Office Communications Server
Stay Connected with Office Communicator Web Access
Greg Stemp and Jean Ross
At a Glance:
- How Communicator Web Access extends Office Communicator
- Communicator Web Access capabilities
- Overview of Communicator Web Access setup and requirements
- Adding the Appear Offline status to Communicator Web Access
Be forewarned: the story we are about to tell you is among the saddest ever written. But it’s one that needs to be told. When one of the authors turned 7, his parents decided to throw him a birthday party. Before we go any further, we need to point out that this particular author never gets sick; in all honesty, he hasn't had so much as an upset stomach since 1999.
Headaches? OK, sure, he gets those on a daily basis. But, then, he does work for Microsoft.
On the day of his birthday party, at age 7, however, our poor little author woke up deathly ill. Because the birthday party was scheduled for the morning, there was no time to cancel; all the kids came over anyway. Even worse, they played games, they ate hot dogs, and they ate birthday cake. Meanwhile, the author lay upstairs in his bed, too sick to come down even to watch the festivities. By the time he felt well enough to get out of bed, the party was over, the cake had been eaten, and some of the presents had even been opened (so that the party goers would have something to play with).
There, there; it's OK. Dry your eyes, blow your nose, and then we'll continue.
If you are familiar with Office Communications Server, you might know exactly how this author felt on his birthday all those many years ago.
How many years ago? Well, he turned 7 back then so … 16 (or thereabouts).
As you probably know, Office Communications Server is cool, in large part because of Office Communicator, Microsoft's offering for instant messaging and "presence." ( Presence is the ability to let people know whether you're online and, if so, whether you're available for conversation. ) Now, we're not saying that Office Communicator is the greatest invention in the history of the world, but—wait, scratch that. We are saying that Office Communicator is the greatest invention in the history of the world. It's that cool.
But there's a catch here.
What kind of catch? Well, suppose you're a sales person, and you're on the road, staying in a hotel room in Des Moines, Iowa. Can you use Office Communicator from your room? Sure you can … as long as you can establish a virtual private network ( VPN ) connection from that room. Or suppose you're doing a site visit in Outer Mickmacklestan and you'd like to log on from the Internet café down the street. Could you use Office Communicator from there? Sure you can … as long as that Internet café has Office Communicator installed, and as long as that Internet café is connected to your internal corporate network. We're not sure what the odds are of that, but we're guessing they're not great.
Or consider this scenario: back on your seventh birthday your parents gave you a copy of Linux. (Gee … thanks, Mom and Dad.) Can you use Office Communicator if you're running Linux? Do you even need to ask?
The fact of the matter is that, as cool a product as Office Communicator might be, it's simply not for everyone. If you don't have access to your corporate network, you can't use Office Communicator. If you're running on Linux, you can't use Office Communicator. If your company has decided to "lock down" computers and limit you to a Web browser and a few choice in-house applications, well, you can't use Office Communicator. Instead, you're forced to lie upstairs in bed, listening to all the other kids exchanging instant messages, checking each other's presence, and eating all the birthday cake that ships free with every copy of Office Communicator. (Well, maybe not every copy.) And there's absolutely nothing anyone can do about it.
Now, now, don't cry; you'll rust yourself again. (In case you're wondering, that's a clever reference to "The Wizard of Oz.") Tell you what, we can let you in on a little secret: maybe something can be done about this. In fact, it's time we tell you about Microsoft Office Communicator Web Access 2007 R2.
So what is Microsoft Office Communicator Web Access 2007 R2, other than a product that, from now on, we'll refer to simply as Communicator Web Access? (Yes, that's still a mouthful, but our first choice—Microsoft Bob—has already been used.) In a nutshell, Communicator Web Access is a nifty little piece of software that provides you with many of the capabilities found in Office Communicator, including these:
- The ability to send and receive instant messages. Even better, this capability isn't limited to exchanging text messages with people in your organization; you can also exchange instant messages with anyone who has an account on a public instant messaging service such as Yahoo!, AOL, or Windows Live. As a matter of fact, you can even—using a little sleight-of-hand that we'll discuss in a minute—exchange instant messages with people who have no instant messaging account or instant message software at all. Is this all magic?
- The ability to set your presence (Available; Busy; Do Not Disturb; Be Right Back; Away) as well as the ability to check the presence of others. Is there anything worse than sending an instant message to someone and then not getting a reply because that person is offline or in an all-day training session? ( War, pestilence, famine, and death? Well, sure, those are bad, but we're not convinced that they're worse.) You won't have this problem with Communicator Web Access: Communicator Web Access can tell you, at a glance, whether people are online and whether they are available to communicate with you. ( This could be by instant message, or it could be by phone: Communicator Web Access can even set up a phone conference for you.)
- The ability to "share your desktop." What does that mean? It means you can configure things so that everyone involved in an instant messaging session (and as many as 32 people can be involved in an instant messaging conversation) can view everything that takes place on your computer. Want to show everyone a PowerPoint slide show? That's fine: share your desktop, start the slide show, and everyone will be able to view that show on your screen. And it doesn't matter if these people are from Outer Mickmacklestan and don't have Microsoft Office installed; after all, the slide show is running on your computer. Everyone else is just sitting there watching.
- Well, unless you want to them to actually take control of your computer. With Communicator Web Access, you can allow others to use their mouse and their keyboard to run programs and enter data on your computer.
So is there a catch here, too? Of course there is; there's always a catch. As it turns out, you get these capabilities only if you 1) have a supported Web browser and, 2) have an Internet connection.
Believe it or not, that's it—that pair of requirements is the only catch. Are you running on Microsoft Windows? That's fine—as long as you have Internet Explorer 6.0 Service Pack 2 or later you can use Communicator Web Access. Are you running on Macintosh OS 10? No problem; just make sure you're using Safari 1.3 (or later) or Firefox 3.0 or later. Red Hat Linux? It's Firefox 3.0 to the rescue again. The list goes on.
But what about that hotel room in Des Moines, Iowa or that Internet café in Outer Mickmacklestan? No problem: like we said, all you need is an Internet connection to use Communicator Web Access. Connect to the Internet, fire up your Web browser, and you can use Communicator Web Access. You'll be able to send instant messages, check the presence of your contacts, share your desktop, and so on.
Figure 1 Contacts visible in Communicator
Oh, and here's a bonus. As we implied, both Office Communicator and Communicator Web Access let you set up contacts. Contacts are simply people you tend to communicate with regularly. When you start Office Communicator or Communicator Web Access, your contacts—and their presence—are immediately available, as shown in Figure 1.
You see just two contacts, one being his coauthor and the other being himself? It appears that after that birthday party, life simply has not been kind to one of our authors.
As you can see, contacts and your contact list enable you to tell at a glance who's online and who isn't. They also make it easy to send instant messages to people: just right-click the contact name and then click Send an Instant Message.
Now that's cool, but that isn't the bonus. The bonus is this: Office Communicator and Communicator Web Access share the same contact list. Back at the home office, did you dutifully use Office Communicator to create a list of contacts? Good for you. Now that you're on the road, that contact list will be available to you when you run Communicator Web Access. And vice versa.
See? We told you this was cool.
Of course, you might be thinking, "Gee, I don't know, I mean, Outer Mickmacklestan? Wouldn't we run into security issues logging on from Outer Mickmacklestan?"
Believe it or not, the answer is no. After all, you can configure Communicator Web Access to run under HTTPS and SSL; do that, and all your instant messaging sessions will be encrypted and secure.
Then again, based on the acronyms people often use, we'd argue that many instant messages are cryptic enough as it is. IBRB? I'll be right back. 2G2BT? Too good to be true. And, of course, the immortal BJJDI: Billy Joel just drove in. As near as we can tell, nobody in the world has any idea what that last one means. Probably some sort of Outer Mickmacklestanian expression.
It makes sense that you can use Communicator Web Access to exchange instant messages with people in your own organization; it even makes sense that you can use Communicator Web Access to exchange instant messages with people who have accounts with a public instant messaging service such as Windows Live. But how in the world can you exchange instant messages with people who don't have an instant message account of any kind?
As we said earlier, there's a little bit of trickery involved here. You can't randomly send an instant message to just anyone. You can't normally address an instant message to someone unless that person has a Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) account somewhere; addressing instant messages to someone without a SIP account would be like trying to mail a letter to a person without a mailing address. Even so, you can still have an instant messaging conversation with someone who does not have a SIP account as long as you initiate the session, and do the following:
- Log on to Communicator Web Access and then click the Meet Now button. This action opens a Conversation window that features you as the only participant. (Those of you who prefer to talk only to yourselves can quit at this point. )
- In the Conversation window, click the arrow next to the Invite button and then click Invite Using E-mail. When you do that, Communicator Web Access generates a message similar to this one:
Greg Stemp has invited you to a conversation using Microsoft Office Communicator Web Access. To join the conversation, click the following link:
- Copy that URL, paste it into an e-mail message, and send the message to anyone who can run Communicator Web Access. That person can paste the URL into her Web browser and be taken to a Communicator Web Access "conference join" page. From there, she can join your instant messaging session, even though she doesn't actually have an instant messaging or other kind of SIP account.
Of course, you might be thinking, "Yes, that is nice. But there has to be a real catch here. For example, why haven't they told us how difficult it is to set up and configure this Communicator Web Access thing?"
Actually, there's a good reason: it's not the least bit difficult to set up and configure this Communicator Web Access thing. To begin, you need to have Office Communications Server 2007 R2 running somewhere in your Active Directory forest. (But that should come as no surprise: if you want anything good in life you need to have Office Communications Server 2007 R2 running somewhere in your Active Directory forest.) You'll also need a dedicated computer running the 64-bit version of either Windows Server 2003 or Windows Server 2008.
In case you're wondering, a single Communicator Web Access server can handle several thousand simultaneous connections. ( The exact number will vary depending on a host of factors that we won't go into today.) What if you have more users than that? No problem: just get yourself a hardware load balancer and set up an entire array of Communicator Web Access servers, as many as you think you might need to handle all your users.
From there, you simply need to install and activate Communicator Web Access, a process that will—literally—take only a few minutes. ( Definitely less than half an hour.) At that point, it's time to create a virtual server or two.
We won't get too technical here: virtual servers in Internet Information Services (the kind of virtual server we're talking about here) are simply the Web sites people use to log on to Communicator Web Access. Creating a virtual server isn't hard; a wizard walks you through the process and creates all the pages for you. ( No, it's not a real wizard, just one of those software things.) However, you will have to put a tiny bit of thought into the matter.
And, yes, we know: no one told you there would be thinking involved, did they? At least not until now.
So what must you think about? For one thing, you'll need to decide which connectivity protocol you want the site to use: HTTPS or the less-secure HTTP. (Hint: this shouldn't be a real hard one to decide.) You'll also need to pick an authentication mechanism. Communicator Web Access supports built-in authentication methods such as integrated Windows password authentication and forms-based authentication. (In the former, you can log on with the same credentials you used when you logged on to your computer. In the latter, you need to supply a user name and password to log on.) You can also use custom authentication methods. (For example, you can require a smart card and PIN number to log on.) If you're using Outlook Web Access and Microsoft Internet Security and Acceleration Server (ISA) 2006, you can even use single sign-on authentication: log on to Outlook Web Access, and you'll automatically be logged on to Communicator Web Access as well.
You'll also need to determine whether each virtual server you create is intended for internal users (users logging on from behind the organization's firewall) or for external users (users logging on from outside the organization's firewall). When it comes to authentication, Communicator Web Access treats people logging on from inside the firewall a little differently from the way it treats people logging on from outside. (After the users are logged on, however, everything is the same.) For example, internal users can log on using the same credentials they used to log on to their computer, which means they can be automatically logged on to Communicator Web Access. This isn't true for external users, however; external users must always supply a user name and password.
In case you're wondering, the answer is: yes, these conditions mean that, if you have both internal and external users, you need at least two computers running Communicator Web Access: one to handle internal users, the other to take care of external users. If you want to get technical, it's possible to host both an internal virtual server and an external virtual server on a single computer. For security reasons, however, this is highly discouraged.
Figure 2 You can set your status to appear offline, even if you’re really online.
Admittedly, this is a somewhat cursory overview of setting up Communicator Web Access. As you might expect, you'll also have to concern yourself with matters like DNS records and certificates and Active Directory permissions. But none of those should prove too daunting, at least not to anyone with even a modest amount of experience administering a Windows domain. And, besides, all of those tasks are covered in considerable detail in the document called Deploying Communicator Web Access 2007 R2
Before we call it a day, we need to level with you: we held back a little when we told you the story of the birthday party. As it turns out, the story was even sadder than we let on. ( We thought it would be too traumatic to tell you the whole tale all at once.) That year, our little author wanted only one thing for his birthday: he wanted the ability to set his presence in Communicator Web Access to Offline. "That would be so cool," he told his parents. "I could actually be online and working in Communicator Web Access; I could even send and receive messages, although anyone who checked my status would think I was offline. That would be the greatest present any kid could ever receive."
Sadly, our poor little tyke never got his wish. (His parents claimed it was because there was no such thing as Communicator Web Access way back then.) From that day forward, he vowed to never let that disappointment befall another child. With that in mind, here's how you—the system administrator—can help by adding the Appear Offline status to Communicator Web Access (as shown in Figure 2):
- On the Communicator Web Access server start Regedit and locate the key HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\Software\Policies\Microsoft\Communicator.
- Create a new DWORD value named EnableAppearOffline and set the value to 1.
That's it. Any users logging on to this Communicator Web Access server will now have an additional status option:
Mom, Dad? If you're reading this, would that really have been all that difficult to take care of?
As long as we're on the subject, Communicator Web Access offers a number of ways that administrators can customize the software. For example, without needing to write a single line of code or know any programming language, an administrator can:
- Create a custom Communicator Web Access sign-on page
- Add a set of custom tabs to the Communicator Web Access client window
- Add a custom menu to the Communicator Web Access client menu
- Display a user notice in the instant messaging conversation window
Pretty cool, huh? Just for the heck of it, here's a simple little VBScript script that will cause a notice ( "Instant messaging provided by Fabrikam, Inc." ) to appear in the conversation window each time one of your users starts a new instant messaging session:
strComputer = "."
Set objWMIService = GetObject("winmgmts:\\" & _
strComputer & _
Set colWMISettings = objWMIService.ExecQuery _
("Select * from MSFT_CWASiteSetting")
For Each objWMISetting in colWMISettings
objWMISetting.UserNotice = & _
"Instant messaging provided by Fabrikam, Inc."
That's all we have time for today. As you can imagine, articles need to be written well in advance of publication. As this particular one is being written, it's December, which means, believe it or not, it's almost time for our author to have yet another birthday (December 18th, for those of you planning to send him a present next time around). Will he finally overcome his years of trauma and have a birthday celebration this year? Let's put it this way: it'll be a cold day in Outer Mickmacklestan before this author has another birthday party.
Against all odds, Greg Stemp and Jean Ross work for Microsoft.