Why Microsoft Exchange Unified Messaging Changes Are a Big Deal

eWEEK DATA POINTS: Microsoft has made two announcements concerning key changes coming to Microsoft Exchange Unified Messaging functionality – and many organizations will be affected.

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Unified Messaging (UM) has been a key business application since it was first introduced, ensuring that messages do not fall into a black hole, unacknowledged and ignored. By centralizing voice messages, fax and emails into a single interface, UM increases efficiency and team collaboration.

Microsoft’s Voicemail/Unified Messaging architecture is central to many Unified Communications (UC) landscapes, but Microsoft has announced two major changes that will affect many organizations unless action is taken. In December 2019, Microsoft discontinued support of Session Border Controllers (SBC) to connect third-party on-premises PBX systems to Exchange Online UM. This forced many Microsoft customers to seek an alternative UM solution for Office 365 in order to connect to their existing on-premises PBX. Additionally, Microsoft’s next version, Exchange Server 2019, will omit UM functionality entirely.

In this eWEEK Data Points article, Tom Minifie, General Manager of XMedius, walks us through these changes, highlights scenarios where companies will be affected, and provides tips to minimize disruption to employees.

Data Point No. 1: The SBC change will affect a lot of businesses. Here’s how to know if an organization is impacted:

In many systems, an SBC acts as a bridge between an on-premises PBX and Office 365. If that bridge is removed, the system will lose key voicemail functionality. The PBX will take calls but won’t be able to transfer to voicemail when calls go unanswered.

If an organization’s telephony system is built around a Cisco, Avaya, NEC, Mitel or another on-premises PBX and is also using Exchange Online UM, an alternative UM solution will need to be found.

Data Point No. 2: Preparing for the end of SBC support will require a hard decision. Here are the options:

Preserving an organization’s UM in this situation will cost money and require modifications to existing infrastructures. Microsoft has recommended three possible solutions:

  1. Migrating to the cloud by switching the entire solution to Office 365, including Microsoft Phone System, Cloud Voicemail and Cloud Automated Attendant.
  2. Replacing the PBX with an on-premises Skype for Business server, with Cloud Voicemail.
  3. Adding a third-party Voicemail/UM solution that integrates to the existing phone system and Office 365

Of these, the third option (third-party voicemail) is the least disruptive and most cost-effective, because it allows a business to use the existing telephony infrastructure that is already in place. In addition, many organizations are either unable or unready to migrate their full communications system into the cloud.

Data Point No. 3: Exchange Server 2019 removes UM functionality completely. Not as pressing, but still very important. Here’s how to know who’s affected:

If staying with Exchange 2016, UM functionality will continue to work, but the software will reach end of mainstream support by Microsoft in October 2020.

Organizations will be impacted by this change if they useExchange Unified Messaging via an Exchange Server on-premises deployment. Once a company upgrades to 2019, UM functionality will be lost.

Data Point No. 4: Knowing that UM functionality will be removed in the future, a change in strategy is needed now. Here are the choices:

To avoid losing UM functionality when upgrading to Exchange Server 2019, use one of these three solutions

  1. Replace the PBX with Skype for Business Server 2019 and Cloud Voicemail
  2. Replace the PBX with Office 365 Microsoft Phone System and Cloud Voicemail
  3. Add a third-party Unified Messaging provider

The first two options will allow an organization to migrate away from Exchange Unified Messaging and start using Cloud Voicemail. Implementing a third-party UM solution as part of the UC landscape will allow organizations to continue to leverage their PBX while still maintaining support for UM functionality through their on-premises Exchange Server.

Ultimately, it is up to each organization to determine which technologies will be part of their go-forward UC strategy, and whether to keep these solutions on-premises, move them to the cloud, or a little of both using a hybrid strategy.

Chris Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger is Editor-in-Chief of eWEEK and responsible for all the publication's coverage. In his 13 years and more than 4,000 articles at eWEEK, he has distinguished himself in reporting...