Convenience, cost savings drive adoption of unified messaging

A University of Miami instructor hurriedly checks his voice mail using a laptop to access his e-mail Inbox hosted on the school’s Web site.

Miles away, the “message waiting” light on his desktop phone is instantly extinguished – a sure sign that the school’s traditional and IP-enabled private branch exchange systems have responded to its new unified messaging (UM) application.

UM systems offer enterprise users a common interface for e-mail, voice mail and faxes. The technology works by snapping up voice messages, often stored as WAV files, converting these audio chunks to text, and depositing them in a user’s e-mail Inbox.

Usually, the applications also wrap in text-to-speech technology to dump written e-mails into voice mail systems.

On the scene for almost a decade, UM has been saddled with slow adoption rates.

Finally, the technology is seeing an uptake among large organizations.

A SIP in time

One key reason for this is an evolving text-based standard: Session Initiation Protocol or SIP.

SIP lets traditional or mobile phones work together more readily with applications such as e-mail and instant messaging.

“SIP really saves the day, because it lets you introduce [unified messaging] products that work not only in the VoIP world, but solve legacy issues as well,” says Stewart Seruya, the University of Miami’s chief security and network officer.

As is the case with most organizations eyeing UM, interoperability was especially important to the university’s technology decision-makers. Seruya and his staff wanted to extend access to unified Inboxes but were under orders not to rip out major existing systems, such as a huge installed base of Cisco switches.

Soon the message-waiting light became a metaphor for interoperability. “That light was the number one metric we used,” says Seruya.

Some vendors and many market analysts tout SIP as an easier way to extend UM across an enterprise without having to swap out extensive infrastructures that connect corporations to public switched telephone networks. Yet SIP isn’t the only answer.

A tale of two protocols

Many large communications vendors are still offering UM products based on the International Telecommunication Union’s H.323 protocol for enabling IP communication.

That’s because H.323 is far more mature than SIP and contains well-defined call-control features.

“Many products now include both H.323 and SIP. So legacy vendors may offer SIP enhancements to their current H.323 platform,” says Elizabeth Herrell, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. Communications heavyweights now involved in SIP deployment include Cisco Systems Inc., Nortel Networks Ltd. and Avaya Inc.

SIP is considered less complex than H.323. As the protocol matures, SIP will likely gain ground in the UM market – something analysts are already starting to see, say Herrell and others. Currently, about 15 per cent of major corporations have UM capabilities in place, but another 29 per cent are now seriously considering the technology, according to Forrester.

The University of Miami’s UM adoption was slower than expected. For years, the school had considered a major VoIP investment, until IT officials decided in late 2005 to buy Communite, a UM/voice mail replacement system from Indianapolis-based Interactive Intelligence Inc. Communite’s reliance on SIP helped nudge Miami officials into action, and now about 14,000 users have access to UM capabilities, Seruya says.

A little of a good thing

One Canadian organization appreciates the benefits of UM and plans to deploy the technology – but in a limited way.

House of Blues Concerts Canada (HOB) in Toronto organizes shows across Canada – not only in House of Blues nightclubs but also in big arenas. Its traveling production and sales crews use an array of personal communications devices. “We saw unified messaging [offering us] benefits like reduced cell phone usage, because people would not have to call in and check messages,” says Howie Gold, vice-president of IT at HOB. “It was also a potential single point of contact for faxes and e-mails.”

Yet because UM options on voice mail replacement systems cost about $115 extra per seat, HOB didn’t want to blanket the organization with those features.

Instead, a small subset of HOB personnel is offered UM capabilities – extended as options on the IP PBX that the concert promoter purchased several years ago. HOB has installed Business Communications Manager (BCM) from Brampton, Ont.-based Nortel.

HOB officials are focused on the IT budget. “Unified messaging is a bonus for us because it helps us stay far more connected. But it can be hard to justify to the accountants a $15,000 expenditure that provides us with an icon that says you have a new message,” says Gold.

Easier to sell, he says, is the VoIP-related drop in long-distance charges for calls between HOB offices in Toronto and Vancouver. Those costs plummeted from $2,260 a month to $230 upon the adoption of BCM.

VoIP investments with limited UM rollouts are typical, according to Robert Mahowald, an analyst at Framingham, Mass.-based IDC. For instance, if a business installs a voice mail replacement system to accommodate 1,000 employees, only a small segment of those employees are likely to become UM users.

“Nine hundred of them will get vanilla voice mail, and 100 will get unified messaging, which is typically limited to high earners and mobile executives,” he says.

Such was the case at Stahls’ Inc., a St. Clair Shores, Mich.-based manufacturer of imprint graphics used by garment manufacturers to decorate apparel with sports logos and other designs. “We are licensed for about one-third of our workforce. This is a proper mix for us between traveling, remote and power users who would utilize the features,” says Michael Terenzi, manager of IT/telecommunications operations.

Stahls’ deployed its UM capabilities through the adoption of a new HiPath 4000 switch and Xpressions 4.0 unified messaging system from Siemens Communications Inc. in Boca Raton, Fla. As was the case with HOB, SIP didn’t play a huge role in Stahls’ UM applications.

Industry analysts such as Herrell and Mahowald agree that the potential of SIP to one day knock down the price per UM seat is currently the most attractive aspect of the protocol, which was spun out of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) as a signaling protocol for peer-to-peer multimedia applications.

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