It's looking as if one of the big buzzwords for 2007 is going to be "unified messaging." It sounds good—heaven knows we need more unification in this divided world of ours—but what does it really mean and what can it do for your growing business? Let's take a look at the concept of UM and some existing and upcoming UM solutions.
What is UM?
Unified Messaging is a fancy way of referring to the integration of different types of messages—such as e-mail, text messages, voice, fax and video conferencing—into a centralized repository that can be accessed from different devices (computer, telephone, PDA, etc.). An example of UM is the ability of users to access their phone messages from their computer's Inbox, or their e-mail messages via their cell phones. This provides more convenience and better productivity for users, who can stay in touch without having to deal with a multiplicity of interfaces.
A good unified messaging solution is integrated with other applications and uses technologies such as text to speech, so that users can have their e-mail messages read to them over the phone. More sophisticated implementations of UM can use location determination technology to identify where a user is and what to do with an incoming message based on that information. UM technologies can incorporate notification methods so that you can be made aware instantly (for instance, via a text message on your cell phone) that you have a new e-mail or voice-mail message. Distribution lists can be used to quickly and easily send messages to groups of people.
We all know some folks who never answer the phone but always keep up with their e-mail, and others who check their e-mail boxes once a week but love to talk on the phone. Some respond only to IMs, and some companies insist on sending and receiving documents via fax rather than as e-mail attachments. With UM, it's easier for different users to use their preferred methods of communication and not miss out on any important exchanges.
At the same time, with UM users are no longer a slave to the telephone or computer. They can control when and where others can reach them, and they can prioritize and filter messages for more efficient disposition.
When you're considering deploying a UM solution for your organization, it's important to consider future growth and changing needs so that you don't end up having to "tear it down and start all over again" a few years down the road. You want a UM solution that's capable of handling more users/messages than your current messaging traffic volume, and one that will interoperate with both those applications you use now and those you anticipate deploying in the future.
UM on a Microsoft Network
It hasn't been easy to integrate messaging on a Microsoft network without resorting to expensive third-party solutions, but Exchange Server 2007 changes that, as it's designed to support unified messaging. Exchange 2007 UM can deliver voice messages to your Outlook Inbox and makes it easy for you to search your voice-mail messages just as you do with your e-mail messages. You can also forward voice-mail and fax messages to others.
And users don't have to have Outlook installed in order to take advantage of Exchange UM. With Outlook Web Access (OWA), they can retrieve their messages of all types from any computer, even public computers, through the web browser. Mobile users can access their messages from their laptops, handheld computers (Pocket PCs) or Smart Phones.
Not that it's necessary for your phone to be smart for you to get your messages. Exchange UM also provides for Outlook Voice Access (OVA). With OVA, you can call into your voice-mail system and get not just your voice messages, but also your e-mail messages and Outlook calendar information. You can listen to your e-mail messages and delete them or even reply to them from any telephone.
Microsoft's UM strategy goes way beyond Exchange Server, though. Other components of a comprehensive UM deployment that can be added for more functionality as your organization grows include:
- Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007, which supports Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) based Voice over IP calling and video and web conferencing as well as Instant Messaging (IM).
- Microsoft Office Communicator 2007, which is the client software that connects to the Office Communications Server. It comes in several versions, including a desktop client, a client that installs on Windows Mobile devices, and a browser-based client. Office Communicator phone experience runs on IP phones and other voice and video devices.
- Microsoft Live Meeting, which can be used for delivering presentations or training sessions and other multiple-user interactive collaboration and communication.
Other UM Alternatives
Many other companies make UM products or offer UM services. Some examples include:
- Cisco Systems makes Cisco Unity Unified Messaging server architecture that's part of their IP Communications System. For more info, see http://www.cisco.com/en/US/products/sw/voicesw/ps2237/index.html
- AVST offers CallXpress UM systems for enterprises that includes speech-enabled capabilities. For more info, see http://www.avst.com/products/callxpressMessaging/overview.asp
- Nortel's CallPilot application works with Meridian PBX systems and CPE Centrex systems to provide e-mail, voice and fax messages accessible from a variety of devices. For more information, see http://products.nortel.com/go/product_content.jsp?segId=0&parId=0&prod_id=44039
Convergence is the big thing in today's technology sector and messaging is an area in which it makes sense to "bring it all together." Unified Messaging is an idea whose time has come: users want to be able to get all their messages in one place regardless of type, and they want flexibility in their options for accessing those messages.
As your company grows, it will become more beneficial to both end users and administrators to find a way to integrate your separate messaging services into one repository that can be accessed by users in different locations, using different types of devices.
Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 additional books on subjects such as the Windows 2000 and Windows 2003 MCSE exams, CompTIA Security+ exam, and TruSecure's ICSA certification.