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Unified messaging: A beneficial part of any DR plan

Many companies are implementing unified messaging solutions as part of their disaster recovery plans. Experts agree that a consolidated messaging environment can dramatically improve the rebuilding process after a disaster.

To prepare for the worst possible disruptions to businesses, lives, homes and communities, companies and public entities need to create plans designed to minimize the brutal effects of any type of natural or man-made disaster.

Many entities place their business continuity bets on a technology solution, often some form of unified messaging. This particular solution integrates several communications media (computer, fax, phone and video), enabling users to retrieve and send voice, fax and email messages from a single interface, whether it be a wireline phone, cell phone or PC. In addition, ultrasophisticated solutions provide video capabilities.

"Unified messaging is exploding in popularity," said Carmi Levy, senior research analyst at Info-Tech Research Group Inc. in London, Ontario. "Currently, there are about 40 million users worldwide, up from barely 1 million five years ago. The increasing maturity of the VoIP telephony market is driving the growth."

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Levy said unified messaging can deliver numerous benefits to organizations, chiefly reduced hardware costs, better access for end users, improved support for distributed workforces, increased security, broader compliance with privacy and retention legislation, and faster response to messages.

He added that a unified messaging system is especially advantageous to mobile users because it gives them single-point access to messaging, regardless of whether they have a phone or a computer. More sophisticated implementations support worldwide access and a wider array of compatible devices.

Disaster recovery (DR) planning can particularly benefit from a unified messaging implementation, Levy said.

"The more streamlined infrastructure requirements of a consolidated messaging environment mean there is less to rebuild in the event of a disaster," he said. "In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, for example, mobile wireless trailers provided voice and data connectivity over a single network."

"One network supporting multiple communication channels is a lot easier to build into a DR plan than disparate networks that each requires separate skill sets to implement and maintain," he said.

Leading vendors in the unified messaging space include Avaya Inc., Cisco Systems Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co., Interwise Inc., Nortel Networks Ltd. and Siemens AG. These and other vendors provide an array of discrete options -- voice, mobile phone, instant messaging, email client, conferencing, IP telephony to name a few -- that can be mixed and matched in various ways, depending on the customer's choice, existing network and future technology plans.

Unified messaging has been an ongoing success story for Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Mass., said Joanne Kossuth, the college's CIO. Kossuth incorporated the technology into the school's network six years ago, when the institution opened its doors.

"We made a decision that we were going to build a fully converged, end-to-end IP network that would allow us to create an interactive and collaborative environment for students and staff, and ensure we could continue business in the event of a disaster," Kossuth said.

After a two-year process of vendor and technology evaluation, the college chose a solution from Toronto-based Nortel. Now, the school has a scalable, integrated, Linux-based network of converged voice, data and video over IP. The solution features virtual private network and wireless laptop connectivity -- enabling the college to maintain constant communication with staff and students in the event of a disaster.

The network serves 500 students, faculty and staff members, and supports more than 2,000 devices, including IP phones, laptops, building control devices and security systems. Key components of the Nortel system, which cost about $2 million dollars, are the Ethernet Routing Switch 8600, Communications Server 1000, Multimedia Communication Server 5100 and the Nortel VPN router.

"We saved about a million dollars by going with a VoIP solution," she said. "But that was just on the initial investment. The real payoff is that additions and changes haven't cost anything -- plus, I don't need a telecommunications department."

Kossuth said Nortel emerged as the clear choice for a host of reasons -- its commitment to partner with the college on various fronts, the field-tested reliability of the solution and the superior flexibility and low-cost benefits of Nortel's IP-based technology over a private branch exchange solution.

"The core benefit of unified messaging is that we can provide a low-cost collaborative environment for our users -- an environment that gives us a strategic way to deal with any disaster," Kossuth said.

Herman Mehling is a freelance writer based in San Anselmo, Calif.

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