Unified messaging: A mature technology

Unified messaging has significant benefits and has earned acceptance as its technology has matured.

Unified messaging combines 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 in-box.

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 in-box 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.

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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.

All of this capability has been long in coming. 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 adoptions suffered, but 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 businesses to deploy richer capabilities than ever before.

Consequently, today's UMS offerings are generally easy to install and manage. And as companies update their messaging roadmaps, UM is coming up in discussions far more often than not.

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

  • Price: Capital costs alone should give some businesses pause. A full-on UM implementation can easily cost in the range of six figures, so careful financial planning is a must.

  • 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.

The leading major vendor offerings are Alcatel-Lucent's OmniTouch Unified Communication, Avaya Inc.'s Unified Communications, Cisco's Unified Communications Applications Solution and Nortel Networks' 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.

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 article originally appeared on SearchCIO-Midmarket.


This was first published in January 2008

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