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Guitar Legend Riffs On Microsoft's Communications Server

Test partner Gibson Guitar now plans to deploy additional phones in its international offices and get unified communications into the hands of 600 employees globally.

Microsoft's Office Communications Server 2007 isn't due out until later this month, but already test partners like legendary electric guitar maker Gibson Guitar is singing its praises.

In a recent interview with InformationWeek, Gibson Guitar's director of IT Kathy Benner explained how as one of the early adopters unified communications -- an emerging technology that links business processes with presence information, e-mail, voice-mail, instant messaging, and videoconferencing to facilitate efficient communications -- her company is able to make faster decisions and save money.

As is the case for most businesses, the ability to exchange information in real-time is essential to Gibson. The maker of famous guitar models like Les Paul and Flying V has 2,000 employees working in offices across the United States, Europe, and Japan, and another 2,000 workers in its manufacturing plants in China.

With such a large staff in different time zones, Gibson struggled with having short windows of time when it could communicate with its distributors and employees overseas. "It's was challenging to get everyone together and make decisions. There were phones calls being made and e-mails sent with a 24-hour response time," said Benner.

Gibson tried solving the response time gap with voice over IP, WebEx's conferencing service, and various instant-messaging applications. But the company found unified communications to be a better fit, since the technology assigns presence information to contacts and shows who's available, online, on the phone, in meeting, or offline.

Before choosing Microsoft, Gibson evaluated unified communications offerings from Cisco, Nortel, and Avaya.

Cisco's offering, called Unified Communications System, combines IP telephony, conferencing, instant messaging, presence, collaboration, and multimedia in one user interface.

Microsoft entered the unified communications space this year with the release of beta versions of its Office Communications Server 2007 and Office Communicator 2007 client, an on-premises communication system that integrates with Active Directory, presence, and instant messaging. Commercial versions of the products will be released later this month.

Gibson is already a Microsoft shop, having deployed Microsoft Exchange Server 2003, Office Live Communications Server 2005, and Office Communicator 2005, so the transition to Microsoft's unified communications technology was a natural fit. In June, Gibson upgraded its Live Communications Server to Office Communications Server 2007 and Office Communicator 2005 to Office Communicator 2007, which gave employees the additional unified communications capabilities.

"We tested Cisco but soon realized that there would be a learning curve, since our users had to switch back and forth between applications. It wasn't as seamless of an integration as we would have liked. With Microsoft, users can just sign into Outlook and initiate a phone call, IM session, or a conference directly from one application," Benner said.

Gibson did have to overcome a hurdle on the telephony side when transitioning to unified communications. The company uses Private Branch Exchange (PBX) systems from several different vendors in the U.S. and overseas, and ran into a problem when integrating Office Communications Server 2007 with its Nortel PBX. Gibson had to implement a Dialogic gateway to facilitate the transfer of standard calls to VoIP. "We were able to get the in-house communications dialing between the two systems, but the problem was making outside calls to a public number," said Benner.

To enable VoIP, Gibson is using Polycom Tanjay IP phones, which are deployed in its corporate office. The phones are directly connected to the network switch. Gibson has plans to deploy additional phones in its international offices and get unified communications into the hands of 600 employees globally.

As a result, the company expects to spend 75% less on monthly international phone calls using VoIP instead of a landline. But more importantly, Gibson is already seeing many improvements in how employees share information and make decisions.

"In our industry, a missed phone call is a missed opportunity cost," said Benner. "We want to be a reliable provider and get a guitar into the hands of an artist last minute. Now we can."

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