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 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 uptick among large organizations, thanks in part to an evolving text-based standard: Session Initiation Protocol. 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 you can introduce solutions that work not only in the VoIP world but also 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. Quickly, 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.
Many large communications vendors are still offering UM products based on the International Telecommunication Union’s H.323 protocol for enabling IP communication, 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. Communication 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.