CallTower Cloud-Hosted Lync: PSTN-enabled VoIP UC without the mess [review]

man in cloud

A few weeks back, I finally had a really good chance at stress testing our company's still-fresh hosted Lync solution from CallTower. Merging calls. Transferring calls. Starting ad-hoc conference calls with clients. All the while IM'ing my internal staff and fellow clients, and checking voicemails that were coming through as MP3s in my email along with associated text transcriptions.

If you think I was sitting at the comfort of my desk with the power of a desk phone at my side, you guessed wrong. I was nearly 900 miles away from our home base in Park Ridge, out in the beautiful city of Stamford, CT helping clean up a messy VoIP rollout for a customer who needed some dire help.

And much of what I was doing on Lync was over a throttled T-Mobile data tether to my Windows Phone 8.1 Lumia off my Thinkpad. At a lovely 150K up/down roughly, due to my own fault in eating through my monthly data too fast, I was stuck on a connection just about 3x the speed of dial up.

Pitiful, I agree, but as you'll see, I didn't need as much juice as I was expecting. Lync performed like a champ in what would have caused Skype or Google Hangouts to choke most likely.

My trials with Lync on the road never missed a beat. Customers had no idea I was on a soft phone, and they likewise had little clue I was calling them from a hotel room while enjoying some Boston Market for dinner. Even with a substandard data feed, Lync was able to dynamically adjust the codecs it was using to match the bandwidth available.

After now spending the last few months using cloud-hosted Lync with full PSTN dial tone and phone capabilities enabled, I'm pretty convinced of one thing. If Alexander Graham Bell were to invent the telephone today, it would probably look and feel a lot like Lync.

For all intents and purposes, most traditional VoIP phone services aren't meeting the heavy demands of today's newfound needs out of the box. Hence the reason why so many "fancy" expensive PBX systems need tack-ons and add-ons galore; leading to a frankenstein of a solution before all is said and done.

I'm also going to go out on a limb and say that desk phones, in my humble opinion, are a dying facet of old-style telephony. Yes, they may still be popular in office settings, and many will refuse to switch to a softphone driven future. But in just a few months on full blown "Enterprise" style cloud-hosted Lync, I'm convinced that a softphone not only drives better productivity and saves massive time, but allows for a smoother, more seamless experience for that magic word: Unified Communications.

I haven't done any scientific testing, but my informal feelings on the amount of time I used to lose daily trying to copy down and then re-type numbers for dialing into a desk phone or cell phone was criminal. And it's something you just don't realize until you are offered an alternative. Like most people, I used to think that softphones were a fad that only the trailblazers were using. Real people still used desk phones, was my misconception.

If your only time with Lync has been through the version that Microsoft bundles with Office 365, you've been deprived of the full blown experience -- as my company and myself have, until recently.

Little did I know, Lync is actually built from the ground up for advanced call handling and conferencing capabilities. But since my company FireLogic was using the version of Lync 95% of us are exposed to, the Office 365 edition (Lync Online), my perception of what the tool actually had under the hood was skewed for some time.

Office 365 Lync Without Dial Tone Is Crippled

Lync Online, which comes standard with most Office 365 plans, is a very capable and quality product. I spoke highly of the service slightly over a year ago in a formal review I penned. But my review was squarely looking at Lync Online as a mere alternative to GoToMeeting/Webex and like offerings, with the addition of IM/voice/video chat for internal needs. I didn't even touch on the missing piece of the puzzle: PSTN-enabled dial tone phone service, aka regular phone capability.

A few months back I wrote about how Microsoft could easily put a choke hold on the cloud VoIP market if it finally turned on dial tone within Lync Online. I know very well that Microsoft already offers a semblance of this functionality in its consumer Skype product, but due to the number of limitations within Skype, I publicly made the case for why Skype should be permanently killed off in place of Lync. For anyone that has used the full capabilities of each product, you can easily tell that Skype is a child's toy compared to the power that Lync brings to the table. There's no comparing the two, I'm sorry to say.

Lync has been rising in the charts in terms of adoption at a rather impressive pace. Lync as an IP PBX system ranks 3rd overall in the States in terms of number of seats being rolled out, and 11th overall worldwide. Recently, Gartner even gave Microsoft the lead in the Magic Quadrant space for UC in 2014, pulling ahead of powerhouse Cisco -- as shocking as that is to some.

That's right: Microsoft (through Lync) is finally considered a technology leader in the arena of UC and Enterprise VoIP. Hopefully that quells anyone's disbelief in Microsoft's stature and direction in this sector.

For a relatively young competitor as Lync still is, its reach so far in the digital PBX arena is moving in a decisive upward direction, especially here in the States. Interest among my own client base is at rather high levels I'll admit, with fresh Office 365 converts needing a phone system overhaul being extremely interested.

Lync is game changer in that it allows us to break down the silos around having to choose to do conferencing either "Webex style" or "conference bridge style". In the Lync world, a one-on-one phone call can transition into a multi-party call, dive into a desktop sharing conference, and back to a simple phone call, all with just a few clicks. It's truly how seamless UC was meant to work. (Image Source: TechNet Blogs)

As I touched on in my previous article, Microsoft has created a marketing mess in how it advertises Lync to the masses. Trust me on this one; as someone who has to take weekly phone calls from prospective Office 365 customers, many of which are looking to use Lync Online as their phone system, I'm all too often the bearer of bad news. "Sorry, but the Lync that comes with Office 365 can do everything but that one last thing: make and take phone calls."

I don't blame customers for being so confused about what Office 365 does and doesn't offer. This is Microsoft's mess, and partners like myself are constantly playing expectation-check with clients. For starters, it doesn't help that the official master comparison chart for Office 365 for Business plans officially alludes to auto-attendant and PBX-replacement capabilities in the E3/E4 plans.

But alas, like many things in Microsoft land, the fine print is where the actual truth lives:

"Lync Server 2013 Plus CAL requires a customer to purchase and deploy an on-premises Lync Server to enhance or replace traditional PBX systems."

Until recently, I've had to bear the bad news to customers yearning to ditch their old PBXs in favor of Lync. For all the marketing bliss they read online about how large companies were enjoying this thing called "unified communications" in a Lync world, Microsoft was subtly saying that as a small business, they were just not the right fit for such a solution. This in and of itself is a load of crock, and I was determined to find a better answer for my own company and my clients.

I thought to myself: how could this many smaller organizations be interested in cloud-hosted Lync as their VoIP PBX, with Microsoft just turning a blind eye? Hard to believe Microsoft isn't getting the upswell of interest through their call centers, and my company being some anomaly here in the suburban Chicago area.

I've wanted to get my company onto Lync since about late 2012, when I was convinced that Google Voice just wasn't meeting my growing company's needs. I started on a journey, scouring for any solutions out there that could provide a cloud-hosted Lync PBX that I could use for my own phone system.

After a few months of discussions with some of the providers solely offering this back then, I had nothing but a sour taste in my mouth. There was a lot of hot air in the hosted Lync market in late 2012. I'm tasked with comparing vendors for my clients all the time, and can easily wade through the BS pushed by sales reps. To say the least, between high prices and feature gotchas, I wasn't at all impressed.

As such, we settled on going with RingCentral for our cloud PBX system. By no means am I conferring that RingCentral hasn't served us well. It's a very powerful, cloud hosted PBX that we have in place at organizations both small and large. The amount of control that the service provides you, the customer, in terms of self-administration is far and beyond the best in the business as far as I know, just a step ahead of my other favorite, 8x8.

For organizations looking purely for rock-solid VoIP desk phone service, RingCentral or 8x8 are excellent bets. But for companies looking for the holy grail of VoIP connectivity -- the notion of unified communications we keep hearing about -- then RingCentral or 8x8 won't fill all of your needs. Traditional cloud-hosted VoIP, for lack of a better name silo, is too much of a disconnected entity between the ways that many are looking to tie in voice, IM, video, web conferencing, and presence in platforms like Outlook and SharePoint.

That's because the situation all too often for organizations is handled in a very last-decade mentality:

  • Product X will handle all of our PSTN (traditional phone service) needs.
  • Product Y will handle all of our IM/video/VoIP needs.
  • Product Z will handle all of our conferencing needs.

When the IT industry was still very much nothing more than a wild west of proprietary technologies, with providers unwilling to tie into other services and proprietary standards ruling the day, we had no choice but to dole out our needs in a pure best-of-breed viewpoint. If one service couldn't do multiple things well, then piling on disparate, disjointed services was as good as it got. And so we settled on this status quo.

But there was nothing unified about such a communications approach. Vendor X had awesome desk phone service but couldn't tie into vendor Y's IM client, and it was compounded by standalone vendor Z's expensive tacked on conferencing service. Add in the complicated, expensive maintenance and hardware that a lot of these solutions have required, and you've got an octopus that needs constant care to merely keep afloat.

And for some of the other options on the market for unified communications platforms, like the Ciscos and Avayas of the world, there are endless promises of features galore, but with a big stipulation: all the bells and whistles need dedicated PBX servers, appliances, SIP trunks, and other countless on-premise items that must be installed, licensed, supported, and replaced as they reach end of life.

This has been the status quo for many organizations, for they all believed that's just the way it was.

As a big proponent of the cloud-hosted PBX approach, as per what I am familiar with knowing what RingCentral and 8x8 can do, I knew it could be done with Lync in order to reach my own company's unified communications nirvana.

After years of hunting, I can finally say that CallTower Hosted Lync was exactly what I have been yearning for.

Is Lync as a Cloud PBX Possible Without A Server On-Prem?

Prior to running into CallTower, a number of high-end Lync consulting firms nearly convinced me that using Lync as your phone system was nearly a pipe dream without an on-prem appliance or server, SIP trunks and related telco complexity. All the hot air was justifying itself, in my mind, partially due to the troubles I previously had with finding quality hosted Lync providers.

The vendors pushing expensive on-prem plans for Lync used this very fact to one-up their own selling points. "Some have tried it, but it just can't be done reliably." That was the mantra I heard time and time again. When you hear the same thing over and over from different vendors, you sometimes take things at face value.

A slightly more simplified approach was pushed by a company called Sangoma, which builds what they in essence call "Lync server in a box." It's an all-inclusive appliance unit that combines all of the complexities when it comes to separate hardware components of a traditional Lync rollout, and packages it into a pretty rackable package which seemingly any IT person could mount and setup.

The drawback? A nearly $12K price tag, and from what I know, this does not even include the necessary Lync licensing to light your users up. While this may be a feasible approach for midsize organizations, no small business I know would ever jump on this server-lite path.

Prior to finding my sweet spot with CallTower, I came across a provider which offered almost everything I was looking for. It's a UK firm called Fuse Collaboration, and they were the first ones that were actually very approachable, knowledgeable, and dedicated to a fully cloud-hosted Lync Voice product.

However, after discussions with their team, I found out they had one big gaping hole in their offering: no ability to use pure Lync SIP desk phones over an ethernet line without a USB connection back to a PC. PoE-driven desk phones are near ubiquitous for any organization that requires traditional phones, so I just didn't like the sound of this nagging requirement of being plugged into a PC at all times.

I couldn't settle on a service that couldn't function on traditional desk phones that weren't tied to PCs over USB. Knowing that any Lync solution needs to go head to head against the likes of RingCentral and 8x8 in terms of simplicity, such a limitation would be a non-starter for many clients.

If I'm going to go with a provider to dogfood the service and present the solution to my own clients, I couldn't be hamstrung by such a feature gap. After some further prowling, I came across CallTower and their hosted Lync solution.

Did I need a full Lync server at my office? Nope. How about a Session Border Controller? Nada. SIP trunks? Zilch. To my surprise, I didn't even have to tweak any firewall or QoS settings on our office Meraki firewall in any way. Even the test Polycom CX600 desk phones we had shipped from CallTower plugged right into a PoE LAN connection and fired up, logged in, and were functional with dial tone within 15 mins. I was duly impressed on all ends.

I've been using the service on a combination of desk phones, Lync client on the computer, and Lync on the mobile phone side without any major hitches. And the service works equally well even on cruddy internet connections. Doing a string of customer calls from a Starbucks a few weeks back on my cheap $20 headset and Lync on a Thinkpad wasn't any worse than being on a $300 desk phone. In many ways, it was better.

Barring a few voice quality blips at the height of lunch hour at the coffee shop, the stability and reliability of the connection on calls is one of the best I have seen of any of the soft phone clients I have put my hands on. I'll go into more on that in a bit.

Long story short? Anyone who claims that a cloud-hosted Lync PBX isn't possible without on-prem hardware or servers is selling you a plausible can of snake oil. I've personally confirmed this can be done, and already have customers on the product as well. Given a quality provider such as CallTower, it's most definitely a reliable PBX and unified communications solution.

Who the Heck is CallTower? Can I Trust My Phone System With Them?

You're probably thinking what I was when I had first heard of CallTower. Who are these guys? How come I never heard of them in all the IT circles I converse with?

I have no hesitations in admitting that I actually came across CallTower on a thread from the SpiceWorks forums. In my recent hunt for a cloud-hosted Lync vendor that was outside of the few previous underwhelming providers I came across, I stumbled upon a thread where another IT pro was discussing his ongoing good experience with onboarding to CallTower's Hosted Lync solution.

And I generally take the opinions posted on SpiceWorks with fairly high regard. Unlike some other half-baked online IT forums, this one is full of IT pros such as myself, knee deep in handling customers or their own IT department needs. These guys don't namedrop just for the sake of it, so it was a genuine recommendation that carried weight.

One thing led to another, and I happened to stumble across the contact info for one of the VPs at CallTower. A day later, we were already on a call and all of my questions were being answered with considerable technical detail, and CallTower's solution overall was looking more attractive by the minute.

This was the Lync solution I had been looking for -- for almost two years. And to my surprise, CallTower was not some new entrant to the VoIP arena, either. The company started out in 2002, first offering a pure Cisco VoIP solution stack, but has since branched out into a fully featured hosted Lync PBX offering.

For those curious, yes, they can offer cloud-hosted Cisco PBX if you are interested. They can even do hybrid tie-in to existing on-premise installations of Cisco PBX products.

The Lync 2013 soft phone client makes ad-hoc conference calls feel natural; not disjointed like most other services are, where you're forced to offer up conference bridges just to host more than 3 people at once. With CT Lync, I can conference in more callers with the click of a button and keep the conversation flowing, saving time and hassle. (Image Source: TechNet Blogs)

Within a week, I had two trial CX600 Polycom Lync phones sent over to our office, and CallTower provided me with two fully functional demo accounts that had Lync dial tone enabled. I put the product through its paces and unlike most previous situations where the actual experience was considerably underwhelming, the expectations CallTower put into place were actually on par with what I saw.

I even went so far to use the demo account to make a majority of my customer-facing phone calls, both on my Lumia 925 and on my Lync 2013 PC client.

This is where I started to become convinced that compared to the Lync soft client, a traditional desk phone was looking more and more obsolete in my eyes. In fact, after playing with how powerful Lync on the desktop was (surrounding phone capabilities), even a rather full featured phone like the CX600 felt like a step backwards for me.

For those with the preconceived notion, like I previously held, that they could never imagine using a phone without an actual phone, I beg you to read on and hear me out. You don't know what you're missing.

Cloud-Hosted Lync With Dial Tone: There Is Life After Extensions

For years, we've always viewed business phone service in the lens of extensions. Jack is an extension. John another extension. The conference phone was an extension, as was any other phone at the organization.

In plain terms, if you had to call someone, you almost always viewed that other party as an extension to be dialed. Sure, in some cases, you were able to dial the DID (direct inward dial) of that person, but the premise was still the same: there was an innate lack of humanity in how phone service has always been structured.

Cloud-hosted PSTN Lync, such as what CallTower provides, turns this 20th century viewpoint of phone service on its head. People are people once again, not extensions or just numbers. Placing a call to John in accounting is just that -- double clicking on John in Lync, opting for a voice or video call, and connecting with your coworker in the same way you would if you walked over to his desk.

Communication between internal users is reverted back to a seamless, personal experience -- not one marred in extension hell. I'm not saying you are forced to get rid of the notion of extensions for external callers. But for internal needs, extensions are a thing of the past.

Need to bring another party into the call? Simple. No need to fumble for the guidebook to your desk phone in order to three way call with someone else; just conference in that extra person right within Lync and search for them by, you guessed it, their name. If they aren't at their desk, their cell phones will be rung over the Lync mobile app and/or a traditional cell call and you can continue on with your conversation between parties.

Just because Lync is a Microsoft product, don't mistake it for being a Windows-only solution. Android, iOS, Mac all have excellent first party apps available from Microsoft for download. You shouldn't have to pick and choose which staff will be able to use a UC platform merely due to their device preference. (Image Source: TechNet Blogs)

I can check on presence of my coworkers within Outlook or on my Lync client; if someone is on a call, they will automatically be denoted as such on my screen. Previously, I could do this with my Cisco desk phones, but the setup process was still one limited by the number of open lines that could be tagged with presence for other parties, and further limits were instilled by RingCentral.

In reality, only fancy receptionist phones with expensive "side carriages" that had bevies of extension presence indicators could mirror this functionality. Now, you can view detailed presence on hundreds or thousands of people in a mere glance.

And voicemails that I get over Lync come in over email, as MP3 files, which are also transcribed for me in pretty good manner so I can get an idea of who called, what they had to say, before even having to listen to the voicemail.

You can see how this notion of unified communications is finally a reality once you have dial tone enabled within Lync. Before, with RingCentral and Office 365, we were able to do almost everything in a single service, except for making/taking traditional phone calls. RingCentral has served us well in the phone arena, but this duality has kept our dreams of unified communications disjointed and irregular.

That's solely because Microsoft has still to deliver on turning on dial tone within Lync Online, the standard Lync option that comes with Office 365 plans.

Microsoft made some commotion in the Lync IT pro circles earlier this year, back when Lync Conference 2014 was held, by alluding in numerous avenues to a potential reality that full enterprise voice capability would be coming to Lync Online. But with each month that passes, those "in the know" are continuously pointing to solid rumblings that what will actually be launching won't be what most are hoping for.

Microsoft made it fairly clear at Lync Conference 2014 that it will be turning on limited facets of PSTN voice capability within Lync Online, but much of what exists in full blown Lync 2013, like desk phone support, persistent chat, and integrated voicemail will likely not be hitting Lync Online. So Microsoft is moreso shooting for a Lync Voice-lite style of service, which will slowly have features turned on as time goes on.

How long this drawn out catch-up game will take, no one knows for sure. I couldn't wait for Microsoft to get its act together over a multi year timeframe. Our company, and clients, have solid needs for UC right now.

Which is why I threw my arms up in waiting for Microsoft to get its act together, and decided to look towards the hosted Lync route through CallTower.

The service itself is rather straightforward in how CallTower approaches hosting the product. You are free to bring your own Exchange environment -- whether that be Office 365, another hosted Exchange service, or even your own internal server system. Their hosted Lync 2013 infrastructure merely sits alongside your existing Exchange service, providing user accounts for Lync that have the same login name as your users already use.

You are free to have them provide the licensing needed for Lync (which is rather complex; blame Microsoft for this) or you can bring your own licenses. The most common scenario here is Office 365 users that are licensed for the E3 or E4 levels of cloud licensing. Having E3 licenses will subsidize your Lync license costs considerably, while E4 licenses will provide the best discounts from CallTower for their hosted Lync service. This is because of the higher Lync Enterprise Voice CALs that these Office 365 plans entail.

Have Office 365 Small Business or Midsize Business? These plans don't have the level of Lync licensing needed, and just another reason why I hesitate recommending these levels to clients. If you are potentially looking at tying in a hosted Lync provider like CallTower, just move straight into the Enterprise plans right off the bat.

But I'm not interested in drowning readers in licensing hell. What kinds of neat things can you do with dial tone enabled Lync? Here's a sampling of some of the scenarios I have taken advantage of in the last few weeks:

  • Easy Multi-Party Conference Calling. Adding in a third caller to a two-way chat is old hat in the phone arena. Been there, done that. With Lync, you ramp up the number of callers with just a few clicks, adding in multiple new parties to an existing call, and removing them if necessary just as easily on screen. Replicating this same functionality on a traditional PBX entailed leveraging a complex conferencing service, that likewise forced everyone to call into a single line first. With Lync, I have full control over adding in other parties when I need them, and not placing the burden on the end users.
  • Web Conferences With Dial-In Phone Bridge and VoIP Users In the Same Room. Lync Online, in its current form, is a conferencing god -- as long as you bring your own conference bridge, and don't need VoIP users to be on the same line. Lync with dial tone enabled solves both of these problems. All of my meetings with clients now have VoIP-only and phone dial-in users on the same call, with no extra effort in bringing my own bridge line (I used to use my RingCentral conf bridge for this, which worked but was very rough around the edges).
  • Transfer Calls and Merge Calls Visually. For as powerful as my RingCentral Cisco phones were, I never quite became an expert in transferring calls to others, and merging was a whole other story. With Lync, it's dirt easy. All of these functions can be done with the Lync 2013 client right on my computer screen, and I don't have to fumble with complex phone menus on a desk phone. It's simple, intuitive, and it works well!
  • Transfer Calls Seamlessly Between Desk Phone, Cell Phone, and Lync Client. If you are someone that uses Lync between the soft client on the computer, a mobile phone, and on a desk phone, then you truly have the choice of moving calls between devices very easily. For example, I can start a call on the desk phone and move it back to the PC, and then from the PC over to the cell phone with ease. Doing this in a traditional PBX sense would have entailed a mixture of typing in manual cell numbers and other finicky procedures, all of which are a thing of the past.
  • Making Masked Phone Calls to Clients off My Cell Phone. As a Windows Phone user, I sadly have no access to an official RingCentral app, which means I have not been able to make masked client calls (using my company number as my caller ID off my cell) on the go. With Lync this has changed in my favor. I can use the Lync app on my Lumia 925 and call any customer in my device address book as if I was calling off my Lync soft client on my desktop PC. I've done numerous long client calls over Lync on Windows Phone while driving and it has worked rather well.

And keep in mind that the above list of features are merely those which are enabled with a dial tone in Lync, as we get from CallTower. All of the classic Lync functionality, the stuff that comes with Lync Online, is present and usable at the same time. IM, HD video chat, file sharing, OneNote sharing, etc etc -- it's all available and works as advertised on the CallTower hosted solution.

One of the big things I want to make clear as well, that some people may be curious about, is how natural the above phone functions feel on a soft phone like Lync. I refuse to put a desk phone on my desk again. And none of my staff are using desk phones anymore, aside from our core reception phone which I am on the fence about keeping or getting rid of. The part of me that wishes to get rid of that final desk phone happens to be slowly taking hold; we'll see where it ends up.

Since we switched our company from Google Apps to Office 365 late last year, I've been a big proponent of looking at UC solutions in a perspective of ecosystems. The traditional "best of breed" approach, where providers and solutions are stacked one on top of the other, without cohesion, is not an ecosystem-centric stance. While the company deploying all of these disparate systems may be winning the technology war, or the "feel good" checklist, the actual users tasked with using this myriad of services ends up suffering.

And when end users have to climb a mountain just to take advantage of new UC technology, adoption falls, and these solutions billed as nirvanas bomb flat on their face.

We see it in the field all the time. It's nothing new. In the drive to piece together an ideal nirvana of solutions, the end result is one drowning in a low end-user adoption because the experience at hand is sub-optimal. The natural ebb and flow of usability takes a backseat to penny pinching or using competing systems for one-off purposes. The VoIP desk phone provider ends up being different than the conferencing vendor which is also different from the internal IM/video chat client.

And this is exactly where a solution like CallTower Lync hits this notion home. Workers don't have to learn multiple systems and jump hoops between vendor interfaces. You're in the same tool for making calls, sending IMs, launching video chats, hosting conference calls, and getting your voicemails.

Next to the Office suite, Lync could very well become one of your most used daily staples if you were to replace the PBX wholesale in exchange for a Lync-driven solution. It's extremely powerful when implemented right, and I'm seeing this first hand at our company.

When Comparing Costs, You Must View Cloud Lync PBX In The Proper Lens

Since many decision makers are still looking at phone service as a disconnected, standalone entity, they aren't accurately portraying their apples-to-apples cost comparisons as a result. It's that Vendor X, Vendor Y, Vendor Z dilemma that I alluded to above, with gotchas across line items that makes objective comparison tough, if not impossible.

If you're contrasting the costs of going with a hosted Lync provider like CallTower against the likes of a RingCentral or 8x8, you need to keep in mind two important aspects: what services Lync can fully replace, and what you won't need to be purchasing/installing if going with a soft-client approach to Lync enabled voice.

Take for example what an average, traditional office may do for their various needs:

Phone Service: They could be looking to keep things insourced, and opt for an on-prem PBX. Or a pure cloud-hosted service like RingCentral or 8x8, which eliminates the servers and PRIs, but either approach requires desk phones in most cases, as the soft phone clients from these services isn't as mature as what I find in Lync.

IM/voice/video chat: Some phone services come with a limited solution in this arena, or companies may opt to buy something commercial for this aspect. Others may do as we did, and run RingCentral side by side with Lync or Google Chat for these intra-company communication needs. It works, but furthers the vendor-on-vendor dilemma of stacked services.

Web Conferencing / Conference Bridge Lines: Everyone knows that the likes of GoToMeeting and Webex are not cheap. If you are looking to equip a subset of your staff, or worse, your entire staff, you'll be ponying up large extra sums each month for this ala carte components that is becoming ever more important for companies, especially with the rapid rise of telecommuting.

It's pretty evident that comparing RingCentral vs hosted Lync is not an apples to apples comparison. Nor is hosted Lync vs GoToMeeting. Because Lync, in a CallTower scenario, ideally replaces all of these separate services altogether, you need to be judging your cost savings on a broader spectrum.

Lync takes the place of the PBX or cloud-VoIP provider. It also renders your web conferencing service like GoToMeeting null and void. If you had traditional infrastructure supporting your phone system, like a PRI or SIP trunks, you can wave those goodbye as well. And it goes without saying that you can ditch any standalone IM platforms -- Skype, Google Chat, Yahoo Messenger, Facetime, etc.

It's not surprising that Microsoft has taken the lead from Cisco in Gartner's Magic Quadrant for UC in 2014. From solid desk phone connectivity that ties back into strong desktop/mobile apps, the seamless experience afforded is in my opinion leagues ahead of the disjointed experiences being pushed by Cisco, Avaya, and others. (Image Source: CallTower)

When taking into account all of the above unnecessary third party services that can be trimmed away, the overall cost savings by moving to a Lync system can be very drastic and real. Especially if your company is going to be ditching the desk phone approach and use pure Lync client for phone needs; for large organizations that would have otherwise dumped $100-200 per desk phone otherwise, this is another massive capital expenditure avoided.

So the million dollar question is: how much does CallTower Lync cost our company? While I won't pin an exact number on it, since we got some special promos when we signed up, I will say that you can expect it to run around $30 USD per month per user, give or take some.

Each situation is different and pricing is affected by the number of users you have, whether each person needs full Enterprise voice capabilities, and also whether you have licensing for Lync Voice through Office 365 E3/E4 service levels. If we were able to bring E4 licenses from Office 365, we could have further trimmed our monthly bill down even further.

If you're taking on a prospective move to Lync and viewing your situation in the proper holistic sense, as I outlined above, then you'll be much more aware of the savings as opposed to someone who may not be realizing all of the fringe costs they are trimming off.

How Does Lync Compare to Skype and Google Hangouts in VoIP Capability?

I mentioned earlier that Lync as a full blown UC solution, especially in the dial tone arena, is a few steps ahead of what Google Hangouts and Skype offer. I am pinning Lync against these other two powerhouses since they are the faces of soft phone VoIP today for all intents and purposes, from what I hear and see being talked about. So it's only fair to peg them in a comparison to Lync.

And indeed, I see Skype and Hangouts being used in business scenarios all the time. Usually relegated to pure video/IM web conferencing, but I do have a few clients who swear by Skype for cheap dial tone service, for example. It's quite clunky as a phone solution, they admit, but the cheap price is worth the hurdles to many people I guess.

I admit that I personally used to use Skype for some phone calls, like when I wanted to do a long 800# call on my headset, and the service works pretty well. The intentions behind what Skype tries to offer isn't my issue with the product -- it's the lackluster execution, arbitrary limits, and lack of inbound number porting, to name a few.

Hangouts is a service that is undergoing a personal identity crisis more than anything right now. After Google announced it would be killing off standalone Google Voice a year back, and rolling those features slowly into Hangouts, the Google community has been a bit flustered with how this "transition period" is being handled.

And the stupid requirement Google had, which I railed them on for a while, that forced everyone who wanted to use Hangouts to have a Google+ account has finally been dropped. I wonder why it took so long. Another great improvement has been the bundling of Hangouts into the core Google Apps suite, and in turn, getting SLA backing for the first time in its history.

As of this writing, 9-28-2014, here's an objective comparison of Lync (via CallTower), Skype, and Google Hangouts:

Without a doubt, CallTower Lync takes the cake in call handling capabilities. Skype offers some basic call handling functions, but in Lync you can natively (and easily) transfer, merge, forward, and take advantage of an auto attendant. While Google Voice billed itself as a stripped down phone system, in reality, its call handling functions are limited to forwarding only.

When it comes to functional user limits on things like screen sharing and conference calls, Lync blows away the competitors pretty easily. Google Hangouts recently increased its voice, video, and screen sharing limits to 15 people but this is no match for the 100 users that can sit together on a Lync session. Might I add, this mix of 100 can be any combination of Lync VoIP or dial in callers.

Desk phone support in CallTower Lync again beats the competition, especially if you go with the CX600 from Polycom which is not only one of the best Lync phones out there, but a very solid VoIP desk set overall. It doesn't feel overly cheap like Polycom's popular IP-300 series SIP units which surprised me.

Don't get me started on Skype's handset selection. Skype used to offer an awesome analog phone adapter called the FREETALK Connect Me box, but for some odd-headed reason, discontinued selling this device. You used to be able to use any standard analog cordless phone system with Skype via this adapter, but not anymore. Now you're left choosing between one cheap, substandard Skype-certified handset or another. Skype clearly either doesn't want desk phone users on its service anymore, or just wants to make higher margins on first party devices it sells. Pick your poison.

I did not list it specifically on the above chart, but it should be noted that CallTower Lync has 24/7 USA based phone support for its product. Since Hangouts was rolled into Google Apps recently, it also receives 24/7 support but Google uses questionable outsourced support centers that have given me troubles in the past. Skype, as a freemium product at heart, doesn't have any phone support, just bona fide (and still pretty good) user support forums online.

The final area I want to touch on is the aspect of HIPAA compliance, something that got an Oklahoma, USA physician in trouble recently when caught using Skype to do telemedicine with patients. To make a long story short, Skype and Google Hangouts (and Facetime, for that matter) are absolutely NOT HIPAA compliant solutions for usage in healthcare situations. Due to the stringent encryption, auditing controls, and infrastructure security implemented into Lync, it happens to be one of the sole products I know of that meet HIPAA compliance regulations.

You can read at length what I had to say about using Skype and the like in HIPAA situations on a previous article last year.

The Areas Where Hosted Lync Still Suffers

While CallTower Lync is all around a very solid solution, nothing is perfect. After spending the last few months on the system, using it for my day to day client and internal needs, I've been able to pin down some of the aspects where Lync still has some rough edges.

One of the biggest glaring, gaping holes in Lync has to be a complete lack of faxing support. There is absolutely nothing in Lync that can either send or receive faxes, and it's unfortunate, because coming from RingCentral, I was quite used to having a very solid virtual faxing experience that did the job.

I know faxing is becoming an antiquated need, but we do use it a few times a month. Most notably, when testing other customer fax machines at offices or sending in signed paperwork to a few select vendors. We still have our RingCentral account, so we are utilizing faxing through there, but it would be great for CallTower to supplant this or Microsoft to just build something into Lync natively, which is the ideal option.

Another nagging bug that we didn't see on our RingCentral system is a very nuanced one that only arises if you are trying to establish a three way call, where the third caller being conferenced in is an 800 support line. If that support line uses a phone tree for initial menu navigation, you will not be able to pass commands to the support line (or third caller) phone menu.

I had too many three way calls with clients and support lines go awry and found out that CallTower support did indeed let me know this was a Lync system bug that has no immediate fix. The simple workaround is to establish the support line as the first caller and then dial in the client as the third caller, or place the initial call on hand and place a separate call, and use Lync to merge the calls together. Simple enough, but something we had to find out the hard way.

While we've been told it's coming, CallTower does not yet offer automated same sign on (SSO) capability for their hosted Lync product. This means that while your users will have the same email address as Office 365 (or other Exchange system), their ability to use the same password for Lync service is dependent on them changing their passwords to match. It works well enough, and it doesn't bother us as much since we are smaller, but with Microsoft offering DirSync for on-prem AD and Office 365 for a while now, this is a need that is only growing in popularity.

I'm also a bit perplexed as to how Lync mobile behaves in some situations on my Windows Phone 8.1 device. Sometimes, I get notifications for new IMs that I can jump straight into without issue. But sometimes, I tap on the notification from the Lync message, and the app just load and loads incessantly until I have to back out and go back into my Conversations area manually. Similar oddities hit phone calls that come in while my device is screen locked. I don't think these are CallTower problems, but more so snags that the Lync team needs to iron out fully.

I've heard that Lync 2015 is likely around the corner, and here's hoping these oddities get full attention before the next iteration launches. CallTower claims to be already testing initial versions of the product, which also eases my fears of them keeping customers on old versions of Lync for too long. Software age creep is not looking to be an issue at CallTower, unlike what I see at a lot of Hosted Exchange providers (names of which I will withhold).

Lync for Mac 2011 exists, and yes, it gets the job done for the most part. But compared to Lync 2013 for the PC, the app is far too buggy, crashes too often, and is plagued by too much "yesteryear syndrome" in terms of features. Rest assured, though, as Microsoft is on the brink of releasing a new Office for Mac edition any week now. (Image Source: TechNet Blogs)

Since I am coming from RingCentral, which is super customer-friendly when it comes to the level of control offered in self administration, this is one glaring area I find to be lacking in CallTower's solution. Don't get me wrong -- any change needed can be made with a short phone call to their 100% USA based support team, with wait times being in the mere minutes range even during the middle of the day.

I just wish CT would offer customers more fine-toothed web-based control over auto attendant rules, hold music, greetings, and other items which RingCentral has front and center on their online portal. Not a deal killer, but a "nice to have" for an infrastructure geek like myself.

And I alluded to it above, but I want to make it very clear that Lync 2011 for Mac is far from being as polished as the Lync 2013 client for the PC. One of our internal staff members is a diehard Mac user, and I hear from him constantly the troubles he runs into while on conferences, trying to screen share, and using other simple functions. It's not a secret that a new Office for Mac is coming out this year, but it can't come soon enough for our Mac friends.

CallTower Lync Succeeds Where Other UC Platforms Have Failed

The very definition of unified communications is bringing together a cohesive, seamless experience for all aspects of a user's communication needs. Whether it be telephony, conferencing, voicemail, presence, IM -- these necessities should feel like mere extensions of eachother, not distinct functions siloed in different barns. Too many solutions billing themselves as "UC" meet the criteria at the lowest common denominations possible.

CallTower's Hosted Lync product, in contrast, has truly been a breath of fresh air. Expectations established have held up in real world testing. And as a company on Office 365, already used to what Lync can do, bringing in the PSTN dial tone unleashed a whole other realm of possibilities that wasn't realized in pure Lync Online.

Is Lync a virtual PBX and UC solution for every single company replacing their aging on-prem PBX? Absolutely not. There has to be both an innate need for softphone driven communication, along with the realities of being able to achieve the right mix of licensing that Lync requires. Organizations looking for a traditional desk phone pure-play via a virtual cloud PBX provider, with no intentions in utilizing Lync, are better off looking at RC or 8x8 or CallTower's Hosted Cisco solution.

But if you've got a workforce already on Office 365 or Exchange, and are looking to tie in the rich conferencing capabilities of Lync in a phone system solution, CallTower Lync is a natural fit. Compared to what it would cost to piecemeal out the voice and PBX functions, bringing it under the same roof has proven to be a great cost saver for us at FireLogic.

A few other clients who decided to jump on board CT's Lync offering have been overwhelmingly positive in their feedback to us, so I know we aren't the only ones having positive experiences with the firm.

If there's one thing I do wish, it's that CallTower had this solution to market years ago. I know a lot of clients that have invested hefty sums into first-party PBXes and internal Lync servers due to the mere lack of any great hosted Lync PBX provider being available.

For those companies stuck using Skype or Hangouts for conferencing or virtual soft phone PSTN, they have no idea what they're missing.

Image Credit: ND Johnston/Shutterstock

Derrick WlodarzDerrick Wlodarz is an IT Specialist who owns Park Ridge, IL (USA) based technology consulting & service company FireLogic, with over eight+ years of IT experience in the private and public sectors. He holds numerous technical credentials from Microsoft, Google, and CompTIA and specializes in consulting customers on growing hot technologies such as Office 365, Google Apps, cloud-hosted VoIP, among others. Derrick is an active member of CompTIA's Subject Matter Expert Technical Advisory Council that shapes the future of CompTIA exams across the world. You can reach him at derrick at wlodarz dot net.

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