Paul Petroski of the University of Maryland, Baltimore is implementing unified messaging in phases.

Oct 24 2007

Unified Messaging Begins to Deliver

Multifaceted systems put all messages in one place.

Multifaceted systems put all messages in one place.

Students and faculty at universities certainly have no shortage of messaging options, with e-mail and cell phones ubiquitous on campus and more traditional modes of communication such as faxes still hanging around.

But are all these messaging options productive in their current forms? Do students or professors on the go want to have to check their computer for e-mail and phone for voice and turn to their multifunction printer to grab a fax to stay connected? Probably not, especially if they have multiple e-mail accounts, a cell phone and a land-line phone. University executives who frequently travel and are away from their desktop PCs don’t want to go through multiple devices for messages, either.

And at institutions that have implemented unified messaging systems, they don’t have to.

Unified messaging, also known as unified communication, makes e-mail, voice mail, instant messages and faxes available through a single integrated interface, such as Microsoft Exchange or a Web portal. Although unified communication in some form has been available for years, it was often a complicated, costly project that consisted of patching together various technologies and could cause network bottlenecks.

But the emergence of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) has smoothed the way for unified messaging. It also helps that vendors such as Avaya, Cisco, IBM and Microsoft have unified messaging technologies.

Michael D. Osterman, president of Osterman Research, a market research firm in Black Diamond, Wash., says unified messaging features that Microsoft added into Exchange 2007 should accelerate its adoption rate. These include Outlook Voice Access, which provides access to inbox data through speech recognition, and Automated Attendant service, which answers phone calls and lets users dial through Exchange’s address list.

“We see unified communications as a category growing fairly significantly,” Osterman says. “A lot of that will be driven by Microsoft Exchange and the integration of Office within that. There are a lot of unified communications offerings from many different companies, but the fact that Microsoft is now in the market and promoting it will help accelerate adoption quite a bit.”

Unified messaging isn’t limited to higher education institutions. It is also catching on in the business world. However, universities face a unique set of challenges and considerations in forging a unified communications strategy. Osterman says, “If you look at universities, they have two distinct user groups: staff/faculty that could be considered senior employees, and students who are transient populations and don’t have the same level of requirements for tight integration or large mailboxes.”

Universities that have moved forward have received positive feedback from students and employees — but warn that a solid plan and a sense of flexibility are important elements of a successful rollout.

Outgrowth of VoIP

Unified messaging arrived at the University of Maryland, Baltimore as a natural part of a communication upgrade process about a year ago.

The school was replacing an outdated voice-mail system as part of a phased migration to VoIP, and the unified communication piece came as a benefit. “Our voice-mail system was good, but we’d had it for 12 to 13 years, and this was a slam dunk,” says Paul Petroski, assistant vice president, Center for Information Technology Services at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. “It’s a new voice-mail system with features and functions that our current voice mail doesn’t have. It can do notification of people, even receive and send faxes.”

The university installed the system on its professional campus, where post-bachelor candidates in the health sciences and human services fields are trained to become doctors, dentists, nurses, pharmacists, lawyers and social workers.

In searching for a platform, the university looked for one that would require minimal training for end users, would offer a low cost of ownership, and could be easily integrated into their IP switch. It settled on a solution that added many voice-mail features, such as an automated attendant and call processing, not provided by its old system. It also integrates with the university’s Microsoft Exchange to let users check e-mail messages over the phone or voice mail from the computer. Many faculty and staff members find that this capability is the biggest time-saver the system offers, says Petroski, who includes himself among them.

“Every morning on the way to work, I call in and screen e-mail messages from the night before,” Petroski says. “I look at it as a productivity tool, so that instead of having 70 messages when I come in, I have seven that I have to look at. I am hands free, using Bluetooth, and the system reads me messages, and I can tell it to skip, delete, or go forward.”

So far, the university offers unified messaging to a small number of its roughly 3,000 voice-mail and 6,000 e-mail users. Unified messaging is limited to faculty in its first phase. “We elected to do this in a phased approach,” Petroski says. “Any [faculty or staff member] who wants a unified account, we will give it to them. Currently, we are at about 15 percent of users having an account.”

That number will grow, but the unified system is particularly useful today for users who are on the road often, such as senior management. “We have the president, the deans, and the vice presidents on the system so that when they are traveling, they are in constant communication,” Petroski says. “They can receive everything through one account.”

Not One Size Fits All

An outmoded phone system also drove the IT department at California State University, Chico to start looking for a different technology option. “While we were procuring a new PBX to replace our old system, we also went out for bid on a new messaging system,” says Scott Claverie, director of communications services at California State University, Chico.

Exchange also played a role in Chico State’s unified system. “Our campus is an Exchange campus using Outlook for faculty and staff, so we wanted to utilize the platform and integrate unified messaging into that rollout,” Claverie says. “With unified messaging, we find that a lot of staff and faculty have the ability to check e-mails through Outlook and respond to voice mails at the same time.”

Although still fairly new to the campus, the system is showing promise. In its first phase, about 100 users were put on unified communication. “The system is only about a year old, and now we are moving it from a beta test to an actual production test phase,” Claverie says.

Claverie is planning an update later this year that will streamline communication with the addition of a Web application. “An RA [resident assistant] can leave one message and have that propagate to 100 different students,” he says. “With it, the students can be notified by a message waiting light in their rooms and can also get an SMS [small message system] message letting them know they have a message via the phone, or they can go on a Web site and listen to the message.”

Claverie says the rollout at Chico State went smoothly, mainly because of diligent planning. The first critical questions to ask are how much capacity the institution might need over time and how well a potential system can be scaled. Careful consideration should be given to user group sizes and what capabilities will be used.

“You run into capacity issues, not just in the system itself but also in the network and within other networks that you are relying on in delivery,” Claverie says. “When you start looking at capabilities such as text notification, you can have a large number of messages going out to cell phones at one time, and that can even impact other services, such as cellular services.”

As for the future, Chico State is keeping an open mind. “Voice mail in and of itself has spun off to unified communications, and we started messaging with integration with Exchange and emergency notification,” Claverie says. “That’s a huge stride from five years ago to last year. The future is really yet to be determined.”

In Case of Emergency

The University of Maryland, Baltimore and Chico State might make unified messaging part of their mass notification systems. Mass notification systems are used to reach people on campus in case of an emergency or to notify them of school closings or special events. That’s different from unified messaging’s aim at everyday communication. But both use e-mail, voice mail, fax and other common channels of communication.

“Some universities send notifications about events by class of students, for example,” Petroski says. “There are real possibilities down the road.”

Claverie says he also hopes to use his messaging system at Chico State in the event of an emergency. “The features are already in place on the campus to leverage should any emergency occur,” he says. “The system is going to be one such tool where we have the capability of leaving one voice mail that will be distributed out to our top administrators or a select group of people, such as first responders and the campus police.”

Appropriately set up, Chico State’s system will leave an urgent voice mail for the desired people and then cycle a phone tree, calling each person at every point of possible contact (office, home and cell, for example) until someone answers.

Keep in Mind

a few tips for implementing unified messaging:

  • Make sure the server that communicates with the PBX is connected to the network that supports the site’s e-mail system.
  • Enable Lightweight Directory Access Protocol on the e-mail server.
  • Enable text-to-speech conversion channels. o Consider adding memory on the server between the e-mail system and PBX.

Three Flavors

Unified messaging systems can be server-based, client-based or simplified systems. Each type works slightly differently.

Server-based unified messaging places all messages on one e-mail server. Users can access voice messages from all e-mail clients, such as desktop, Web-based and PDA.

With client-based systems, each type of message (e-mail, voice, fax) remains on a separate server. A common e-mail client accesses inboxes for all types of messages on their servers.

Simplified unified messaging sends copies of voice and fax messages as attachments while keeping the original messages on their servers.

Questions to Ask

To guarantee your system is flexible enough to fulfill your needs now and in the future, before implementing a unified messaging platform, ask yourself these questions:

  • What functionality are we looking for?
  • Will the new system work with any additional platforms we might upgrade to?
  • What impact will the messaging system have on our existing networks?