Factors to consider when evaluating Unified Messaging solutions
Top ten evaluation criteria for Unified Messaging
Unified Messaging links two major technology systems at your company, telephony and information systems. Selecting the right solution that will leverage your current infrastructure, will support your migration path into the future, will be easy to manage, and will satisfy your users is a tall order. From our experience of many years of UM deployments, here are ten evaluation criteria to consider before making any purchase decisions.
1. Choose only truly converged architecture
A converged messaging architecture means that your voice and email messages should be stored in one database with one user schema. For the majority of large organizations who use Microsoft Exchange and Active Directory, the most leverage and highest ROI comes from leveraging this existing data store and user schema.
By storing voice messages in Exchange, you can use your current management practices like backup and restore. Plus you have future-proofed your system. When you are ready to integrate communications more tightly into your business processes, you have all the user and messaging information all ready in one place.
2. Support all legacy TDM PBX models
Most companies have to support a complex telephony infrastructure with a variety of PBX models. This legacy arises through past M&A activity or the opening of a branch offices where a different PBX is chosen.
Companies also have a plan to slowly migrate legacy PBX equipment to a consolidated IP Telephony platform. It’s important for the success of this migration to have a Unified Messaging solution that has native support for all the PBX models in your company. Native in this context means you don’t have to purchase separate gateways in order to integrate your Unified Messaging solution with each PBX.
3. PBX-independent vendor for ease of integration
When evaluating Unified Messaging solutions, make sure that your interests and the vendor’s interests are aligned. PBX-independent vendors are the companies that are most likely to provide support for all legacy PBX models because their livelihoods depend on it. The PBX vendors have an inherent conflict-of-interest when it comes to interoperability of their messaging offering with other PBX models and so they are less likely to put their full support behind it.
4. Vendor expertise in both Telecom and MS Exchange
Unified Messaging integrates a complex telephony infrastructure with a complex Exchange backend. A successful deployment requires a vendor that has deep expertise in both telecom and Exchange under one roof. Service interruptions can be caused by events in either domain, or by a combination of factors. Who do you call? Where do you look? Is it the telephony side or the Exchange side that’s causing the issue? Only a vendor with expertise in both will be able to help you solve the problem.
5. Avoid systems that require Active Directory schema extensions
Some Unified Messaging solutions require extensions to the Active Directory schema to store users’ messaging profile information. The problem with this approach is that it is intrusive to Active Directory and enlarges the user schema that it is using.
The other problem with extensions is that large organizations typically have enterprise permissions and policies in place that are untouchable. Enterprise Risk Managers are chartered with protecting these policies and will block the Unified Messaging extensions and ultimately prevent your implementation. Solutions that do not require these extensions are thus more likely to get approved. Avoiding schema extensions significantly shortens the implementation time.
6. Reliability, availability, and local survivability
Voice messaging even more than email is considered mission critical. The Unified Messaging solution you deploy will have to guarantee the same level of reliability that your users have come to expect from their legacy voicemail systems. Companies can survive short periods of time if their network or email goes down. But no company lasts long without the ability to answer the phone and provide voice mail service; all business comes to a standstill.
This is why local caching for voice information is necessary. Even if your network goes down, a local caching mechanism and a full Unified Messaging voice application in each location will continue to answer the phone, take voice messages, and allow users to dial in and fetch their voice messages from the cache.
7. Flexibility of network topology
It’s a given that your networks will evolve over time. This evolution is due to a combination of influences, including the natural progression of network technology, consolidation and centralization of Microsoft Exchange, and consolidation of IP telephony. Your Unified Messaging system must be able to evolve with these changes in your network. It should be deployable in branch office locations away from the Exchange mailbox server as well as in a consolidated data center configuration.
Plug-and-play appliances that have full voicemail capability, can be easily clustered for N+1 redundancy in each location, and are easy to administer centrally, and that have full telephony user interface and speech support. This decentralized configuration gives you full voice messaging availability even if your network goes down, and if you decide to centralize your infrastructure in the future, you can move your appliances to a central location.
8. Scalability, load balancing, and N+1 redundancy
When the volume of calls on the PBX exceeds the capacity of one Unified Messaging server, it should be straightforward for you to add more UM servers to accommodate the volume. Even more important is that your UM servers be “stateless”, meaning that users or voice messages are not “homed” on any particular server. If you have a truly converged architecture with all messages and user information stored in one location like Microsoft Exchange and Active Directory, this will not be a problem.
The other important characteristic that is important for scalability and load balancing is that all the Unified Messaging function should be contained in each UM server, not spread across multiple servers.
With stateless, full-function UM servers, you can scale your system by stacking UM servers as your need for capacity increases. Not only can you scale easily with this approach, you can also achieve redundancy with only N+1 servers instead of N*2. N+1 is, of course, more efficient since it lowers the cost of servers, licenses, and requirements to PBX connectivity.
9. Integrated speech recognition capability
The primary purpose of deploying Unified Messaging is so that mobile professionals can be more productive – more responsive in their business communication and more easily able to manage their voice and email messages.
Speech capabilities are an important component of making them more productive. Mobile users don’t have to use their thumbs on small keyboards. They can comply with state laws requiring hands-free mobility while driving. Even deskbound users can be more efficient because they don’t have to look up a number, they can just say a name and the number is dialed.
Speech capabilities work best if they are built into the Unified Messaging system from the ground up and are a part of the UM server. If speech recognition requires you to add more servers you run the risk of losing this capability if the network tying you to the data center goes down.
10. Client-free desktop
It’s always best to use existing applications when you roll out new capabilities to the user community. In the case of a Unified Messaging deployment, all users in a Microsoft Exchange network are familiar with Microsoft Outlook for managing messages. If you let them continue to use Outlook to manage all their messages (including voice mail), your migration, training, and support costs will be lower.
Through the use of Exchange’s built-in forms, UM solutions can be built that seamlessly provide excellent voice message access and management in Outlook. These one click capabilities include:
- call sender
Even with the restrictive Outlook security requirements, you can and should expect that your UM solution will not require any installation of software components on the users’ computers.