Combining NT Telephony with Unified Messaging
Your company recently implemented a Windows NT telephony solution and the system is down. No dial tone, no e-mail, no access to ACT or the homegrown company contact manager. The entire sales force -- out of commission until the system is back up -- is roaming the halls griping to each other. But even worse, the CEO is knocking on the door of the back office asking why he can’t return the call of a client who he has been working on for months to close your company’s biggest deal ever. He is looking directly at you and he wants answers.
This nightmare scenario is enough to make IT departments wary of relying on one network for voice and data communications needs. And Windows NT’s shaky reputation spooks IT even more.
But some of the biggest vendors in the business, both traditional PBX makers and computer giants, are entering the NT telephony arena.
Three networking giants, 3Com Corp., Cisco Systems Inc. and Nortel Networks Inc. (www.nortelnetworks.com), have made moves into this market. 3Com and Cisco recently bought NBX Corp. and Selsius Systems Inc., respectively, for their telephony technology. Microsoft Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP) and Intel Corp. banded together with Nortel in March to cooperatively integrate voice technology into computing solutions for open, unified communications. Since then, Microsoft, Nortel and HP announced unified messaging and NT-based telephony products or strategies. Compaq Computer Corp. and IBM Corp. also plan to sell telephony solutions based on NT.
This fall at Networld + Interop in Atlanta, Lucent Technologies (www.lucent.com) plans to release the IP Exchange Systems, a family of open software-based systems that integrate telephone systems with industry-standard computers and networking equipment. The line is designed to give businesses a simple way to move voice, data and fax communications to a single IP network.
These solutions have high-availability features or built-in redundancy to ensure that telephone communication does not go down. If the server goes down for whatever reason, employees are able to make and receive phone calls. They won’t, however, be able to retrieve messages via the message interface until the server is back up.
Even though Windows NT’s reliability issues are deftly handled by these solutions, Fortune 1,000 companies are not about to throw their faithful PBX’s out the window, run to CompUSA and pick out a voice/data solution to handle all communications needs.
Lynn Barnett, director of the customer premise equipment solutions group within the communications industry solutions division at Compaq, says enterprises need solid business reasons to move to NT telephony.
"As vendors build compelling new solutions to get people away from the current paradigm of one network for voice and another for data, and off of their old PBXs -- the same way that voice mail revolutionized messaging -- large corporations will move to such solutions. Unified messaging may very well provide a sound business reason," Barnett reasons.
Vendors and analysts speculate that unified messaging -- a single inbox with access to voice messages, e-mail, faxes and pages -- will play a role in the way NT telephony moves into the enterprise.
"NT-based telephony systems are beginning to bring out unified messaging as a feasible, affordable application layer," says Andrew Bale, CEO of Flexion Systems (www.flexion.com), a vendor that integrates voice and data communications with applications.
An International Data Corp. (IDC, www.idc.com) study shows that the number of unified messaging mailboxes will explode from a mere 35,000 in 1998 to 25.4 million by 2003.
"During the next 12 to 24 months, this market will really take off as competition among wireless carriers, Internet service providers and local exchange carriers heats up," says Jeannette Noyes, research manager of residential and small business telecommunications services programs at IDC.
Although Windows NT is notorious for its reliability issues, there are a number of advantages to using the operating system as a telephony platform.
"Customers opt for NT because of the price/performance rate," says Dori Abele, director of marketing at Brooktrout Software (www.brooksoft.com), a provider of voice solutions and services. "But there are also more good reasons to use it. Most companies have employees trained on NT, and the majority of ISVs develop for NT."
Scott Wharton, vice president of marketing at VocalTec Communications Ltd. (www.vocaltec.com), an IP communications company, says a significant number of products that increase the reliability and scalability of NT as a telephony platform will come to market in the near future. "One of the benefits of the OS is that it’s flexible, and it’s easy to integrate third-party applications with it," Wharton says. "The real value of NT will be the apps around it."
Windows NT offers the same scalability advantages for telephony purposes as it does for data networks. As a company's needs grow, adding another server is a simple process, and that machine can be controlled by the same management interface as existing servers.
Unified messaging has a number of advantages as well. An obvious one is that employees gain more ubiquitous access to messages through a single interface and can reply via a number of options. For instance, a message left in voice mail can be accessed through Outlook and replied to in a number of ways using Outlook.
According to a study done earlier this year by Radicati Group Inc. (www.radicati.com), an independent market research firm, employees using unified messaging solutions are on average one half-hour more productive each day.
Unified messaging can also improve a company. First, it can make an organization appear more professional. From a caller’s perspective, there is nothing worse than being routed and rerouted by a receptionist who doesn't know that the salesperson you are trying to reach has been on vacation for the past two weeks.
Second, a well-designed NT- telephony system can make a company more flexible. If one of the vice presidents needs to work at home, a unified messaging solution can either forward the call or send the caller to voice mail, depending on the recipient's desire.
Third, in the back office this type of solution can ease management's burden of maintaining a separate network for voice and data. "Having one platform to manage both voice and data is easier and more cost-effective than having to manage two separate networks," says Toby Johnson, business development manager for convergence solutions at the Spectrum Business of Cabletron Systems Inc. (www.cabletron.com/spectrum), a provider of network management software that recently released a module for the unified management of both voice and data.
There are challenges to creating an NT- telephony system. One of the biggest is fear, according to Marci Williams, director of marketing and communications at Sphere Communications Inc. (www.spherecom.com), which makes an ATM-based PBX with NT as its platform.
"There’s a bit of uncertainty on the part of network administrators to take on a telephony role because traditionally it’s not their role," Williams says. "But once they realize that management is conducted through a familiar Windows GUI, and takes only a little training, they are less reluctant."
Telephony terminology poses a learning curve, as does figuring out how to monitor telephony in a server fashion, such as performance monitoring.
Fragmentation of the market is a stumbling block for companies looking to implement a system. It is not easy to know what type of solution to buy, and many of the solutions on the market are offered by vendors that administrators are unfamiliar with.
PBXs are also a problem point. Companies that tack an NT- telephony solution onto a network are limited to their PBX vendor’s offerings.
"Traditional PBXs are a dead-end because they are difficult to architect into an existing network," Flexion's Bale says. "PBX’s don’t talk very well to the rest of the world."
Phil Bretherton, marketing manager for the communications infrastructure at HP, points to an approach that will help bring these solutions to the enterprise: outsourced services.
"Service providers and carriers will help take NT-telephony out of the domain where customers have to spend millions of dollars and into an arena where it’s affordable," he says.
IDC’s Noyes agrees that outsourcing will be an option, though is too early to tell how significant a role it will play. She says, "There is a general trend in the direction of outsourcing. As applications get bigger and harder to manage, companies will turn to outsourcing."
The introduction of free unified messaging services will also drive awareness and development of this market.
In early August, Compaq and NEC America Inc. (www.nec.com) each introduced free unified messaging services. Compaq’s service is based on technology from Telepost Inc. (www.telepost.com); NEC’s service is based on the Unity 2.1 Unified Messaging Solution from Active Voice Corp. (www.activevoice.com).
"Outsourcing services is an advantage to service providers, but it's also a threat. Nonetheless, free and for-fee services will coexist as they do in the e-mail market," IDC’s Noyes says.
Windows 2000 and Exchange
For its part, Microsoft is enhancing Windows 2000 to better handle telephony needs and is adding unified messaging features to the next version of Exchange, code-named Platinum.
Windows NT/2000’s flexibility lies in the Telephony API (TAPI), which enables developers to build applications for use with the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN), ISDN, PBX systems and IP networks. With TAPI, developers can also build telephony into many general-purpose applications.
Windows NT 4.0, Service Pack 4, includes TAPI 2.1, the latest version of the API. Windows 2000, when it ships, will include TAPI 3.0. Within Windows 2000, TAPI 3.0 uses the Active Directory service to simplify deployment within an organization, and it supports quality-of-service features to improve quality and network manageability.
"TAPI is a great solution because developers don’t have to get down to the nitty-gritty, instead they can concentrate on the applications," says Katherine Owens, product marketing manager for software at Natural MicroSystems (www.naturalmicrosystems.com), which makes voice boards that enable servers to run voice and fax technologies.
In June, Microsoft announced a unified messaging strategy based on the upcoming version of Exchange. Platinum’s Web Store -- which replaces the Exchange message store found in Exchange 5.5 -- is the basis of the next-generation unified messaging platform. It offers a single place to store and manage e-mail, voice mail messages and Web pages. Platinum also features a Super Long Value database format that enables the streaming of large voice data files directly in and out of the Web Store; and support for the voice profile for an Internet messaging standard that enables interoperability between separate voice mail systems.
The fate of combined telephony and unified messaging is ubiquitous messaging: the ability to reach anybody, anywhere, through any means of communication.
HP’s Bretherton says ubiquitous unified messaging has been in the works for a while and is nearing the point of acceptance. "It’s just starting to catch on, but it’s exciting how close it is to exploding," he says. "We’re not talking about Star Trek anymore, but this stuff is pretty close."