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Unified messaging comes of age for SMBs

For the better part of the past decade, unified messaging (UM) was a much-heralded technology that never quite delivered on the hype. For many reasons, this is changing rapidly, and IT leaders would

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do well to look more closely at UM as they flesh out their enterprise messaging plans.

Unified messaging refers to the management of voice, fax and conventional email messages in a single in-box that can be accessed through a conventional email client or telephone. Voicemails can be read on a personal digital assistant (PDA), emails can be listened to on a phone, and faxes can be routed to an email inbox.

A unified messaging system (UMS) can replace an organization's traditional collection of disparate communication devices, networks and interfaces. By streamlining messaging management down to one inbox that's accessible through a range of devices and interfaces, a UMS accelerates workflow and reduces the ongoing amount of overhead required by IT to manage it all.

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, PDA, smartphone or just a basic wired or cellular phone. It enhances the productivity of mobile end users by allowing them to accomplish more no matter the device they're using.

For example, a mobile worker with a simple handset can manage email through a UMS-provided text-to-speech interface. By using voice prompts to access waiting messages, the mobile worker can make use of time that was previously nonproductive, and can respond more quickly to customer needs.

The bad old days

All of this capability has been long in coming. In fact, UM could be called a technology ahead of its time. In the mid- to late '90s, the infrastructure simply wasn't in place to support the rich services offered by a UMS. Bandwidth was prohibitively expensive, and standards were few and far between. First-generation UM solutions were proprietary and did not interoperate well -- or at all -- with equipment from other vendors.

UM early adopters were forced to take a leap of faith with a given vendor. For some, early UM adoption became an expensive lesson in buying into hype before the technology was fully ready for prime time. This was not a friendly landscape for typical small and medium-sized businesses (SMB).

We still live with the fallout today. IT managers have long memories and a natural tendency to be cynical. While these attitudes are both healthy and necessary to minimize risk to the enterprise, the natural resistance to UM is starting to give way as the overall state of messaging and networking technology continues to evolve.

UM at the turning point

Things have changed significantly -- and for the better -- in the UM space during the past three years. The messaging and networking landscape in which UM is being deployed has matured, thanks to the wider adoption of standards such as H.323, Internet Message Access Protocol, Session Initiation Protocol and Simple Mail Transfer Protocol. And the emergence of XML allows smaller shops to deploy richer capabilities than ever before.

Consequently, today's UMS offerings don't require rocket scientists to integrate. The average SMB can easily install and manage a scalable, affordable UMS. And as companies update their messaging roadmaps, UM is coming up in discussions far more often than not. It's clear that UM's time has finally arrived.

Not so fast

Of course, no major infrastructure project should ever be approached lightly, and there are several factors SMBs must consider before deploying a UMS:

  • Price: Capital costs alone should give some SMBs pause. A full-on UM implementation can easily cost in the range of six figures, so careful financial planning is a must for SMBs.
  • Infrastructure: Although UM can be implemented over conventional telephony infrastructure and doesn't necessarily require an IP-based network as a prerequisite, network infrastructure will almost certainly need some upgrading to support a consolidated voice/data implementation.
  • Training: The impact on existing staff will also be significant. Traditionally separate data and telephony teams will either be combined outright or will need to work more closely together. Skills-training needs will be paramount. End users will also need training to take advantage of new services and interfaces, and support infrastructure such as help desks will also need attention.

If your next major investment in telephony doesn't include at least some aspects of unified messaging, you could risk being left behind.

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Although earlier UM solutions were out of the average SMB's reach, the technology is becoming more affordable and simpler to implement. Major messaging vendors have already migrated their core products down to the SMB market.

The leading major vendor offerings are Alcatel-Lucent's OmniTouch Unified Communication, Avaya Inc.'s Unified Communications, Cisco Systems Inc.'s Unified Communications Applications Solution and Nortel Network Ltd.'s CallPilot Unified Messaging. But there's also Microsoft's Exchange 2007 to consider, which incorporates robust UM capability and interfaces with an organization's expanding range of messaging and collaboration offerings.

SMBs will also want to look at industry-focused innovators like AVST in El Toro, Calif. Specialists are often better equipped to respond to the specific needs of SMBs because they've built their products and their models from the ground up specifically for the SMB market.

Ultimately, today's high-speed networks and rapidly evolving data and telephony infrastructure are leading IT managers to significantly reconsider the viability of UM. As a result, UM is emerging as a must-have strategy for enterprise competitiveness. If your next major investment in telephony doesn't include at least some aspects of UM, you could risk being left behind.

Carmi Levy is a senior research analyst at London, Ontario-based Info-Tech Research Group Inc. He specializes in end-user computing, messaging and mobility. Contact him at clevy@infotech.com.


This was first published in March 2007

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