Microsoft Exchange Unified Messaging change presents dilemma

The new release of Exchange 2019 furthers Microsoft’s plan to get administrators on board with its push to the cloud, even if it means removing features that some consider critical to their enterprise.

Microsoft released the public preview of Exchange 2019 in July with enhancements in security, performance and administrative capabilities. However, the company also removed Microsoft Exchange Unified Messaging, which came as a surprise to many companies that rely on this feature.

With the end of Microsoft Exchange Unified Messaging, admins need to plan for the affected services and determine viable alternatives.

How Office 365 changed the UM conversation

Microsoft Exchange Unified Messaging (UM) gives users access to voicemail features from mobile devices or Outlook on the web and a thick client. UM and voice over IP (VoIP) integration provide voicemail playback on physical phones, access to call answering features and call history details. Companies rely heavily on UM to deliver VoIP functionality for end users working in Outlook.

Since the introduction of Office 365 and Exchange Online, the cloud service has matched most of the Exchange on-premises capabilities and features. Until recently, Microsoft supported UM with a non-Microsoft VoIP or voicemail offering that could integrate with Exchange Online.

This move to discontinue UM may steer some Exchange customers to Microsoft Teams or Skype for Business. For others, it will force them to look elsewhere to solve their voicemail predicament.

But, in July 2017, Microsoft said it will discontinue the integration capabilities with third-party VoIP and will limit integration options with some systems by dropping the support of session border controllers (SBCs). Customers who use this VoIP hardware, which ties the on-premises telephony network to Microsoft’s data centers, will not be able to use Cloud Voicemail with an on-premises private branch exchange (PBX) system from a third-party vendor.

Exchange administrators who planned to move to Office 365 or who had already upgraded to the latest version of Exchange Server will now have to reconsider what to do with their existing voicemail systems, as the end of SBC support approaches.

What are the alternatives to Microsoft Exchange Unified Messaging?

This move to discontinue UM may steer some Exchange customers to Microsoft Teams or Skype for Business. For others, it will force them to look elsewhere to solve their voicemail predicament.

Microsoft has extended the deadline to support SBC several times and, as of publication of this article, has set the date to Dec. 1, 2019, to give enterprises more time to make their voicemail integration plans.

Customers have three implementation and support options:

  • Migrating to Office 365 and its Cloud PBX offering. Enterprise E5 plan subscribers get public switched telephone network calling and other Cloud PBX licensing, which includes Azure voicemail and all the other voicemail features traditionally available as part of Exchange Unified Messaging.
  • Deploying Skype for Business Server on premises. This option requires an organization to deploy Skype for Business Server and configure it for hybrid mode with Exchange Online to deliver voicemail to Office 365.
  • Moving to a third-party voicemail product.

Because Exchange Server 2019 will not include Microsoft Exchange Unified Messaging, administrators staying on premises must decide if they want to use Exchange 2016 when Microsoft ends support for SBCs in 2019. Customers have the option to either set up Skype for Business Server 2019 or migrate voicemails to a third-party voicemail product.

Within the Microsoft ecosystem, admins have several choices to replace their voicemail systems. With Exchange UM, Outlook remains the portal to interact with voicemails. Those on Skype for Business or Microsoft Teams have additional options, such as using Azure voicemail with the Teams client or Skype for Business to interact with voicemails.

Outside of Microsoft, vendors such as Cisco, Avaya and ShoreTel offer voicemail alternatives, some of which require their own proprietary software to route voicemails into Outlook. The simplest route for organizations with a third-party vendor is to have voicemails forwarded as email attachments.