All-for-One, One-for-All Communications

Users want to go beyond messaging with sophisticated call management and mobile access that saves time and makes them more productive. Here's what IT needs to know.

Keep in touch.

Sure, it sounds easy. Then reality sets in. First you have to check e-mail, then voice mail, all the while keeping an eye on the fax machine. It's enough to make your head spin.

Enter UM—unified messaging. Check your e-mail from a phone (in some cases, e-mail can be read to you by a text-to-speech engine), listen to voice mail by clicking an item in a desktop application or Web browser, send faxes from e-mail and read them on a wireless-enabled personal digital assistant (PDA). Caller ID embedded in a message lets you dial the sender immediately, then drop right back into voice mail.

If your users have been hounding you for better, easier, faster ways to let them stay in touch with the home office, unified messaging may be your salvation.

Some say unified messaging hasn't lived up to expectations, in part because enterprises have been reluctant to mess with their finely honed e-mail systems. "It hasn't been quite as fast-growing a market as people had hoped," says Robert Mahowald, research manager at IDC, a market-analysis firm in Framingham, Mass. The industry experienced a bubble three years ago as corporations began replacing non-Y2K-compliant private branch exchanges (PBXs), only to hit a trough exacerbated by the recent downturn in technology spending. Now the market appears to be turning up again, and IDC predicts that 2002's worldwide user base of 5.3 million will nearly quadruple to 19.9 million by 2006.

Widening Circle
In recent years, the unified messaging concept has been broadened from its trinity of voice mail, e-mail and fax to encompass live channels such as Short Message Service (SMS) and instant messaging (IM). Now, as unified communications (UC), the technology is becoming an even more important element in many enterprises' networking and telephony strategies. UC also brings real-time call-control features largely missing from UM, such as the ability to forward incoming office calls and filter them with business rules such as, "If I'm in a meeting, only forward calls from my boss to my cell phone." (In reality, some vendors include these advanced features in products they still label as UM, blurring the distinction, perhaps because the UC term isn't as well established.)

Viewed another way, UM is asynchronous, while UC is real-time. Vendors and analysts say the former is a subset of the latter, so from here on, we'll just call it UC.

Unified Messaging in Action

55% of large corporations plan to adopt UM in the next 18 months

35% already have it

Source: The Radicati Group, Palo Alto, Calif.

Up and Running
The return-on-investment story is one part infrastructure savings and one part worker productivity. UC is often cheaper than legacy voice mail, according to numbers provided by customers interviewed for this story, and can be especially economical for adding messaging to a new branch office that would otherwise be outfitted with the legacy model. UC vendors say many of their early sales have been to companies that are replacing old Centigram and Octel voice-mail systems that are no longer supported. Infrastructure savings multiply if you're adding UC as part of a broader deployment of Internet Protocol (IP) telephony to replace both your PBX and voice mail, as several IT managers report (see "Unified Messaging in Action.")

The biggest savings are likely to be in labor costs, as employees waste less time getting messages, following up on missed calls, or traversing the hallways to check for urgent faxes. A time-and-motion study commissioned by Captaris showed that office workers can get their messages in half the usual time, while remote workers cut their times to under a third. It took only one-fifth the time to send faxes. Less tangible are new revenues from winning a sale that might have fallen through the cracks.

Implementation isn't as onerous as you might expect, according to UC vendors and users, especially since vendors usually have resellers, system integrators, or their professional service departments install the equipment and software. The typical enterprise configuration consists of UC server software installed turnkey-fashion on a dedicated, vendor-chosen server, but customers usually can pick another certified server. The server will have at least one PC telephony (voice) card (Brooktrout Inc. and the Dialogic unit of Intel Corp. are two typical suppliers) unless the circuitry is inside a switch or router sold by a network equipment vendor such as Cisco or Nortel. Additional servers may be needed to provide more capacity or to service other locations. Vendors typically claim installation takes several days (several weeks, at most) and a handful of vendor-referred customers confirm this.

"Big iron" shops will usually have no integration problems unless they're trying to tie legacy mainframe or minicomputer databases into the UC platform. Presumably, they've already migrated their e-mail to servers running Microsoft Exchange, Lotus Notes, Novell Groupwise, SendMail, or another well-known product. The real point of integration is between the e-mail and UC servers. Vendors say integration to a legacy PBX is generally not an issue, thanks to PBX standards or UC support for specific PBX products. Some PBX vendors are adding IP integration, and emerging IP-PBXes, which use IP for PBX-like call-control functions, are easily paired with UC platforms.

UC's Major Players
Several players in PBX voice-mail systems are the de facto standard-setters in UC for enterprises, while a larger group sells more to mid-size and small businesses. Leading the enterprise group are AT&T and Lucent spinoff Avaya Inc. (Basking Ridge, N.J.) with its Avaya Unified Communications Center; Nortel Networks Corp. (Brampton, Ontario), maker of CallPilot; and Captaris Corp. (Kirkland, Wash.), formerly AVT Corp., which sells CallXpress.

Active Voice LLC (Seattle, Wash.), maker of Repartee, is a longtime UM player that was acquired by NEC last year and gets a large chunk of its business selling systems to owners of NEC's telephony switches. Cisco Systems Inc. is a major player with its Unity server, which is part of the company's broader Architecture for Voice, Video, and Integrated Data (AVVID) multimedia product line that is also the hardware platform for some vendors' UC products.

Decisions, Decisions
The major deployment decision is whether to add UC accounts to the existing e-mail repository or run them separately in the repository that comes with the UC software. Vendors say the choice depends on your reliability needs, not performance: Synchronizing between databases, they say, has become fast enough that there's little danger of voice messaging, for example, lagging behind e-mail in users' unified views, or of either message type updating more slowly than they otherwise might.

Keeping the repositories separate means some messages are still accessible when one system goes down, and voice mail doesn't depend on a live network connection, since it can function as an island, communicating directly with the telephony side. Furthermore, UC servers' onboard databases are likely to be optimized for better performance, say some vendors.

On the other hand, merging the repositories on the e-mail server may simplify IT learning curves and obviate the need for a separate administrator or running separate backups and other data-security precautions on a newserver. In either case, adding mirrored servers can enhance reliability.

Instead, the biggest implementation hassle is likely to be importing user accounts from the e-mail server and tweaking them for UC, but vendors assert even this won't take more than a day or two. The federated structure of Active Directory aids with this process, and UC products come with import tools.

That's not to say there's no work for the telephony department. "You have to get your PBX vendor to come out to configure its switch to make its phone lines come into the CallXpress server," says Laura Johnson, a Captaris vice president. Companies that don't already have a fax server may need to work with their PBX vendor to get a bank of incoming lines so faxes can individually reach UC users, Johnson adds.

Users, especially the less computer literate, may struggle to learn to get their voice messages from their PCs instead of their telephones, though the hardware can be set up to let them continue to check voice mail from the phone rather than fumble with a PC headset and microphone.

On the Horizon
Though the basic messaging functions of UC are long settled, advances in speech technology are bringing major changes to the software. As speech-recognition engines have come into their own in recent years, UC vendors have incorporated features that let you speak commands instead of punching the keypad, allowing finer control. With speech recognition, for example, you could change a Microsoft Outlook schedule by speaking the necessary editing commands, followed by dates and times, essentially having a virtual conversation with UC software that prompts you with spoken questions. Meanwhile, text-to-speech (TTS) engines that "read" e-mail over the phone have become increasingly common in UC products.

Vendors are striving to achieve so-called presence management that reliably routes calls and messages based on people's location and availability. Many UC products typically come with basic find me/follow me features, but these are being expanded with more call-control options. VoiceXML, a variant of the Extensible Markup Language (XML), is becoming an increasingly important tool for implementing voice features in UC, according to vendors.

Wireless technology is likewise forming a major intersection with UC. Carriers such as Verizon and cellular phone vendors such as Ericsson are among those with UC offerings, but they tend to be geared toward consumers. Wireless is clearly an important extension of the UC vision of anywhere, anytime messaging. Conversely, the increase in mobile workers—be they roaming inside corporate campuses or through airports around the world—are fueling UC demand. In the enterprise, though, the market hasn't sorted out how to merge the two, according to analysts, with a confusing number of industry segments competing to sell solutions. Some UC vendors sell wireless options; Interactive Intelligence, for example, has a Mobilité product that works with Communité.

On one level, wireless UC is a no-brainer, since any phone can be a UC endpoint. But the emerging wireless data phones enabled primarily by the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) and XML, though seemingly full of promise for a merged voice/data application like UC, are a non-factor so far. However, companies that have already internally implemented wireless wide-area-network (WAN) access to corporate data can integrate new UC applications, and some UC vendors partner with wireless infrastructure vendors. Companies deploying Blackberry pagers from Research in Motion Ltd. (Waterloo, Ontario) have tied that platform's text messaging into their UC platforms, according to vendors. Inside company walls, some customers are using the 802.11 wireless local-area network (LAN) and other radio transmission standards to provide employees with radio phones for mobile access when they're away from their desks.

Plan Accordingly
When asked to offer advice for tire kickers, UC customers and analysts say it's imperative to frankly assess the bandwidth capacity of your data networks. You'll be stressing them with additional traffic that, says one vendor, is comparable to the load from e-mail attachments. Demand that the vendor run performance simulations to prove the UC system can handle your company's peak messaging periods.

Look for UC software that doesn't lock you into a particular hardware platform, so you'll retain flexibility when upgrading your telephony infrastructure. Software that is highly customizable, with decent development tools, is also preferable.

Once they're empowered by a well-designed UC platform, your employees will get nearly every message the first time.