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By Carmi Levy, Senior Research Analyst, Info-Tech Research Group
Unified messaging is exploding in popularity. Info-Tech Research Group estimates there are currently about 45 million worldwide users, up from barely one million in 2000. If you are currently planning a Voice over IP (VoIP) deployment, consider consolidated voice, e-mail, and fax messaging offerings to reduce communication costs and greater flexibility.
What Is Unified Messaging?
A unified messaging system (UMS) refers to the management of voice, fax, and conventional e-mail messages in a single inbox that can be accessed through a conventional e-mail client or telephone.
A UMS is especially advantageous to mobile users because it allows single-point access to messaging regardless of whether the individual has been issued a computer or a phone. More sophisticated UMS implementations support worldwide access and a wider array of compatible devices.
Years ago, unified messaging was a much-heralded technology that never quite delivered on the hype. In the late 1990s, the infrastructure simply wasn't in place to support the rich services offered by a UMS. Today's high-speed networks have changed all that.
Beyond the meteoric growth of this market over the past five years, Info-Tech estimates this will continue as the number of VoIP deployments increases.
Why Unified Matters
Unified messaging has long been a technology ahead of its time. The increasing maturity of the VoIP telephony market is putting it back on IT managers' radar screens. A UMS can drive returns in a number of areas:
- Reduced hardware costs because separate fax machines, answering machines, and other formerly-standalone hardware no longer need to be purchased and maintained.
- Faster access for end users because they no longer need to use multiple machines and interfaces to access messages.
- Greater support for distributed workforces due to flexibility in delivering messaging over multiple types of devices - PCs, phones, etc.
- Increased security from the electronic storage of message types.
- Broader compliance with privacy and retention legislation thanks to message tracking and storage consolidation.
- Faster response to messages due to wireless notification of employees. Messages no longer need to wait in an inbox until the employee returns to the office.
- Integrate UMS strategy with VoIP strategy. A recent survey of Info-Tech clients indicates 25 percent of our clients already have VoIP in place and are considering additional investment. VoIP remains among our clients' top three investment priorities. Link UMS services to current or planned VoIP infrastructure to ensure maximum project effectiveness.
- Analyze vendors. Generally speaking, the top VoIP vendors are also leaders in the UMS space. Look to Alcatel OmniTouch Unified Communication, Cisco Unified Communications Solution, and Nortel Unified Communications solutions for integrated UMS solutions that scale well in mid-sized environments.
- Ask for pricing information for your particular needs. Keep in mind that on top of an already-planned VoIP implementation, the differential cost for unified messaging will be less than a clean-sheet implementation.
- Also look into setting up pilot projects to validate initial assumptions and promises about the technology.
- Watch standards. Unified messaging broadens the list of messaging-specific standards that must be integrated into any final solution. These include H.323, SIP, SMTP, and IMAP. XML is increasingly critical in this regard as unified messaging incorporates a richer set of capabilities than more conventional messaging environments.
- Short-list target services. Just because a unified messaging service can integrate fax, voice, and e-mail traffic does not mean that all of these should be included. Determine what business needs must be met, then match the technologies to suit. Consider a simplified implementation initially (e.g. voice and e-mail) that can scale as the company's needs evolve.
- Avoid overly sophisticated features that don't already figure into workflow. If end users need to be massively retrained, the benefits will be minimized.
- Don't forget the apps. Unified messaging is nothing without appropriate links into mission-critical software applications. Microsoft's Live Communications Server 2005 and Microsoft Office Communicator 2005 products feature strong integration with existing desktop productivity applications. Its upcoming Exchange 2007 server an Office 2007 suite will drive further integration of rich messaging functionality into the desktop application space.
- Microsoft has integrated UMS support into Exchange since 1999. Its upcoming Exchange 2007 product will feature enhanced UM functionality. When evaluating new or upgraded software packages or solutions, consider whether or not unified messaging compatibility is already - or should be - part of the product's feature set.
- Stay focused on process. Unified messaging will not cure bad messaging management processes. If you have not already defined for your end users how their various communication tools are supposed to be used, then moving to a unified platform will not improve matters.
- For more background, see the following Info-Tech policies: "E-Mail Acceptable Use Policy," "Telephone and Voicemail Acceptable Use Policy," "E-Mail Communications Best Practices Policy,", "IM Security Policy," and "Internet Acceptable Use Policy."
For companies considering a VoIP deployment in the coming year, it makes sense to include unified messaging in the final plan. Additional implementation costs will be more than offset by streamlined workflow and reduced operational costs of standalone pieces of conventional hardware. Don't go VoIP without it.
Want to Know More? Check out these additional resources.
- "Unified presence offers messaging the modern way," from Network World Canada.
- "Defining the Different Modalities of Unified Communication," from TechWeb.
- "UC Berkeley upgrades voice," from NetworkWorld.
- "Open-System PBXs Paved Way for Web Phone Control," from eWEEK.
About the author: Carmi Levy is a Senior Research Analyst with Ontario, Canada-based Info-Tech Research Group. Info-Tech Research Group is a global leader in providing IT research and advice. Their practical, actionable research is specifically designed to have a clear and direct impact on IT organizations.
This was first published in September 2006