Getting the unified message

There’s no doubt that being able to access your voice mail, e-mail and faxes from a single inbox, regardless of how they were sent, is handy, but unified messaging has been a tough sell in the corporate world.

In some firms, upper management may not be eager to buy software, upgrade storage capacity and add sufficient bandwidth for a system that only promises to boost productivity in 10-second increments. Instead of 30 seconds to review a voice message, it’s 20. Instead of having a colleague send a fax, you can open up the laptop, log on and view the document.

Nevertheless, after a shaky start plagued with integration woes, unified messaging is making steady inroads. Unified messaging software pulled in US$240 million last year, and the market will grow to US$934 million by 2005, predicts Joe Gagan, a senior analyst for The Yankee Group Inc. Factor in unified messaging hardware, infrastructure and installation costs, and the overall unified messaging market should top US$6 billion by 2004, according to Pelorus Group.

Unified messaging is clearly gaining acceptance as a means of increasing productivity and profitability. But the technology may not be well-suited for all workers. Gagan says return-on-investment (RoI) is highest for mobile workers in e-mail-centric companies. But for employees who work out of a single location, he regards unified messaging as nice rather than vital.

If your company is ready for unified messaging, there are a few ways to deploy the technology in-house – integrate it with your legacy environment, or roll out a unified system. Find out why a few early adopters chose the options they did.

Legacy integration

Integration, a formidable early stumbling block for unified messaging, is much improved in the current crop of products. Instead of peddling a whole new infrastructure to implement unified messaging, vendors are providing wares that integrate well with existing e-mail, voice mail, fax systems and telecom gear. After all, Microsoft Corp. and Lotus Development Corp. account for more than 100 million e-mail seats, and Avaya Inc. boasts 120 million voice mail boxes. Moreover, there are millions more e-mail and voice mail systems licensed by numerous competitors.

For example, Brampton, Ont.-based Nortel Networks Corp.’s CallPilot lets users access voice mail, e-mail and faxes through e-mail, a Web browser or via phone using voice commands. The unified messaging software works with Qualcomm Eudora Pro, Lotus Notes, Microsoft Exchange/Outlook, Netscape Messenger and Novell GroupWise e-mail packages; Netscape Communicator and Microsoft Internet Explorer browsers; as well as 80 per cent of existing PBXs.

CallPilot can act as a simple server-based voice mail system, or you can add modules to handle fax via e-mail, e-mail via voice mail, remote fax routing and other services. Pricing ranges from US$200 to US$1,000 per user depending on the type of installation and options selected.

The city of Richardson, Tex., implemented CallPilot along with a set of new phone switches. The basic architecture consists of two Nortel Meridian 61C phone switches and a Nortel CallPilot Windows NT server with a RAID 5 array linked by fast Ethernet. When a user opens Lotus Notes to view e-mail, a folder on the same screen contains voice-mail traffic. By double-clicking on the message, the user hears the full message.

Because CallPilot uses Voice Profile for Internet Mail (VPIM) – a standard for exchanging voice, e-mail and faxes between disparate systems via TCP/IP – integration is no longer the challenge it once was. “Previous versions of CallPilot certainly had some integration bugs, but the latest version had no integration issues at all,” says Steve Graves, CIO for the city.

Graves hired Williams Communications Group Inc. to roll out the CallPilot system. It took three days to install and configure the CallPilot server, connect it to the phone switches and get everything working well. Deploying the desktop software took about 10 minutes per user.

The hardest part, Graves says, is determining who really needs the system. Although the city of Richardson purchased 500 licenses, only 100 are now in use while top management determines where to deploy unified messaging to maximize return.

Once a client is set up, voice mail messages are retrievable by phone or through e-mail. Graves prefers to use his computer, explaining, “Voice mail has too many menus, and I spend too much time finding, listening and then deleting messages.”

The municipality also deployed optional capabilities such as fax and voice response. “We receive faxes and you see them in the voice mail folder,” Graves says. “It’s as simple as double-clicking on them, just like an e-mail message.”

And the voice-response module lets users navigate through voice mail messages without using the phone keypad. However, Graves chose not to roll out a text-to-voice system, which would allow access to e-mail by phone, although he might deploy it to a small group of users.

Overall, the city of Richardson spent US$125,000 for the CallPilot system – roughly US$250 per seat. The investment generates savings of as much as 20 seconds per voice mail message. Multiply that by tens of thousands of messages per year and it soon adds up. Graves also anticipates reduced voice mail training costs. “The moment I load the [unified messaging system] client, most users are off and running without any training at all,” he says.

Unified approach

While Nortel takes the route of integrating disparate legacy systems, competitors Avaya and Cisco Systems Inc. take a unified approach to all communication needs. For example, Avaya builds its unified messaging products to work directly with Microsoft Exchange/Outlook. This results in fewer options but greater administrative simplicity. “There is a big push to manage everything from one directory,” The Yankee Group’s Gagan says.

In January, Avaya released Unified Messenger 4.0 for Microsoft Exchange 2000. UM 4.0 has the standard unified messaging user features: the ability to access, respond to and manage voice mail, e-mail and fax communications from a PC, telephone, wireless phone or over the Internet.

A big selling point with systems like UM 4.0 is the benefit of having a single messaging program and directory to administer. Because UM 4.0 supports Microsoft’s Active Directory and Management Console snap-ins, you only need to use one interface to administer voice mail and e-mail.

“Administration of the system is simpler due to the integration with Exchange,” says Doug Glasgow, CIO for the architectural design firm Lord, Aeck & Sargent in Atlanta. “I simply add an Exchange user and then click on the voice mail tab to add voice mail properties, or the fax tab to add fax properties. I don’t have to do this through separate systems.”

Having just one system also simplified training, support and back-up and restore functions.

Although Lord, Aeck & Sargent already had e-mail and voice mail, people tended to use one or the other. Those who were more comfortable with the phone would handle their voice mail promptly, but not their e-mail. Those who preferred computers would do the opposite. They also had four fax machines, so there were problems with internal fax distribution.

When it came time to replace its central switchboard with direct dialling, the firm decided to integrate the three messaging systems. The new architecture consists of Microsoft Exchange 5.5, Avaya Unified Messenger 3, Feneastrae Faxination 3 and an Avaya Definity G3 PBX.

The new unified messaging system has been a boon to users who can choose to handle messaging tasks via the phone, e-mail or both. “If you use a [Research in Motion] BlackBerry pager device, the e-mails, voice mails or faxes will show up on the device right when you get them. [Unified messaging] also gives our clients the ability to send messages in any format and know that we can access them quickly and easily,” Glasgow says.

He also appreciates message management functions that simplify collaboration. All messages regarding a project can be stored in a single file and shared among project members.

Although Glasgow declines to discuss the cost of the rollout, Unified Messenger costs about US$75 per seat for the software and US$50 to US$70 for training and installation.