In my previous article, “Is this the year for unified messaging?”, I reviewed the basics of unified messaging (UM) and unified communications and outlined a typical UM architecture. I also explained the basic functions of unified messaging and the consolidation of voicemail, e-mail, and fax, and I discussed some of the elements that turn unified messaging into unified communications, such as “follow-me” universal phone numbers and text-to-speech capabilities. Now it’s time to move beyond the theoretical to real-world products and look at some of the decision points a network designer needs to consider when implementing a UM solution.

Players in the UM market space
As we discussed last time, many analysts are predicting huge growth for the UM market, so it’s no surprise that a number of major players—from Microsoft and Lotus to Cisco, Nortel, and 3Com—have developed unified communications offerings.

The UM market has also drawn the attention of service providers, both on the wholesale side, offering services to carriers and portals, and on the retail side, with end-user offerings. In this overview of the UM marketplace, I’ve divided that product landscape into four categories, based on the type of company offering the UM products:

  • Traditional telecom vendors, such as Lucent, Siemens, and Ericsson
  • Next-gen IP product vendors, such as Cisco and 3Com, as well as the many new UM entrants
  • Traditional server-based messaging companies, such as Microsoft and Lotus
  • The outsourcers, such as MessageClick, Onebox, and ThinkLink

Traditional telecoms
The traditional telecom vendors, such as Lucent, Siemens, and Ericsson, have all been struggling to develop strategies for retaining their leadership positions in the communications world as the old, circuit-switched, PSTN-based architectures lose their dominance and new, IP-based architectures take over.

Lucent’s recent divestiture of Avaya Communications, its former Enterprise Networks Group, is an example of the frenzy of activity in this sector. Lucent’s unified messaging platform, based on its Octel voicemail systems, is now part of the Avaya product family. It consists of two distinct product offerings: an on-premise client server product called Unified Messenger and a hosted offering focused on carriers and service providers like ASPs and ISPs.

The Unified Messenger product closely follows the architecture we described last time, with Microsoft Exchange 5.5 acting as the message store and the Unified Messenger application handling the call management functions. For customers with existing Octel voicemail systems, the Avaya product is a great fit. It’s designed to integrate with those systems and allows virtual networking of Octel systems so that a distributed enterprise can act as one large messaging application. This enables transparent exchange of messages between the Unified Messenger application and existing Octel voicemail systems.

Ericsson’s OneBox application and Siemens’ Xpressions are similar products, offering robust unified communications capabilities and integration with their existing customer-premise-based PBXs and voicemail systems. Most of the other players in the telecom switching world, such as Alcatel and Nokia, have comparable products. These products are typically targeted at the medium to large enterprise that already has an investment in the supplier’s switches or PBX gear.

Next-generation players
Of the next-gen players, all eyes are naturally on Cisco and its acquisition of Amteva, considered by many analysts to be the leader in IP-based unified communications. The Amteva product, now called Cisco uOne, is a UNIX-based application that follows the architecture we’ve reviewed—but with some important distinctions.

Cisco uOne, unlike the products of the switch vendors, is designed to be scalable to carrier grade and in fact, is the basis of outsourced service provider offerings from both BellSouth and iBasis. With its built-in support for Internet e-mail standards, such as POP3, MIME, and IMAP, uOne is targeted at carriers and service providers that are migrating from PSTN to IP-based architectures. uOne is a component of Cisco’s overall strategy of building a complete set of products that enable IP-based convergence of voice and data. A uOne installation typically includes not only the uOne application but also a host of other Cisco gear, such as H.323 gatekeepers and dial-up access servers. Both 3Com, with its CommWorks product, and Nortel, with its CallPilot, are targeting the IP convergence market, as are multiple start-ups, such as Celeritis and Active Voice.

Server-based solutions
Microsoft and Lotus are jumping on the UM bandwagon in force. Microsoft has developed “rich mailbox” capabilities in both Exchange 5.5 and Exchange 2000 and is depending on partners such as Avaya and Nortel to add the UM applications that will create a complete offering for the customer. Lotus, through its Fax for Domino and Mobile Services for Domino, has also created a message store platform that is UM-ready and is partnering with Siemens, Nortel, Active Voice, and others to create a total UM package. While Exchange and Notes/Domino have the advantage of a huge installed base, the network admin or designer selecting these foundations for UM must still select and integrate the UM application—not a trivial task.

Outsourced solutions
The market for outsourced UM offerings is large and diverse. As I mentioned in the previous article, many popular portals, such as Yahoo, have recently added UM capabilities to their free e-mail services. And just as free e-mail became a must-have feature for new portals a few years ago, UM capabilities are becoming a standard offering.

The companies behind these services include, purchased by last year, as well as ventures like uReach, ThinkLink, and MessageClick. They all have a similar business model: Offer a basic set of UM services for free and then scale through a menu of additional services for ever-increasing user fees. All of these services have offerings targeted at individuals and other sets of offerings targeted at enterprises that want to avoid the cost and integration hassles of building their own UM architectures.

For individuals, the services typically offer a local phone number that the user can distribute to friends and associates and an e-mail mailbox address. Those leaving messages can use the phone number to leave voicemails and faxes and can direct e-mails to the supplied e-mail address, all of which can be retrieved by the individual using either the Web or a phone (although faxes typically give only headers over the phone).

For the self-employed, for “road warriors” who want to relieve message chaos, and for enterprises wanting to test-drive UM and see if it offers the touted advantages, these free outsourced services are a great value and provide a great way to get familiar with the features and benefits of these systems.

Choosing a UM solution
Network designers and administrators need to ask these questions when choosing UM systems:

  • Do they fit with our current voice platforms? For those enterprises with their own installed voicemail systems, selecting such an offering may mean significantly fewer integration headaches.
  • Do they integrate with our existing e-mail platforms? Notes and Exchange users now have a wide selection of UM applications that plug into their e-mail platforms of choice. Enterprises using UNIX-based, Internet e-mail platforms that comply with POP and IMAP standards may find that a next-gen product like Cisco uOne is a better fit.
  • Does the administration capability fit my needs? Although the features of these systems have many similarities, the administrative interfaces vary considerably. I strongly recommend that any network designers considering a migration to UM test-drive the admin interface before leaping into a UM project. The ease of use (or lack of it) and personal preference will be a central element to your satisfaction with the choice you make.
  • How is the user interface, both on the Web and over the phone? Test-drive the systems you’re considering from a user point of view and remember that, in many cases, the user may be on the phone and not a Web browser. The telephone user interfaces (TUIs) of these products also vary tremendously, and users who have to navigate through clumsy interfaces with unpleasant voices and cryptic prompts will be less than thrilled with the experience and may not fully use it.

The unified messaging and unified communications product landscape has matured significantly over the last couple of years. It has reached the point that 2001 may actually be the “year of unified messaging.” By understanding these basics and applying the questions outlined above, network designers and administrators can offer these productivity-enhancing applications to their users without bringing support nightmares upon themselves.