The year 1991 called. It wants its phone system back.
Yes, it’s the end of an era for Microsoft’s PBX phone platform, an intricate, hardy telecommunications system that the company has relied on for over 28 years.
On Monday, July 1, Microsoft will flip the switch to “off” at its main campus in Redmond, Washington, turning the lights out on this legacy system for good.
“This has been a highly reliable solution that has held us hostage for a long time,” says Dwight Jones, a senior service engineer in Microsoft Core Services Engineering and Operations (CSEO). “We are paying more than $1 million per year to keep it running.”
This isn’t about calls Microsoft employees make to do their work—those calls have been made outside of the PBX (or Private Branch Exchange) system for years. Initially they were done on Lync Server Online and its predecessors, then Skype for Business, and more recently, on Microsoft Teams.
“We’ve had to stay on this old system all these years because we needed it for our specialty services like fire alarms, faxing, calling corporate operators and customer service, and so on,” Jones says.
It includes core switching centers, miles of wire, redundant backup systems, and, of course, thousands of actual phones (those things that used to sit on our desks and make our necks hurt when we tried to talk and type), Jones says.
When you add up the investment the company has made over 28 years, it’s well over $40 million for the wires and nodes, and more than $200 per phone purchased and installed. There were about 6,000 employees when the system was first installed, but that number had ballooned to 79,000 by the time Microsoft started switching employees to Lync in 2007.
That PBX system is no longer necessary because all normal user communications are on Microsoft Teams and because Microsoft is using third-party solutions to provide specialty services.
Fostering a culture of adaptability
Ten months ago, the CSEO team decided to get off PBX for good to get ahead of potential problems, says Scott Kovach, also a senior service engineer in CSEO.
“This is an aging technology,” he says. “There are not a lot of people out there who know how to keep these systems going. There’s an overall risk that it could break down and we would really struggle to deal with that.”
That’s not an option when you’re dealing with critical communication systems, Kovach says.
“We’re now in a position where we can start future-proofing the work that we do,” he says. “With this changeover, we have mitigated a major risk that could have been pretty disastrous if something bad had occurred.”
And the threat of losing critical institutional knowledge is very real. To cope with this, the team enlisted the expertise of a technical team that understood the intricacies of the aging system yet was proficient in current Microsoft communications technology.
“This is a full-circle moment for me,” says Victoria Mulholland, a project manager for National Communications Services, Inc. (NCS), the Microsoft partner driving the PBX decommission effort.
Mulholland says she never imagined when her then-employer got the contract to help launch the PBX system at Microsoft that the direction of her career would be completely changed.
“That pretty much spearheaded my telecommunications career,” she says. It turned into an 18-year role working at Microsoft, supporting many different systems and services, and later to her role at NCS. “Now we’re decommissioning the system—it’s been an amazing journey.”
Mulholland and her colleague Dan Trimble, who has an equally long, intertwined relationship with Microsoft’s PBX system, both plan to be there when the system gets turned off next week.
It will mark a major milestone in a profession where everyone should be looking to the future, he says.
“We have external customers that we have migrated to Microsoft’s modern communications platforms, like Teams,” says Trimble, a business development manager at NCS. “For every customer that we have migrated or moved, it has positively impacted their business process and overall success through improved communication and collaboration capabilities.”
It’s time for a changing of the guard.
“As much as we love the legacy systems, they have become antiquated and challenging to support, and can’t deliver the capabilities needed today to thrive in a competitive environment,” Trimble says. “They will start breaking down over time, especially as the people who know the technology move on to other things and when we stop making investments in the technology.”
And the people?
Change is powerful, Trimble says: “We all need change to keep our brains fresh and our careers fresh, but also to create new opportunities for the companies we work for.”
For Jones and the team at Microsoft, letting go won’t be a problem; they’re excited Microsoft Teams is delivering their modern communications.
“We have a new line of business that we get to work on with the Teams product group,” he says, explaining that Microsoft will showcase its journey so that other companies look to it as they consider retiring their PBX systems. “This is a great opportunity for us.”