Microsoft further enhances Skype for Business, making it a powerful productivity tool for businesses

Microsoft has been busy this week further improving its already popular collaboration and productivity tool Skype for Business.

First, the company announced that it is rolling out a free, group video-calling feature for Android, iOS and Windows 10 Mobile (the successor to Windows Phone) in the next few weeks. This new feature allows companies to hold virtual meetings between colleagues, customers and partners at no cost, creating a powerful, but simple, productivity tool for all businesses, and particularly SMEs.

Following that news, Microsoft also announced the acquisition of technology assets underlying the UC Commander product suite from Event Zero, a provider of management software for Skype for Business Online. With the purchase Microsoft is set to expand and improve the built-in management tools for Skype for Business. It’s a further indication of Microsoft’s commitment to delivering a complete, enterprise-grade communications solution at global scale with Office 365.

Customers of Microsoft’s calling and conferencing services can use the Office 365 administration centre to acquire and assign phone numbers to their users in minutes, view reports of audio and video conferencing usage, and quickly access aggregated call quality information using the Call Quality Dashboard.

The company also plans to add strong diagnostics and troubleshooting capabilities with even more extensive reporting and analytics for online audio, video conferencing and media streams – all within a unified management and administration system.

These improvements come on top of Skype for Business’ already impressive feature set. Skype for Business is pre-integrated into Office apps and can be used on PCs, tablets and smartphones, with users able to choose how they want to communicate – through text chat, voice call or video call.

Skype for Business also integrates with the Microsoft Outlook address book, which makes it quick and easy to contact colleagues for a chat, voice call or video conference. Users can also schedule online meetings for up to 250 participants using Outlook, even if those contacts don’t have Skype for Business themselves.

Presence capabilities mean that you can instantly see whether contacts are available or away from their desk, while collaboration capabilities include the ability to send and share files and documents simply by dragging and dropping, share PowerPoint presentations and even the ability to ‘whiteboard’ your entire desktop during online conversations. At the same time, impromptu video conferences can be initiated at the click of a button from any device.

For business of less than 20 employees, the free Skype application is free to use, and only requires credit for calling mobile and landline numbers. Skype for Business, meanwhile, lets you add up to 250 people to online meetings, provides enterprise-grade security, allows you to manage employee accounts, and is integrated into Office apps. It costs from $2 per month per user, making Skype and Skype for Business an extremely cheap, yet powerful, tool for boosting productivity and collaboration right across your team.

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The IT Year in Review 2015

Security was back at the top of the agenda in 2015 with numerous high-profile security breaches and hacks that resulted in tens of thousands of customers’ details been accessed. Talk Talk, Experian, Carphone Warehouse, VTech, to name just a few, were left apologising to customers and trying to minimise the reputational damage caused as they became the target of malicious hacks.

As more and more data flows through the networks, security breaches such as these are only likely to become more commonplace, meaning that organisations are placing increasing emphasis on security, regardless of whether data is stored on-premise or in the cloud.

Of course, the continued rise of the cloud – with businesses of all sizes embracing the cost, flexibility, agility and scalability benefits of cloud capabilities – is another driver for the increased focus on security.

While the cloud has a perceived ‘image problem’ in terms of security, the reality is that regardless of location – on-premise or in the cloud – sensitive information will always be a target for hackers. So a renewed focus on security aspects, such as policies, hybrid options, managed access, and so on, will continue into 2016.

The rise of the cloud has also been driven by the widespread adoption of mobility and unified communications. Indeed, 2015 was the year that UC, arguably, came of age – when IT giants such as Microsoft and Cisco throw their hat into the ring, then it’s a sign that UC is here to stay.

Microsoft, for example, rebranded its Micrsoft Lync collaboration tool ‘Skype for Business’, rolling the collaboration tool out to all Office 365 users. The company also launched the latest version of its popular productivity suite Microsoft Office 2016, with a strong emphasis on features and tools that promote collaborative working practices. While, in November it announced that it would be offering commercial cloud services, such as Microsoft Azure and Office 365, from local UK-based data centres by the end of 2016.

Cisco, meanwhile, has just launched Cisco Spark, a UC app that the company claims “reinvents the collaboration experience’. The launch is notable as Cisco has traditionally sold on-premise hardware to customers, so its switch to a cloud-based strategy is a strong indicator of the direction in which the company sees IT going.

The growth of the personal mobile device also continued unabated through 2015, with most organisations giving up the fight against the BYOD model (bring your own device). Quite simply, employees want to use their own devices at work, regardless of the IT policies in place, so IT decision makers have had no choice but to embrace BYOD. BYOD offers multiple collaboration and productivity benefits, but it also brings security challenges. With the rise of wearable technology devices, the focus on BYOD and security is only set to become stronger in 2016.

A further trend seen in 2015 was a renewed focus on business continuity and disaster recovery capabilities. With security breaches hitting the headlines almost weekly, and the rising expectations of customers and partners, who expect businesses to be ‘always on’, organisations of all sizes are realising that any downtime, or break in service provision, not only hits the bottom line, but can also lead to catastrophic reputational damage, and a loss of customer trust. Cloud service providers already realise the importance of business continuity, as their survival depends on it, and they are increasingly providing resilient, secure services for their customers.

In general, the need for organisations to embrace mobility has driven connectivity technology for devices through 2015, namely, voice over WiFi applications such as Skype for Business. But also operators’ versions – called over-the-top (OTT) apps, which allow users to make calls and send texts over WiFi where cellular coverage is poor – are becoming the norm. Increasingly, customers expect mobile coverage wherever they are, and do not care which connectivity technology is being used.

Other trends include the growing profile of the Internet of Things, big data analytics, and software-defined networking. If 2015 was an exciting year in IT, then we can’t wait to see what 2016 will bring.


On premise vs. Cloud security

According to a BT survey of IT decision makers performed earlier this year, nearly half (49 per cent) said that they were ‘very or extremely anxious’ about the security challenges around cloud services – up 10 per cent from a similar survey conducted in 2012. Security was cited as the main concern for over three-quarters (76 per cent) of respondents, with 41 per cent believing that all cloud-based services are ‘inherently insecure’.

Cloud services certainly need to work on their security image, because none of the evidence suggests that cloud-based security is any weaker than on-premise security solutions and infrastructure, and indeed may even hold security benefits. So how secure are cloud-based solutions?

While there is nothing to suggest that cloud security is weaker than on-premise security, probably the main reason for concern around security in the cloud is the fact that companies perceive a ‘loss of control’ of their own data.

In fact, any IT solution can be hacked or breached. For example, both on-premise and cloud-based security are particularly vulnerable to breaches associated with human error, or with malicious intent from specific individuals, such as former employees. The trick is to ensure that your business has strict security and data access policies and guidelines in place, regardless of the location of the data. However, the cloud holds a certain advantage in this case, as data may be more difficult to locate in the cloud.

Of course, it is also in the best interests of cloud providers to offer the highest level of security possible in their data centres, as this is the commodity that they are selling. A more secure solution will inevitably attract more customers, and eliminate reputational damage if customers’ data stored by the cloud provider was breached.

At the same time, high profile breaches have made cloud providers acutely aware of the risks and most have upped their game when it comes to securing the data they hold. A cloud provider worth its salt will have the latest and most sophisticated perimeter protection, intrusion detection, antivirus and malware solutions, and denial of service (DoS) protection, as well as tight data encryption.

Another option is the hybrid solution. For example, an increasing number of businesses are opting to hold extremely sensitive data on-site, with as many levels of security as desired, while less sensitive data is stored in the cloud.

For a minority, the best security solution will remain on-premise solutions, but for most overcoming the misperception that cloud-based security is inherently weaker can provide a more state-of-the-art, comprehensive and secure option than might be affordable as an on-premise solution, particularly for SMEs.

To allay your fears, ensure that you perform in-depth research on the cloud provider, and ask them to prove that they can meet the compliance and SLA requirements of its customers. Most providers should be willing to provide detailed performance test results and/or case studies of similar businesses to your own. If the cloud provider is unwilling to do this, or cannot answer all your concerns, then it might be time to look at a different provider.

But, ultimately, it is about ensuring that you work together with the cloud provider to put in place all the necessary security requirements, standards, policies and data access controls, wherever your data is held

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