Connecting third-party audio and video solutions to Microsoft Teams

Hello, Habr! I present to you the translation-adaptation of the article "Integrating Third-Party Voice & Video with Microsoft Teams" by Brent Kelly , in which he considers the problem of integrating Microsoft Teams with other products.

July 9, 2018:

Will your Skype for Business infrastructure come in handy now and why does Microsoft block third-party audio / video solutions from accessing Teams.

Being at InfoComm ( exhibition June 13-19, 2018 - approx. Editor of Video + Conference ), I once again remembered how huge the global market for audio and video is. Among the several hundred vendors at the exhibition were quite famous: BlueJeans, Crestron, Lifesize, Pexip, Polycom - now Plantronics, StarLeaf, Zoom.

I had a great idea - to find out what these companies are doing to integrate with Microsoft Teams. All of them are compatible with Skype for Business, but we have heard statements from Microsoft that integration with Teams will work differently. InfoComm gave me the opportunity to ask manufacturers questions directly and get a general idea of ​​how this integration will be implemented. Then I did not know how complicated and ambiguous this topic would be.

A bit of history

It is impossible to understand the issues of working with Teams if you do not know how the integration with Skype for Business was arranged. Microsoft unveiled the curtain by revealing protocols, alarms, and used audio / video codecs. In fact, Microsoft published the Skype for Business audio and video protocol specification and provided an opportunity for third-party manufacturers to embed them in their communication protocol stacks themselves in order to get compatibility in some way. This required a lot of effort, but nevertheless, some vendors using these specifications were able to create working solutions. For example, AudioCodes, Polycom, Spectralink, and Yealink used these specifications in their Microsoft-certified audio equipment for Skype for Business. This equipment is registered on the Skype for Business server,

All phones that work with Skype for Business are identified by Microsoft as IP phones from third-party manufacturers - 3PIP - and interact with the local or online version of SfB. Defining your phone as 3PIP is very important for working with Microsoft Teams.

Polycom, when developing its videoconferencing devices in the RealPresence Group series, decided to go a little further. Using specifications, the company has developed a software module that allows its equipment to connect and register directly on the Skype for Business server. That is, these client terminals can be connected directly to any Skype or Business audio or video conference.

Microsoft also released software specifications for its Skype Room System (SRS) video conferencing solution, version 1 and version 2 is a group conference solution. Although partners may add some unique settings, they must install Microsoft SRS software on their hardware. Microsoft's goal was to ensure that the experience with using Skype for Business was no different for customers, regardless of whether they were partner equipment or Microsoft SfB applications.

SRS solutions are developed by Crestron, HP, Lenovo, Logitech, Polycom, Smart Technologies. True, Smart only developed a solution for the first version of the SRS specification. Well, Microsoft itself - under the name Microsoft Surface Hub.

Compatibility of third-party audio and video devices with local and cloud versions of Skype for Business

So far we have discussed third-party solutions integrated with Skype for Business Server for those cases when the conference is held on Skype for Business. These first steps in the field of integration were followed by others.

Skype on desktops and other terminals

Skype for Business (aka Lync) is not ubiquitous, however, it is used in so many organizations. Some of these organizations also have client video terminals from Cisco, Lifesize, Polycom, and other manufacturers. And enterprises need solutions that enable users of Skype for Business client applications to call terminals of other manufacturers.

In response to this request, some companies, such as Acano and Pexip, have created local solutions that allow Skype for Business video terminals to connect to conferences based on standard SIP and H.323 terminals. This idea was so successful that at the beginning of 2016, Cisco bought Acano for $ 700 million and fully included this product in what is now called the Cisco Meeting Server.

Cloud Conferencing Providers have also joined the game with compatibility. BlueJeans, Lifesize, Polycom, Starleaf and Zoom have developed solutions that enable users of Skype for Business client applications to connect to conferences involving VKS terminals running on standard protocols. All of these third-party solutions use the Skype for Business audio / video specifications to enable interaction between SfB workstations on the one hand and other people's phones, terminals, MCUs and cloud-based VKS solutions on the other.

Teams Innovation and Challenges

The world has adapted to Microsoft's proprietary approach and third-party developers are harmoniously combining their solutions with Skype for Business.

So why did Microsoft mess up with Teams?

Microsoft said it wants to create a new communication platform that would provide both innovation and the ability to comfortably use different devices. Therefore, Teams incorporated the “Next Generation Communications Service (NGCS)” to work with the entire stack of audio and video technologies.

The new service is based on regular home Skype. This means that in the user versions of Skype and Teams the same cloud communication protocol. The service supports Silk, Opus, G.711 and G.722 audio codecs, as well as the H.264 AVC video codec. That is, these are the very protocols that are supported by many third-party manufacturers of audio and video systems.

But there are serious differences in the signaling protocol and transport.

Microsoft's proprietary signal processing technologies provide full-duplex stereo echo cancellation, adaptive compensation of frequency deviations, restoration or masking of lost packets, priority of audio over video, which ensures high quality audio and video communications under various network conditions. Some of these functions are available in the terminals, some require cloud services, that is, for the terminal to work efficiently, they must be synchronized.

Now many alternative solutions support the same codecs, provide noise reduction, error correction and much more. So why did Microsoft, in fact, cut off access to Teams by third-party audio and video solutions? Microsoft claims to have introduced many innovations for Teams, but these advanced features require constant updates from both Teams and the client. Third-party software and video technologies in this case greatly reduce the quality of communication to the least common capabilities. This kills Microsoft's desire to provide users with access to enhanced features and a consistent user experience across devices: PCs, tablets, smartphones, landlines and video devices. At the Enterprise Connect 2018 conference, Microsoft provided examples of these enhanced features:

  • Voice Conferencing with Cortana
  • Microsoft Graph, which will help determine the likely interlocutor, and when connecting artificial intelligence, can toss the discussed files or even suggest making a new appointment
  • Transfer
  • Real-time audio recording and transcription
  • Room scanning, people recognition and appropriate framing and camera pointing

What next?

So, Microsoft uncompromisingly requires its software to be preinstalled on third-party devices. Now let's look at which of your devices with Skype for Business installed will now work with Teams, and more importantly, which ones will not .

Skype for Business and Teams Compatibility

Skype for Business and Teams users can exchange instant messages between their respective client applications. From the phone where Skype for Business is installed, or from the client, you can directly call the Teams user and vice versa. However, this compatibility only works for point-to-point calls. Group conferences and chats are available only to users within one of the solutions.

Incoming and outgoing connections in public switched telephone networks (PSTN)

All incoming and outgoing calls between Teams and PSTN subscribers go through the session border controller (SBC). Microsoft now supports SBC from AudioCodes, Ribbon Communications, and ThinkTel. Of course, if you call through Microsoft programs, you do not need your SBC. But if you have your own PSTN connection directly through the provider through the SIP trunks or through trunks connected to the cloud or local office PBX (PBX), you will need your own SBC.

Microsoft said some telephony service providers in different countries are developing Teams-compatible PSTN communications offerings. Microsoft called them “direct routing."

How to use third-party phones (3PIP) with Skype for Business installed to work with Teams

If you bought a 3PIP-phone certified for working with Skype for Business, then Microsoft has built in the next generation communication service gateways that will allow your device to work with Teams.

Moreover, some 3PIP phones work under Android. Updates come to such devices, thanks to which it will be possible to use the new Teams features as they become available. More specifically, these phones will launch an application that uses the stack of new Microsoft protocols to connect to Teams directly without gateways. 3PIP devices running on other operating systems will not receive updates with new Teams features. AudioCodes C450HD, Crestron Mercury, Polycom Trio, and Yealink CP960, T56, and T58 3PIP devices can receive updates. These manufacturers will launch phones with native Teams support in 2019.

Skype Room Systems (SRS) and Surface Hub

Microsoft promises that any partner devices of the Skype Room Systems (SRS) standard will receive updates that will turn these devices into Teams terminals. After that, they will constantly receive updates for Teams as they become available. All devices with the Surface Hub will also receive updates that will make Teams work.

Gateways connecting traditional VKS terminals with Teams

Microsoft has selected three partners - BlueJeans, Pexip, and Polycom to ensure compatibility between standard video teleconferencing (VTC) terminals and Teams. These solutions are very similar, but there are some differences. All of their services are available only in the Microsoft Azure cloud and are used to interact with the Teams interface of the next generation Microsoft API. They mainly provide signaling and media gateways between video terminals and Teams.

Although Microsoft supports integration with standard terminals, but with some neglect. The fact is that user interaction there is not the same as in Teams. On video terminals, it is more like Skype for Business - several video streams, the ability to show the screen and see what is shown on the screen.

For example, BlueJeans offers BlueJeans Gateway for Teams (a BlueJeans gateway for Teams) - a service available through the Azure cloud. This gateway can be purchased separately, that is, without the need to purchase any BlueJeans services. The beta version of the solution is being tested by partners participating in the Microsoft Technology Adoption Program (TAP). BlueJeans believes that it will be available by the end of summer. BlueJeans Gateway for Teams will be available from the Microsoft store, directly from BlueJeans, or from a Microsoft sales partner. Most likely, versions for both personal and collective use will be available. The service can be configured through the Office 365 admin panel.

Information about joining a conference using BlueJeans Gateway for Teams can be automatically shared through a conference invitation. The “Connect to video room” link contains the address of the terminal.

To connect to the Teams conference, the video system of the meeting room calls the gateway directly using the information specified in the invitation, or BlueJeans transfers the information for connection directly to the terminal through its control program. If the terminal supports “one-button” connection, then it can be turned on with one touch, or activated using the touch panel controller.

Pexip allows organizations to leverage a dedicated copy of the Pexip gateway for Teams in the Azure cloud. Pexip will manage your copy of the gateway as part of the service suite. But in this case, you will have to pay for the processing necessary for its work in Azure.

Polycom's RealConnect is a multitenant solution running in the Azure cloud. The price includes all processing in Azure. RealConnect is currently in beta with several Microsoft TAP members.

Cisco, Lifesize, and Zoom

Judging by how it looks now, Cisco, Lifesize, Zoom and any other video communication services will not be able to interact with Teams at all (a workaround will be described below) if you do not have a solution with a gateway from one of the above three partners.

StarLeaf Teams Compatible

StarLeaf offers a solution for interacting with Teams, but Microsoft does not support it, although it says that compatibility with this solution can be achieved with the release of Teams updates.

I was trying to understand why Microsoft is opposed to the StarLeaf implementation. It seemed reasonable to me. It works like this: StarLeaf deploys the full version of Teams on a Windows virtual machine that boots on top of the Linux kernel running on the StarLeaf video terminal. The StarLeaf Maestro control program also runs on Linux. Maestro has access to Microsoft Exchange and sees the room schedule or individual user schedule. When a Teams conference is scheduled for this terminal (for Skype for Business, this scheme also works, by the way), Maestro uses the Teams API to automatically connect Teams to the conference. At the same time, Teams video content is routed through the API to the StarLeaf screen. StarLeaf user does not see Teams user interface.

StarLeaf's Teams solution is based on the Linux kernel. On top of it, a Windows virtual machine is installed, on which both Teams and Skype for Business client applications are launched. Teams video content is displayed, but the Teams user interface is not visible.

Microsoft says in this regard that StarLeaf is distributing the Teams client on its devices without authorization. They require authorization from all companies to make sure that the distributed software is safe, legal and updated to the latest version. Distributing Microsoft software without authorization, StarLeaf, in their opinion, disorients users because users who purchase this software will not receive Microsoft support.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that since StarLeaf uses a genuine Teams client with a license acquired by the user, and this client can be updated using standard Microsoft tools, this solution should work fine technically.

Microsoft claims that StarLeaf uses methods of control over the Teams application in its software that Microsoft has not developed and does not support. Perhaps if Microsoft changes the basic functionality or interface of Teams, the StarLeaf solution will stop working. But in this case, other “Microsoft-approved” solutions may stop working.

Polycom trio

At InfoComm, I explored the Polycom Trio interface for audio and video communications through Teams.
Teams-compatible Trio runs on Android, and as a result works with Android, finalized by Microsoft for its partners. Since Microsoft software runs there, Trio can connect directly to Teams. But only for audio communication.

Video calling is trickier. When using Trio Visual + with Teams, video content flows through the Polycom RealConnect gateway in the Azure cloud.

Trio connects directly to Teams during an audio call. When the Trio Visual + package is used for video communications, audio and video streams go through the Polycom RealConnect service in Azure and then go to Teams.

Microsoft claims that this technology is not certified or supported. I don’t know why Microsoft thinks so. When Trio Visual + is used with Teams, audio and video streams pass through the Polycom RealConnect gateway, which they certified and supported. In this sense, video calling works exactly the same as on any other video terminal. It's just that the interface is not so well designed, which is annoying Microsoft. So, despite the fact that Microsoft does not certify and does not support this solution, it works and it is quite inventive.

Cisco and Zoom bots for Teams

What should Cisco or Zoom users do? It turns out that both companies have developed bots for Teams that launch their solutions.

Using these bots, you can invite participants to video conferences from correspondence in Teams. The chat has a link that, when clicked, launches the Cisco Webex or Zoom application.

An example of compatibility of third-party solutions with Teams through a bot. Bots place a link in Teams chat, when clicked, Cisco Webex or Zoom video solution is launched.

The only certified and supported devices for working with Teams

Microsoft insists that only devices with Microsoft software installed can work directly with Teams. This year ( in 2018 - approx. Video + Conference editor ), the release of new IP phones with Android and the pre-installed Teams application is expected. Customers on these phones will receive updates directly from Microsoft as they become available.

The only terminals supported and certified for direct integration with Teams are the Skype Room System (SRS) and Surface Hub devices. Of course, Microsoft also approved the above mentioned gateways for video terminals from BlueJeans, Pexip and Polycom. Microsoft does not support everything else. By the way, I don’t know why Microsoft still uses the Skype Room System brand ... I expected that it should turn into the Teams Room System for a long time, but time will tell. ( Microsoft announced rebranding on January 23, 2019 - editor's note )

Polycom at one time developed group video terminals compatible with Skype for Business. It's about the Polycom MSR line. Now they will work with Teams. Polycom phones with Teams will appear in early 2019, and I think that Polycom will introduce some group video terminals for Teams, but there have not been any statements about this yet.
We must also bear in mind that Microsoft now supports WebRTC. Conference participants who do not have Teams installed can connect via WebRTC. This feature will appear first in the Microsoft Edge browser, but immediately after that it will be available in other browsers that support WebRTC (Chrome, Firefox, and, of course, Safari).


Microsoft is clearly about to end a variety of third-party unsupported solutions. This forces partners and end users to sweat in order to make the device or software work with Teams. Although, if you look at where Microsoft is looking from, Teams is a new dynamic environment for collaboration with great opportunities, the number of which will grow all the time. New features will require some changes in the cloud and on the client side. Therefore, Microsoft must be able to simultaneously update both services and client applications to ensure the best quality of communications and communications. Any compromise will lead to a deterioration of the user experience and thereby the least common opportunities. BlueJeans, Pexip, and Polycom terminal connectivity solutions confirm this.

Video terminals that do not have Teams installed provide access to very few platform features. User experience management appears to be a common and growing industry direction. So, Cisco with its Webex Teams is trying to improve interaction by controlling the user interface. And, like Microsoft, it supports the WebRTC version of its client, which provides work with video terminals.

Zoom, in turn, expands its own video conferencing solution. Zoom not only supports videoconferencing terminals from other manufacturers, but also developed its own Zoom Room software for group video conferencing, a client for a PC (though not based on WebRTC), and clients for mobile devices.

What can I say about all this?

I use video calling ... very often. Mostly from my PC, but on my desktop there is still a SIP-based videophone that supports 1080p resolution, and I use Skype for Business (via Office 365) on the PC. However, now I also use Webex Teams to communicate with Cisco employees, and Microsoft Teams to communicate with people from Microsoft.

I hate downloading new clients and is known for telling many vendors that if their systems do not support Skype for Business or WebRTC, I will not participate in conferences with them (the exception is audio calls), simply because I do not want to litter my computer with a bunch of new applications.

Nevertheless, there is a tendency in our industry - in any case, among the main developers - to provide a fully functional solution with improved user experience and advanced functions. Only to access it you need to install a client from a specific vendor on all devices - whether it be a PC or a solution for negotiations. And even on third-party peripheral devices (for example, phones), the software of this vendor must be launched.

I was hoping that with the help of WebRTC it would be possible to overcome the need for specific client applications and we would only need a browser as an interface. In this case, the browser will be a common interface for all types of communications and services. Of course, WebRTC has some limitations, but Cisco recently announced that in the new version of the Webex WebRTC client, users will receive a full range of collaboration capabilities.

Each developer should clearly position his proposal, and one of the criteria is a set of functions in applications. In order to provide the best user experience and access to the main functionality, the vendor must control both client applications and cloud services. This direction is led by Microsoft along with Teams and integration solutions. And we like it or not, but we are moving in this direction, and we are all together with other vendors. I tell my clients: now is the best time to think over the migration of your communications and work environment into a single solution from one specific vendor.

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