Come and Get It

A unified-messaging system lets your users stay informed and in touch!

February 17, 2003

16 Min Read
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Back in 1998 the Radicati Group studied the TCO of a UM system and found that it added 25 to 40 minutes of productivity per worker, per day. With the proliferation of messages in enterprises today, we can safely assume that number will now exceed 40 minutes--time that can be better spent generating sales and providing customer support. We tested three UM products in 1998 (see "Funneling the Messaging Flood in Your Network"); this was just the beginning of our UM coverage. We've been preaching the benefits ever since (for more recent articles see the Web Links on page 42).

When we asked our readers about UM's perks, you identified message management as a primary benefit, ranking just ahead of the ability to access and manage e-mail, faxes and voicemail from a multiplicity of devices (see chart on page 44).

Although UM products are being put under the rubric of "unified communications" by the likes of Gartner and IDC, don't be fooled. It's UM that brings real-time call delivery and presence management to end users using an autoattendant front end to existing messaging systems. And it's UM that uses TTS (text-to-speech) engines that read e-mail over the phone to users. UM has a range of services that include one number (universal number) for both telephone and fax and find-me or follow-me features that route incoming messages to your present location and to the available device in hand, be it a cell phone or a PDA. With UM, users can send voice and fax messages as attachments to e-mail and access their corporate directories, address books and other resources using the telephone. This is especially appealing to the mobile professional.

Wait, There's More

Mobile professionals may be the most highly skilled--and highly paid--employees you support. These executives, salesmen and technical consultants can be vital resources in generating revenue. Yet, mobile professionals are hamstrung by that mobility. While traveling, road warriors must maintain contact with the home office and customers, and they need to regularly review e-mail, faxes, voicemail and pages for sales support and marching orders. UM can keep these employees connected and supplied with business information.With UM, mobile professionals can view, listen, copy and forward messages from most any device--even a public phone. They can use a Web browser to check e-mail, faxes and voicemail and manage account preferences, such as routing important calls to their current locations (presence management). Calls made to their offices while they're on the road can follow them and ring their cell phones or pagers. Using caller ID, the user can decide to accept the real-time communication or move it to voicemail. This elegance of simplicity means more than just streamlining your business cards with one phone number. Think seamless access to contact information and customer data that can lead to other business applications from an easy-to-use telephone interface.

For example, telephones are ubiquitous, and cell phones have become standard fare for a remote sales force. These phones are becoming capable of receiving graphical data and streaming media. Speech access to a UM store can make for a highly productive and efficient tool for mobile workers to receive critical business data. In fact, they may need only a cell phone and an overnight bag on their next sales calls.

And better support for your employees is only the first step. These same services can be extended to customers and partners. For example, preferred customers and urgent support needs can be routed to specific individuals for immediate response. This will increase sales and make for happy customers. Given these benefits, why hasn't UM been embraced in the enterprise? Clearly there's a disconnect because, of readers polled for this article, only 15 percent have implemented a UM system that combines e-mail, voicemail and fax messages into a single store. Of the 85 percent that are hanging back, just 37 percent indicated that they have investigated or plan to implement UM within 18 months; a majority said that they had no plans for UM or have decided not to implement it.

Why? Our readers stepped in with some answers. Reasons cited include the economy--with limited funds, many enterprises do not consider UM a high priority. Others indicated that the technology has not matured enough to warrant implementation, and some said UM systems will not integrate with their existing communication infrastructures.

We beg to differ. Although it's difficult to second-guess enterprise priorities for IT investment, the efficiencies of centralizing corporate communications and making knowledge accessible from multiple devices and remote locations are compelling arguments for UM.In addition, UM is not an immature technology; offerings like Interactive Intelligence's Communité and Cisco Unity 4 have been shipping since 1997 and 1999, respectively. Unity actually predates its Cisco incarnation, beginning life under ActiveVoice's flag. And Avaya's Unified Messenger has been shipping since 1996 (for more on these products see "Plugging the Communications Time Drain,").

These are mature offerings that support major PBXs--from Avaya, Nortel Networks, Siemens and NEC--and that can integrate with your IP infrastructure using VPIM (Voice Profile for Internet Mail).

Second, UM leverages enterprise directories and e-mail platforms from Lotus (Domino and Notes) and Microsoft (Active Directory and Exchange), and uses existing and new PBX technology. This is a departure from the legacy Centrex and PBX systems that run proprietary software and have a limited ability to share information, such as the company's telephone directory, with other systems. Further, these legacy systems commonly require telephone sets provided by the vendors. As a result, enterprises are heavily dependent on the vendors to maintain the systems and provide necessary upgrades to features and functionality. This makes changing vendors difficult and costly. On the plus side, Centrex and PBX systems are mature and have long MTBFs (mean times between failure).

Further muddying the waters is the fact that, from 1997 to 1999, enterprise expenditures on new PBXs increased in response to Y2K issues. Unfortunately, at that time, UM was not on most enterprise road maps because new initiatives, for the most part, took a back seat to Y2K remediation. Salvaging existing systems for the new millennium was the primary concern. Once we got over that obstacle, the recent downturn in the economy threw up another roadblock. Revenues are down, and new technology initiatives are on hold. Since PBX technology is reliable, enterprises can put off further upgrades, even ignore technologies that do not directly impact revenue generation.

But when the economy rebounds, enterprises that can hit the ground running will have a huge advantage. That's where UM comes in, and indeed, analysts are optimistic. The Telecommunications Industry Association expects UM sales and services to hit $3.5 billion in 2005, up from $1 billion in 2001 for a 32.1 percent annual growth rate. And the TIA is not alone. A more recent study by the Radicati Group estimates that 7.5 million UM inboxes existed in 2002 and forecasts 89 million by year's end. Radicati further expects the UM market to reach $8 billion in sales by the end of 2006, when enterprises begin replacing legacy PBXs with new IP PBXs that leverage network infrastructures and integrate with existing enterprise resources, such as directories and e-mail servers.UM is not only about products, it can be about services too. Small and midsize companies in particular may be interested in outsourcing.

Carriers including AT&T Wireless and BSNL of India license UM technologies (Lucent Technologies' AnyPath and CriticalPath's Unified Communications, respectively) and embed them into their service offerings. The benefits: UM systems can leverage a common directory to hold user profiles and provision services to enable flexible offerings, including multimedia message stores for e-mail, fax and voicemail messages and shared address books. Even advanced call-routing and follow-me features are starting to come to market with the WorldCom Connection.With UM, carriers may provide enterprises some options in deploying UM without building out their own infrastructures; however, proceed with caution. It's one thing to outsource a tactical business process. It's another thing entirely to outsource a strategic resource like corporate communications.

Size Does Matter

Of course, not all enterprises are created equal. Small companies may want a comprehensive UM service where voicemail and e-mail servers are maintained on the service provider's site. And, hosted services provide low entry costs for messaging services--SMBs (small and medium-sized businesses) don't need to purchase and maintain the hardware and software necessary to run UM, and they don't need the technical expertise and sheer manpower required to administer and maintain these systems. They could also receive the benefit of a low subscription cost because service providers can leverage a large subscription base to reduce their TCO and provide cost-effective services.

But with the benefits, there are burdens.

Outsourcing follows natural laws. That is, the more you give, the less you have. A hosted UM service not only controls your voice and e-mail servers, but also your messages until they are moved to a local e-mail server. This makes messages difficult to retrieve should the lights go out for the provider. Also, service providers will not introduce new features until they see a guaranteed rate of return among all the subscribers. This may inhibit the introduction of new features as they become available and reduce the amount of integration and customization of UM with enterprise resources. On the other hand, outsourcing messaging services can facilitate mobile professionals' access to UM. Rather than accessing the corporate LAN/WAN for services, road warriors can retrieve and send multimedia messages within the carrier's wireless or wire-line network.A hosted service is unlikely to fill the bill for large enterprises with investments in PBX, e-mail and directory services. For them, a managed service is the way to go, if at all.

Open Minded

The hallmark of the new generation of UM products is open standards and integration. That is, they integrate with your network infrastructure and leverage enterprise resources such as your directory and message store. To get the full benefits of UM in a managed outsourcing arrangement, carriers must integrate with critical enterprise resources and secure data to make them available to employees and customers through telephone interfaces and speech-enabled applications. How carriers handle security and data integrity will be a paramount concern.

And of course, the devil is in the details.

Implementing UM is easy compared with provisioning the services and applying rate information for billing purposes. For example, most carriers provision services from a subscriber account identification number tied to the principle device used to receive service: the telephone. Telephone numbers are assigned to a location or switch. Billing information is generated from usage based on service levels and other factors, such as time of day and destination. Today, an account ID may have more than one device that accesses services, for example a landline as well as a wireless telephone, pager and PDA. With UM, each of these devices may have separate rate information, and costs may be reflected in air time for wireless access or packets/bytes for voice messaging. In addition, usage and billing information may come from a variety of systems and formats. This information needs to be collected and presented to customers in standardized form. Moreover, customers need to fully understand this information and the technology to determine if their ROI is measuring up.

Any new enterprise technology requires some user training and education. Carriers need to make their services "simple and smart" for end users. In many organizations, for example, only a handful of employees ever make it beyond the basics of checking their voicemail. To get the full benefit of UM, enterprise customers will need training as well as easy-to-use telephone and computer interfaces to configure advanced messaging functions and follow-me features. Otherwise, you may be adding an unnecessary layer of complication to an indispensable enterprise resource.Sean Doherty is a technology editor and lawyer based at our Syracuse University Real-World Labs®. A former project manager and IT engineer at Syracuse University, he helped develop centrally supported applications and storage systems. Write to him at [email protected].Do you feel like Bobo the contortionist as you try to manage disparate communications systems and maintain contact with a mobile sales force while supporting customers and employees? Do your knowledge workers spend way too much time juggling messages on a variety of e-mail and voicemail systems--time that would be better spent generating revenue? To add insult to injury, snail mail and fax transmissions may also be added to the mix. Remote users may need central-office support such as reading information to them over the phone or scanning and sending hard copies via e-mail.

It's enough to make you want to run away and join the circus.

Instead, consider unified messaging. We sent out an RFP seeking an IP-enabled, SIP-compliant UM system that supports IP PBXs and can carry both voice and data for our Legal Eagles research and information service. Out of four respondents only Cisco and Interactive Intelligence filled the bill, and our choice, thanks to its full feature set and reasonable price, was Interactive's Communité. For Cisco shops, however, the Unity product is a capable competitor.

No matter which UM system you choose, everyone wins. You get a central point of administration for enterprise messaging. Multiple devices--such as computers, telephones and PDAs--can access, view, listen to, forward, copy and archive all message types. Users get improved communications services on the road. And customers get their important incoming messages--routed directly to key personnel if necessary--no matter where they are.We dispatched an RFP seeking an IP-enabled unified-messaging system that supports IP PBXs and can carry both voice and data, taking full advantage of our fictional law-research firm's substantial investment in its IP infrastructure. With these minimal requirements, the world was at our door (see "Plugging the Communications Time Drain,"). But we also wanted to minimize the impact on the network and improve call control and management. The answer: Session Initiation Protocol.

The SIP filter reduced the number of respondents to a handful. Although both Alcatel and Avaya replied to our RFP, Avaya's solution didn't support SIP, and Alcatel's solution won't be available until later this year. This left Interactive Intelligence's Communité and Cisco Systems' Unity to battle it out.We put Communité and Unity side by side and looked at each product's ability to manage a single UM store as well as provide functionality for mobile professionals. We also scrutinized their management capabilities and support for LDAP, MIME, SMTP, VPIM and other open standards that would help the systems integrate with various enterprise resources.

When the dust settled, Interactive Intelligence's Communité got our bid. Communité provided the best value based on the per-user cost of UM, it provided the most features, and it received high marks for integration.

Our Scenario: This RFP evaluates TCP/IP-enabled unified-messaging products that support SIP for Legal Eagles LLC, aka Leagles.

Leagles provides legal research and information services to law professionals. Its mission is to offer high quality at a low cost. To that end, the company uses the latest technology to achieve high levels of efficiency and responsiveness to client needs nationwide.

Leagles has offices in Boston, Chicago, New York, San Francisco and Seattle. The San Francisco office is relocating to Oakland to take advantage of a more favorable business climate and to reduce operating costs. The new Oakland location provides QoS (quality of service) for voice and data on a Gigabit Ethernet (TCP/IP) backbone throughout the building with switched 100-Mbps network connections to every desktop. With plenty of headroom on the network, Leagles Oakland is investigating an IP-enabled UM product to combine digital voice and data on the same network.Leagles Oakland is looking for a SIP-based solution to ride the next wave of Internet multimedia services. Once the surf gets stronger for VoIP on the Internet, SIP will put more intelligence in PDAs and wireless data appliances; that will improve mobility management and enable true multimedia sessions. Leagles Oakland, by cutting its teeth on this technology now, will be in a good position to increase its multimedia publishing efforts to a mobile work force and clients. Until then, providing VoIP with SIP on the corporate LAN should improve LAN-based call and session management.

After a successful implementation of UM in Oakland, Leagles will investigate it for Boston, Chicago, New York and Seattle. At that time, the company will sort out the operational differences between the offices. Although all locations have standardized on Captaris' RightFax, the West Coast prefers its Microsoft Exchange 2000 messaging service with Active Directory to the East Coast's Lotus Notes and Domino directory. We haven't figured out what Chicago is doing. No one has returned our calls. But the inventory indicates that it's some IMAP4-compliant mail server with an LDAP-compatible directory.

The Oakland move provides a good opportunity to investigate the costs of installing, maintaining and supporting UM. Plus, it will be nice to call the California office and have someone answer the phone: UM products have a "follow-me" feature that will pursue user devices--to court or to Starbucks.

Vital Stats

Leagles' Goals:
In a bid to gain an edge on its competitors in low-cost legal services andmaximize its billable hours, Leagles plans to:

  • Consolidate message management for e-mail, voicemail and fax

  • Enable mobile access to e-mail, voicemail and fax data

  • Provide a single point of management and administration for all message types

  • Leverage current IT infrastructure and applications?for example, directory,e-mail and fax

  • Maintain low costs per user

Leagles' people:

  • 1,000 employees nationwide, 200 of them in the new Oakland office

  • Mergers and acquisitions will result in 4,000 additional employees within fiveyears

  • 10 percent of the work force is mobile at any given time, equipped withcellular phones and/or wireless PDAs

Leagles' links:

  • Upon the move to Oakland, the legacy PBX from the San Francisco office will beupgraded to an IP PBX

  • The data network will use a Gigabit Ethernet backbone with switched 100 Mbpsto desktops

  • Internet data services will be upgraded to OC-3

  • Intermediate devices on the network will operate at OSI Layer 3 through Layer7 to provide QoS for VoIP and data

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