with SIP. Instant Message, Presence, and Voice were built into the product and I realized immediately this was the future of communications. I showed it to my manager (which was still the same one from 1999) and he felt the same way. One of the key pieces of technology that made this solution viable was a packet loss concealment algorithm called Global IP Sound (eventually this was worked into most Nortel endpoints). Even though I frequently would lose packets on the wireless ISP I could hold conversations with others and rarely would notice the problem.

I managed to get some of the other engineers on the dog food trial, but could get them all so we unfortunately still did most of our communications through AOL instant messenger, email, cell phones, and the PSTN.

When the product finally shipped it became known as MCS 5100 and the Nortel IT dept deployed it for internal employees as well. My manager moved everyone over to it recognizing the benefit of having everyone on an internal system rather than using a 3rd party AOL to conduct company business. This is when I recognized that a great technology doesn't mean much until you have others you work with using the same technology.

Although Nortel did know how to build great technology, Nortel did not know how to market new ideas. The whole notion of Unified Communications was a foreign concept to every single business. When I was working on another product, the customer would always be amazed that I could start VPN and a single piece of software and start communicating as if I was in the office. When I told the sales people about the possible lead most of them had no idea what product I was talking about. When I would show the sales person the technology they were amazed... but rarely did I see any sales from these leads.

Although there were a handful of customer successes. The product never hit critical mass and if it was purchased it was mostly for its ability to handle large dial-in conferences (called MeetMe Conferencing) and the rest of the product was not understood or forgotten about.

Microsoft around the same time was working with Live Communications Server 2003 and 2005 and when the Innovative Communications Alliance was created in 2006 between Nortel and Microsoft I knew this was where I needed to be. I joined when I could find an opening and the first Microsoft UC product I was exposed to was Office Communications Server 2007 (R1). It wasn't hard for me to pick up this new product because the concepts were very similar to MCS 5100.

My world was still divided because for day to day communications I used MCS 5100, but when I did any deployments it was around Microsoft Unified Communications integrating with a Nortel PBX. This was the now defunct RCC with dual forking solution that was rarely understood how to deploy and feared by all. To this day, I know only three people in the world counting myself that actually fully understood how this worked. When setup correctly it really was the best of both worlds. But if it broke it was a complete nightmare to troubleshoot.

I did the RCC with Dual Forking deployments for a couple years and moved over to Avaya when they acquired Nortel Enterprise Solutions. I lasted three months before Avaya decided they didn't want any part of the Innovative Communications Alliance and laid off every Microsoft related employee I knew of. The vast majority of those people laid off from the Innovative Communications Alliance went to go work for competitors, mostly Microsoft Partners. These were engineers that had on average 10 years experience working with communications technologies and some of them were 20-30+ years working for Nortel. If I was the person at Avaya that made that call...looking back, I'd probably have regretted that decision.

So in 2009, I was kicked out the door at Avaya and I moved over to a Microsoft Gold Partner called Time2Market and started to deploy OCS and Lync to integrate with or replace PBXs. My first job was to replace 12 Avaya PBXs with OCS 2007 R2. Replace... not integrate.

Telecommuting wise I was now fully on Microsoft OCS 2007 R2 with Lync 2010 right around the corner. No more VPN. No more divided between a Nortel and Microsoft world. I expected I would travel at least 50% of the time for deployments and this was true for OCS 2007 R2, but as soon as Microsoft Lync 2010 became available, I rarely travel anymore. Most customers are content to work with me remotely. They don't have to baby-sit me... they don't have to pay for my travel expenses...when Federation is setup, working on a problem with them is a click away.

Without Federation and Remote User Access (with no VPN), you really don't have Unified Communications. You shouldn't have to be tied to a desk, or jump through hoops to get to where you can communicate. Unified Communications is about communicating with who you want, when you want, where you want, and how you want. I had all this in various different forms over the years... but they were not all in one single product and easy to use. Even my wife who hates technology uses Lync to communicate with me while I'm working (from her iPhone, with a mobile client).

I'm just waiting for the rest of the world to catch up to figure out they can move bits around instead of atoms.


  1. HI Jonathan,

    Interesting post. Your post on the Lync MCM program was great. Had a question on the note taking section of your Lync MCM post.

    You mentioned practicing taking notes with OneNote and adding audio because once the class starts there is no time to figure any of this out.

    I heard that laptops are provided to "external candidates"....does the machine have onenote 2010 installed or did you end up using your personal machine for note taking.

    1. I used my own laptop. I would assume if they provide a laptop for you that it will have OneNote on it because that is how they deliver the slide decks.

      Sorry I couldn't be more help