Can You Hear Me Now? Unify Your Communications

Telephone and e-mail systems play a critical role in keeping small business owners connected with customers. But cell phones, landlines, VoIP, e-mail, fax and IM create disparate communications tracks to manage, resulting in an inefficiency of abundance.

In an effort to consolidate these incoming and outgoing channels, the term “Unified Communications” has arisen to describe a wide variety of solutions. UC is so broad, in fact, that even its name is unsettled – the synonymous term “Unified Messaging” or UM is also commonly used.

UC solutions tackle various subsets of this complex problem. Some concentrate on consolidating phone and VoIP channels. Some focus on merging electronic channels like e-mail, IM and fax. Others focus on corporate PBX-like multi-layered solutions, while several simply help you hear your voicemail through the Web.

Once you get past the different features, you run into how the various solutions work within your infrastructure. Some UC products are designed to be self-hosted on your own servers, while others are vendor-hosted, subscription-based services, while yet others are available in either form.

The good news is that all this variety ultimately means you don’t need to buy into more (or less) UC than you need. The key is figuring out what it is you need and which solutions provide it.

The Feature Matrix
Unified Communications products and services can be divided along multiple lines. First off, you’ll need to decide whether you want to host your own in-house UC service. If your small business already maintains its own server backend or if you’re interested in doing so, self-hosted UC can offer a great deal of flexibility.

Alternatively, you can offload the management and administration of UC by subscribing to a vendor-hosted solution. Most of the hosted services are primarily focused on managing the phone and voicemail part of UC, but can cost less (and in some cases, nothing at all) than a full-blown self-hosted UC platform.

A second set of decisions revolves around which communications channels you need to unify. By far, the most common UC solutions integrate voice, voicemail and e-mail under one roof. This means you can access voicemail and e-mail through a single interface, such as a Web browser or an e-mail client like Outlook.

Some products also let you check your combined inbox by phone rather than over the Internet. In this case, voicemails can be played as usual, and e-mails are “read” aloud by a text-to-speech reader.

Many UC products also support fax integration. Conventional faxes sent to a phone number registered with the UC server software or service provider will appear in your e-mail inbox as attachments. Beyond fax, you will sometimes find support for instant message (IM) protocols integrated into select UC solutions.

All of the above UC features are designed to integrate incoming communications channels, so that you can enjoy “one-stop shopping” to manage your messages. You will also find that UC products offer a range of outgoing communication management that varies in sophistication (and complexity).

The more sophisticated UC solutions can, for example, allow you to dictate e-mail or instant messages by phone, which are then delivered to a recipient as conventional text. Many support SIP, the protocol used to initiate and receive VoIP calls. SIP integration allows your UC software to manage your voice calls, allowing for “click-to-call” and virtual PBX functions like call routing, custom per-client greetings and sometimes even presence awareness, which lets parties know your availability before initiating contact.

In contrast, a basic UC product may simply provide Web access to your e-mail, voicemail and faxes, and perhaps support for sending outgoing faxes to landlines via e-mail.

Some UC solutions also offer “follow me” or “hunt grouping”, which lets you forward an incoming call to multiple numbers simultaneously. For example, one publicly-advertised number might ring your cell phone, landline and home phone all at the same time, so you can be sure to receive the call wherever you’re located.

Self Serve, Anyone?
Small businesses might consider hosting their own UC product, particularly if seamless integration with existing messaging and groupware systems is critical.

For organizations already invested in Microsoft Exchange, Server 2007 (starting at $699) offers a variety of unified messaging features. In contrast to the previous generation of Exchange, 2007 integrates voicemail and fax with existing e-mail, calendar, contact and task information available in one single inbox. You can access the inbox using the same familiar tools, including Outlook, Outlook Web Access and also Outlook Voice Access, whereby you can dial in to the server by voice phone and manage your inbox. Although Exchange 2007 supports integration with VoIP, Microsoft Office Live Communications Server, a separate product, provides the actual VoIP (and IM) services.

Another way to extend Exchange with sophisticated UC capabilities is with AVST CallXpress. Designed for servers running Windows Server 2003 or XP and an existing e-mail server such as Exchange, Lotus Notes, Novell Groupwise and others, CallXpress fully supports clients accessing their inboxes using either Exchange or Lotus Notes.

Clients have access to voicemail, fax and e-mail through a single inbox and can access their inbox through their e-mail client or by phone. CallXpress includes rule-based notification, which notifies specified individuals by e-mail, pager, phone or cellular text message whenever a message meeting certain criteria arrives. Call processing lets even a small business seem like an enterprise, with advanced voice menus, call routing and support for account retrieval and reporting and document faxback service. With support for SIP, CallXpress supports both VoIP and legacy phone lines.

Deploying server-based unified communications from a blank slate could be intimidating, especially for a small business. Without an existing server investment in place, small business might look at Nortel UC 1-2-3 program.

Designed to cover the gamut from choosing, purchasing and deploying UC solutions, Nortel offers guidance through the whole process: running its Communication Server 1000 VoIP platform with additional Nortel products for a complete UC solution that combines both hardware and software. Nortel’s bundled approach to services lets an organization “bolt on” additional UC features and services as its needs and budget allow.

Hire a Host
Outsourcing unified communications to a third-party host shares similar trade-offs with any self-hosted solution. If you host your own communications portal, it’ll be your responsibility to be sure it stays up and running, even with vendor support. When you hire an outside company to provide UC, you exchange total control for less responsibility and, hopefully, solid reliability.

Hosted UC products range from enterprise-ready to personal and home-office friendly, and small businesses may find themselves compatible with either end of the spectrum depending on needs.

At the business end of the spectrum is Junction Networks’ Hosted PBX (starting at $39.95/mo). Designed to emulate a legacy PBX system with mobile and VoIP-awareness, the Junction Networks service is built around familiar business telephony features like three-way calling, call extensions, automated call routing, and directory services. Beyond this, it adds UC services like simultaneous and sequential ring groups, which can forward an incoming call to a series of receiving numbers either one after another or all at the same time.

Voicemail messages can be delivered to e-mail, and notifications can be delivered by mobile SMS text message. Because the Junction Networks platform is built on the SIP protocol for initiating VoIP sessions, click-to-call can be integrated into a variety of software applications, including public-facing Web sites.

Both GrandCentral and RingCentral are hosted providers that aim to consolidate multiple phones into one. GrandCentral, recently acquired by Google and currently in free beta for those who can snag an invitation code, describes its mission as “one number for life.” When contacts call your GrandCentral-registered phone number, the service sends the call to all numbers you have registered.

Of note is GrandCentral’s capability to record and “screen” calls. When you pick up a line forward by GrandCentral, rather than be put directly in contact with the caller, you can opt to listen to the caller in real time as they begin leaving a message. Like answering machines of old, you can then jump in if you decide to take the call.

You manage voicemail and other GrandCentral functions, like call blocking, through the Web site. Compared to self-served UC solutions, GrandCentral doesn’t feature the same degree of integration with existing communications tools, but doesn’t come with their costs, either. But lack of integration does come with a cost of its own.

In order for recipients to see your GrandCentral number in their caller ID, your outgoing calls must be initiated through GrandCentral’s click-to-call system. If you phone contacts directly from a landline or mobile, they will see your “private” number, possibly adding it to their contact list, and in the future calling you directly without going through GrandCentral.

RingCentral, a subscription service that starts at $9.99 per month, offers similar but more full-featured capabilities than GrandCentral. RingCentral adds virtual PBX and fax support to the mix, plus they offer toll-free registration numbers. RingCentral also supports porting existing numbers — depending on provider. Some integration with Microsoft Outlook lets you manage your inbox outside of RingCentral’s Web interface, and it supports click-to-call from e-mail. Custom outgoing greetings let you tailor your voicemail welcome to specific contacts.

A Bit of Both Worlds
Open source enthusiasts and/or Comcast cable subscribers might also take note of Zimbra. This open source unified communications suite boasts a sleek and sophisticated AJAX-based web interface for inbox management and can unify the full range of communications channels.

You can setup Zimbra as a self-serve platform, placing it in the first category, but the company also makes it available as a hosted solution through Comcast cable. Zimbra will soon be rolled out to all Comcast subscribers with basic UC functions like integrating voicemail with e-mail, for the small business with modest needs and a Comcast subscription.

Aaron Weiss a technology writer, screenwriter and Web development consultant who spends his free time stacking wood for the winter in Upstate New York. His Web site is:

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