Eight Fax Servers for the Windows NT Enterprise
Ask 10 businesspeople the definition of enterprise, and 10 differing answers are sure to come back. The only common thread is the idea of a whole company as opposed to any of its subdivisions. But this is true for a 25-person company in a single location as well as, say, General Motors. The manufacturers of fax server software solutions have a more pragmatic definition: An enterprise is the smallest company that is an appropriate target for their particular fax solution. As a result, the market is filled with a wide and varied assortment of products offering an enterprise fax solution. Caveat emptor: This calls for some careful shopping from a corporate buyer.
In order to get a clearer understanding of this range of offerings, ENT asked Client/Server Labs to test seven software products, with an eye toward clarifying which product answers which needs. All the tested products were Windows NT versions, capable of integrating directly with, or at least connecting to, Microsoft Exchange and Outlook, which were used as the test e-mail and document system. We chose Exchange and Outlook as the test beds because of their popularity, but the fax servers we tested are designed to work with other e-mail programs as well.
The fundamental appeal of an automated fax system is time efficiency, with the common argument that it takes, on average, one-tenth the time to fax a document from a desktop PC than it does to print and fax it by hand. If your company manually sends 100 faxes a day, at 10 minutes per fax, there is the potential for 75 hours of saved labor costs per week with computer-based faxing. This alone is a powerful incentive to look into an automated system. And the additional features and capabilities of some of the tested products may come as a pleasant and eye-opening surprise.
A popular and growing misperception says that fax is an outmoded technology that can and should be replaced by e-mail. In many cases, however, imaginative use of faxes is a better way to accomplish a needed task. For instance, automated creation and faxing of a delinquent account list, in a company with many warehouse locations, can create a hard copy in each location to alert the warehouse and dock workers, who might be less likely to check account status on a PC. One of the tested products was installed in place of a bank of 60 standalone fax machines and roller-skating couriers delivering faxes in a large credit-checking company, to the obvious betterment of the company’s operating efficiency. Additionally, a fax-to-data capability can allow easy order placing on preprinted forms from places where remote network access is too costly.
Client/server faxing also holds superior security. A shared, standalone fax machine may present sensitive information to any passerby, where an electronic system offers several security options. The preferred method is Direct Inward Dial (DID), in which each fax recipient has a unique fax number used by the fax server for routing. The Caller Station ID (CSID) required on all faxes, which shows the number of the transmitting machine, can also be used to route an incoming fax. Another option gives a designated "postmaster" viewing rights to just the cover page of all incoming faxes, and the ability to forward them appropriately.
If the control and tracking of faxes is a concern, an electronic system has every advantage. Faxes in such a system are stored compactly, can be tracked and analyzed easily, and can be coded for billing purposes to track internal costs or to rebill customers. The availability of least cost routing (LCR) can help to keep costs down by always choosing the most economical method to send a fax. For instance, the sending of noncritical faxes can be delayed to take advantage of lower phone rates.
These capabilities, with very few exceptions, are shared by the tested fax servers. The differences we found fall largely into the areas of ease of installation, clarity of documentation, and ease of administration. In accordance with the varying definitions of enterprise, a certain degree of difference exists among the products regarding the size of installation of each, but this is often settled, as a matter of course, by price.
Until quite recently, a serious restriction on the usefulness of network faxing was a lack of options for directing inward-bound faxes. Indeed, an estimated 90 percent of companies with fax servers used them exclusively for outbound faxes, with inbound faxes still directed to a standalone machine. Basic handling in a network fax system consists of either printing all received faxes on a network printer, or manually routing all faxes to a "postmaster" who reads the cover sheet and forwards appropriately. There are now several advanced routing methods supported by our tested group.
DID allows individual users within a company to have individual fax numbers. In order to use this feature, a block of telephone numbers must be ordered from and DID-enabled by the local telephone company. An incoming fax on this system essentially "replays" the last four digits of its destination number, which allows the fax board to recognize it and route it to the proper recipient.
Another technique, called dual-tone multi-frequency (DTMF) routing, requires the sender of a fax to wait for the receiving device to answer, via the fax board’s voice features, and then to enter the recipient’s personal fax extension via a touch-tone keypad.
All faxes are required to include the CSID at the top of every faxed page. Users can set up fax servers to recognize CSIDs and forward faxes from specific senders to preprogrammed recipients. This allows a customer’s faxes to automatically go to a personal account representative. Some companies are providing optical character recognition (OCR) to allow routing from cover sheet information, but the chancy nature of OCR makes this approach less than optimal.
Outbound faxes are estimated to consume about 40 percent of the average company’s telephone bill. This makes the availability of LCR a highly desirable cost-controlling feature in a fax server. In a simple example, the LCR feature will try to send a fax first over the company network, then over a specified long-distance carrier, and finally through any available dial-up connection. There are many refinements and tuning possibilities with this utility that make it worthwhile to an enterprise.
Each of these products holds a wealth of features and an immense number of possible operations, but they all do basically the same thing: fax. This Test Track focuses on the tester's findings, looking at the products from an administrator’s perspective of the documentation, installation process and testing trials.
RightFAX Enterprise V5.2
Price: $5,995 with all six optional modules; $2,995 for Enterprise Server alone (unlimited use).
RightFAX has aimed its enterprise fax product at the high end of the market, including international companies, national companies with multiple sites, and WAN-connected businesses. The product architecture uses a central database for all fax information, facilitating user access by any path, including a Web client and touch-tone dial-in. The RightFAX implementation of LCR is one of the most flexible and versatile to be had: It can consider the phone number, time of day, day of week, and fax priority and source in choosing the best path. There is a provision for routing blocks of phone numbers that some competitors would have you set one at a time, as well as simplified programming changes if a new fax server is added to the network. In multiple server environments, it can also consider capacity sharing and perform load balancing for optimum use.
Despite the commendable features set, the administration section of RightFAX’s documentation ranked at the bottom of our group for clarity, and the installation procedure itself had a few truly strange wrinkles. At one point, following the file copying process and reboot, the installer is directed to create a share from a DOS prompt, an unnecessary manual process that should be automated. Just prior to the reboot, a window appears that contains no less than five reminders, including instructions on creating the gateway connection. This, too, should be built into the install process.
RightFAX shared an especially annoying omission with four other products in our group: It offered no test procedures to verify proper operation of the fax board or fax print queue. When experimental fax transmissions fail to go through -- a common occurrence during the setup phase -- it is essential to be certain that the fax hardware and server software are functioning properly.
FACSys Fax Messaging Gateway 4.5
Optus Software Inc.
Price: $2,170 for 25 users; $5,545 for 100 users.
Our lab’s experience with FACSys was limited by one of the frustrating occurrences that plague a reviewer’s life: We were not able to get the Exchange connector to install properly. Despite the very helpful technical support staff, our time constraints prevented them from working through the problem with us. We were assured that this is not typical behavior from this product, which has a substantial installed base.
FACSys emphasizes the possibilities for new and creative business uses of new fax technology in the product literature, using examples such as triggered fax documents that merge database information into a preset form and fax-based ordering from small retail locations. FACSys' software has also been used in tests of new voice-interactive messaging technology from Lucent Technologies (Murray Hill, N.J., www.lucent.com) and Mitel Corp. (Kanata, Ontario), which would allow a user to access, "read" by voice synthesis, and otherwise manage faxes from any touch-tone telephone. At the large end of the user scale, the company claims Microsoft Corp. and the legislative arm of the Department of Defense as customers, offering tacit evidence of FACSys’ capabilities with large loads.
While not as hard to follow as RightFAX, the documentation for FACSys still left something to be desired. We were puzzled by the placement of the section on installation and configuring of fax boards as Chapter 6 (out of 8). Although not strictly necessary here, it seems to make sense that the hardware addition to the designated fax server come first, if only to be sure of resolving potential problems and resource conflicts before users go through the full install process.
Fax Sr. V2.6
Price: $2,495 for 25 users, single line; $4,995 for unlimited use, single line; $495 for each additional line.
Fax Sr. immediately endeared itself to us upon our first perusal of its manual, and reinforced the feeling during the installation process. Not only is this the best of all the products in the documentation department, but it includes a test to check the successful configuring of the fax board and a "First Time" wizard to run after installation. This wizard confirms that all services are running properly, and then sends a test fax for verification. This may not seem like a very significant feature, but combine it with the top-drawer manuals, and it gives this particular product an aspect of solidity and comfort that most of its competition lacks.
Omtool emphasizes the Internet/intranet aspect of its product with the inclusion of a Java-based fax client and support for Microsoft Outlook Webview. Like RightFAX, the product also includes LCR, load sharing between servers, and a full selection of administrative tools for user permissions and restrictions. It also permits real-time status checks of outbound faxes, giving quick alerts in the event of transmission failure.
One unusual aspect of Fax Sr. is its profligate use of NT services to enable all of its functions. With a four-channel fax board from Brooktrout Technology (Needham, Mass., www.brooktrout.com) installed, Fax Sr. showed 14 services running in NT's Control Panel applet. This might indicate higher-than-usual resource consumption by this product, which could be a significant factor in some installations.
Faxination 3.0 for Microsoft Exchange
Price: $2,895 for five users and 16 lines; additional licenses $36 to $28 per seat, depending on quantity.
In any review covering seven software products, it is inevitable that at least one will be on the cusp of a new version release, and scheduling conflicts will prevent the imminent version from being tested. Fenestrae was the victim this time, with Faxination 4.0 scheduled for a June 16 release. Instead, we ran Version 3.0 through our Test Track.
The most distinguishing characteristic of Faxination is the lack of separate client software. This is entirely by design, because Faxination was designed from the ground up to be an enhancement to Microsoft Exchange's messaging capabilities. Because of this, Faxination embeds itself so seamlessly that it nearly disappears upon installation. But features such as the availability of an excellent cover sheet editor, fax scheduler and fax tracing tool to the administrator are high points that we found easily accessible and operable. Look to this company for more development of the concept of a "universal in-box," consolidating voice, e-mail, fax and pager messaging into one interface.
Fenestrae’s documentation is also a cut above, with steps in logical order and generally clear text. One unfortunate exception to this occurs in the very first procedure, where the sequence of instructions for creating the proper permissions for the service account is given in the wrong order.
FAXserve for Windows NT
Computer Associates Int’l Inc.
Price: $695 for 10 users; $3,495 for 100 users.
FAXserve was immediately a standout product in that it came to us in the lightest package of the group. The package contents consisted of one CD-ROM disk and a slim, 70-page user guide, which covers all installation, administration and user operations with admirable economy.
In fact, economy is probably the best all-around descriptive term for this product. Despite its position at the low end of the pricing spectrum, Computer Associates has expanded the array of features in FAXserve beyond what it was under the Cheyenne name, including such large-company items as load balancing between servers, LCR, flexible user properties and billing reports. Support for DID and DTMF routing options and remote administration from any workstation are also included in FAXserve.
From start to finish, the installation procedure for FAXserve was the quickest of the group, and we were able to send and receive faxes with fewer intervening steps. If your company needs to add network fax services, the elegant simplicity of FAXserve merits a long, hard look.
Gold-Fax V5.0 for Windows NT
Data Processing Design Inc.
Price: $1,095 for 10 users and one line, $1,495 with Exchange support; $5,195 for 100 users and one line, $5,995 with Exchange support; $595 each for additional lines.
The Gold-Fax server installation procedure contains a land mine for the administrator who is used to forging ahead with installations before reading the manual. According to the prompts given by the software during setup, it is OK to do the installation first, and then create the service account within Windows NT for the fax services. Not only is this wrong, but if this path is followed it does not seem to be possible to get Gold-Fax working at all. In the lab, we erased the drives and reinstalled NT, but this is not a likely option for any real-world user. This bug bit a tester with 20 years of experience in system administration as well as a reviewer with dozens of successful NT installations to his credit.
A much less serious glitch arose when it became evident that the location of the help files is hard-coded. Although the software was installed on drive D, the program would only seek them on drive C, and did not offer a browse option.
In its operation and control aspects, Gold-Fax did quite well. Especially noteworthy is the remarkably low demand on system resources imposed by the Gold-Fax services, offering a plus to the company that wants to avoid a new hardware purchase as part of its fax package. At the conclusion of the installation, there is a helpful message reminding you to create groups for Gold-Fax Routers, who have authority to route incoming faxes, and Gold-Fax Users, everyone who uses the service. We particularly appreciated this because, although this step or a similar one is needed by almost every one of these products before you can actually use it, none of the others prompts you to do so.
Teubner & Associates Inc.
Price: $2,500 for unlimited use, one line; $1,450 to $725 for additional lines, depending on quantity.
Faxgate helped itself in our eyes with the only other Test Fax utility besides Fax Sr., but it then fell down when we had to call tech support staff to find out where the files for the Exchange connector were, since the clearly described path in the manual referred to a directory that didn’t exist on the CD. This was compounded by the failure of the install program to run in our first installation, despite multiple attempts. A second attempt on the alternate server went without a hitch. The documentation discrepancies are due to a recent version change, but since Faxgate supplies its manuals on the CD, in Adobe PDF format, we would have expected them to be more current.
Teubner & Associates has an extensive history with differing host platforms, and it positions Gold-Fax as the product for a company that needs to link mainframe databases and client/server applications with ease and reliability. Production faxing in particular is their niche: One Faxgate customer sends out its insurance quotes in the form of 17,000 faxes daily. The company’s view of enterprise fax software says that if it can’t cope with multiple, varied hosts, it’s not really an enterprise product.
Gold-Fax was one of the earliest products to use the technologies of DID, DTMF and others for routing, and coined the term "advanced inbound routing" to capitalize on these new abilities.
Before You Buy
In reviewing these fax servers, we found the most noteworthy differences to rest in ease-of-installation and documentation. Installation especially can be a deciding factor when you are choosing any software package, and fax servers are no different. While some installed practically by themselves, others required reinstalling the Windows NT Server 4.0 operating system -- not something we recommend doing just for kicks.
The other crucial factor in evaluating which product is right for your company may very well be price. Although we don’t recommend running out and buying the least expensive product in here simply to save money, a couple of the packages falling into the lower end of the pricing spectrum are worthy of consideration.
Kenneth I. MacLeish is a technical specialist at Client/Server Labs (Atlanta, www.cslinc.com). Client/Server Labs is a primary test lab partner of @@SRENT@@I and conducts @SRENT@@I’s Test Track performance and multiple product comparison evaluations.