Unified messaging

Although different ways of communicating might help today's mobile workers stay in touch with business associates and family, having too many communications options can frustrate workers and diminish productivity. A simple but pervasive example is the use of two voice mail systems, one for the office and one for a mobile phone.

Add to this the incessant flow of paper documents from printers and fax machines, and it's no wonder that many information workers sense they've become victims of their technologies.

Part of the answer to the vexing issue of managing multiple message delivery systems is routing messages, no matter what type, to the user's e-mail in-box. To do that, unified messaging vendors such as Avaya, Nortel Networks and Cisco Systems route message data to an e-mail server-Microsoft Exchange or Lotus Notes, for example-which forwards the data to the user's e-mail client application.

In order to accommodate voice messages, the unified messaging vendor's system converts them to digital files that can be stored on a mail server or a user's hard drive like any other data file. Similarly, incoming faxes are collected by a fax server, converted to image files and sent on to the mail server. The mail server subsequently routes voice and fax messages to the user's e-mail application, such as Microsoft Outlook or the Lotus Notes client application.

Assuming the user has audio drivers and a speaker or headphones, he can simply click the attachment to play the voice mail audio file. He can also click an attachment to review a fax on screen using his image-viewing application.

Behind the Scenes

While the technology involved in unified messaging seems to beg for an all-IP approach instead of a separate private branch exchange (PBX) system for voice and an IP network for data, the reality is that most large companies still have PBX voice messaging systems that work just fine. And most companies aren't willing to replace something that works just fine.

Thus, network equipment vendors have been bridging the gap between traditional PBX corporate phone systems and existing data networks. The idea is to show voice messages in a user's e-mail in-box even though they may also be left on a PBX-based voice mail system.

How vendors approach building this bridge depends on what side of the river they started from. For example, the big North American PBX manufacturers, Avaya and Nortel, have worked to connect their PBX-based voice messaging systems to data networks. Cisco, which came from the data networking side with its IP-based switching and routing equipment, has reached out to interface its voice-over-IP unified messaging system with existing PBX systems.

Despite their different starting points, these and other vendors and are now building unified messaging systems that treat e-mail, voice, fax and even video as simply different forms of data. When it comes time to replace the old PBX-based voice mail system, it will just be put aside and the data network will take over the job.

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