Review: Unified Messaging Systems That Provide A La Carte Messaging

<i>Network Computing</i> tested three UM systems. Each product performed well, but its Editor's Pick won thanks to its intuitive system and powerful toolset.

Sean Doherty, Contributor

September 20, 2005

23 Min Read

Sample Session Initiation Using SIPClick to Enlarge

We also specified that products must support a universal mailbox for e-mail, voice messages and fax transmissions; TTS (text-to-speech) to manage a universal mailbox from a TUI; a variety of e-mail protocols, such as IMAP, MAPI, MIME, POP3 and SMTP; and Active Directory or LDAP. We wanted Outlook and Web browser access to universal mailboxes, and Web system administration.

Two-Timing PlatformsClick to Enlarge

Interactive Intelligence, Siemens and 3Com were ready and willing, and sent systems to our Syracuse University Real-World Labs®. But a large number of vendors have not moved down the SIP path for unified messaging at all or weren't far enough along to qualify. Active Voice and Vodavi UM products don't support SIP. Sage Software's ACCPAC division no longer manufactures UM offerings. Captaris sold its UM package to Sound Advantage, which is now AVST. AVST as well as Avaya said it was too early to review SIP on UM platforms, citing low market demand. Mitel said the support team for its 3300 ICP was stretched too thin to compete in our tests, and Alcatel declined to participate, also claiming limited resources. Cisco, Ericsson, NEC, Nortel and Unisys did not respond to our invitation.

Our participants supplied a server for UM that integrated e-mail, fax messages and voicemail into one message store, such as Microsoft Exchange 2003, and all supplied FMFM (Find me, Follow me). Some, however, have moved beyond conventional UM. Both Interactive Intelligence's Communité and Siemens' HiPath Xpressions include some presence management functionality in their UM software. Siemens' HiPath also supports SMS (Short Message Service), and Communité is into IM. 3Com offers presence management but chose not to submit its IP Presence module for this review.

Trouble in Syracuse

Unfortunately, SIP interoperability problems slowed our testing. First, our Asterisk server wouldn't forward a request to the UM servers when phones were not answered or lines were busy. We worked around this by setting up dedicated extensions to route outside the Asterisk system to the UM servers. Another workaround was to do forward access in the IP phone's configuration. But that was only the start of our travails.

UM System Vendors At A GlanceClick to Enlarge

Once messages were in the UM system, they needed to route their way back to the Asterisk. For example, we tested FMFM scenarios in which callers would traverse the Asterisk network to the UM platform. Once there, a rule might send them back to an extension in Asterisk. We found that the PBXs under test handled the forward-access reference in SIP, but Communité couldn't get around SIP authentication.

We turned authentication off on the Asterisk system to complete testing. But there are reasons to keep authentication enabled, such as restricting access to Asterisk's voicemail and giving users more access to extensions.

The utilities designed to install and configure system resources for all the participants in this review were separate from day-to-day administrator functions, like provisioning users and configuring message routing. In most cases, system-resource allocation is done once, barring a disaster, acquisition or planned relocation. Both the products from Interactive Intelligence and Siemens have easy-to-use system configurators. 3Com's utility is difficult to run in a remote X Window and is reminiscent of a TDM-based PBX command-line interface utility. Both Communité and HiPath had good graphical interfaces for allocating resources.

UM System FeaturesClick to Enlarge

All the products we tested had more than adequate reporting. With Communité and HiPath we could export reports in Crystal Reports, Excel and CSV formats. 3Com's IP Messaging Module offers a free reporting tool; we reviewed the reports available from this Apprentice app and liked their depth and breadth.

Troubleshooting wasn't difficult. Each product provided extensive logging and full trace capabilities by system module. Communité went well beyond that, though, with its Interaction Designer graphical application generator, which we used to customize and troubleshoot message and event processing. Siemens' HiPath included its King Lear simulation tool that let us send messages (e-mail, fax and voice) through the system for testing and quality analysis.

Next we integrated each product with our Active Directory and Exchange servers, then routed messages from the Asterisk system to the product's UM platforms and delivered faxes from our Faxbox Face-saver to Exchange message stores. All the participants handled these UM tasks like champs. We could listen to e-mail over the TUI and see voicemail on the PC. But only Communité and HiPath provided some semblance of speech recognition in voice commands. We're still waiting for improvements in speech-to-text translation so we can read all our messages in e-mail. It's much faster. But by the time that happens, our eyes may be glad our ears are helping out.

What'll It Cost Me?

Like a pinch of salt, pricing is difficult to measure. We asked for the cost of 100 UM seats for a 1,000-user enterprise, under the assumption that only a subset of people would be using UM. We were correct, but voicemail is tightly wrapped with UM; all three vendors included with their UM servers voicemail modules that let us originate voicemail or store it after pulling it from another PBX or IP PBX. The UM software then sent or copied it to the UM store--Exchange or Lotus Domino, for example. So in the end, we based pricing scores on 100 UM users and 1,000 voicemail users. That way, enterprises would not have two voicemail systems to manage and administer when they implement UM.

When all the messages fell into place, Interactive Intelligence's Communité edged out Siemens' HiPath for our Editor's Choice award, thanks to its tight integration with Active Directory and Exchange. And, because SIP is native to Communité, that system held its ground the best when integrating with the Asterisk system. The workarounds we applied with Communité worked with the other products as well.

Siemens' HiPath came in at a good price and a close second, but its Connector-based integration with Exchange left it short of Communité's full schema upgrade for Active Directory. As for 3Com, it expressed a preference to use its own IP Telephony module (read: IP PBX) with its IP Messaging, and the reason showed in the lab during integration with our enterprise resources and Asterisk server. Although the IP Messaging Module did the job, if you want to go with 3Com, consider budgeting for the entire system.

Communité edged out HiPath Xpressions, thanks to its superior system and user management interfaces, and it brought the best tools to bear on customizing and configuring our messaging.

Interactive Intelligence is a software company. It could have sent Communité 2.3.1 CDs to load onto a test server in our labs. But lately, the company has been preloading Communité on dedicated hardware for four, eight, 12 and 24 ports (simultaneous calls) for small businesses, and it opted to go this route. For our tests we received a Dell PowerEdge Server (Intel PIII, 997 MHz) with 640 MB of RAM and Communité installed. It also came with sufficient HMP (Host Media Processing) resources for SIP signaling and processing.

Communiteé's user provisioningClick to Enlarge

Note that Intel recently added a software option for HMP licensing. This eliminates the need to purchase and license resources for voice-processing boards from the likes of Dialogic or Eicon. HMP works with SIP to supply VoIP for small and midsize enterprises.

Once we received the Dell PowerEdge in the lab, we set it up in its respective Active Directory domain. Then an Interactive Intelligence engineer sent us an executable file to extend our AD schema to accommodate Communité. We created a Domain Administrator (User=Communité AD) to install the schema update. This user also had rights to open all messages and send and receive messages as a user in the Exchange 2003 system. Once this was accomplished, we installed the schema update, and our Communité AD user was added to the local administrator group to start and stop services and orchestrate message routing between the Communité system and Exchange 2003.

Like rivals, our Communité system supported both voicemail and UM. Our "users" had access to their voicemail through a Web browser. But unlike the HiPath setup, Communité provides only voicemail over the Web. There is no active synchronization between the voicemail store and the Exchange 2003 server.

For UM users, voicemail was delivered to the Exchange Server. But it was also maintained in Communité's voicemail store for a configurable period of time. This provided some redundancy for our unified-messaging users in the event the Exchange server went down.

Communité led the pack in how easy it was to integrate it into its respective Domain. A setup assistant offered us scripts to set up the administrative user, install licenses, create an initial organization, set a dialing plan and select a database. We used an MSDE (Microsoft Data Engine) for this review. The software also supports Microsoft SQL and Oracle databases, but these aren't included with Communité's license.

After the scripts had run, we turned our attention to the Interaction Administrator, a Win32 application for site and system resource configuration. There we created an organization that logically stored all system resources. Note that separate and distinct units can be created for multiple organizations or for separate departments or sites within an enterprise. The only limiting factors are the number of total licensed seats, servers running Communité processes and the number of users that can be supported in Active Directory. Communité stores organization and user information in Active Directory. Although Communité can use ADAM (Active Directory in Application Mode), which does not require Active Directory, that mode did not fit the requirements of this review.

As for ports, Communité can scale to approximately 96 simultaneous calls per server. Interactive Intelligence recommends running Communité processes on multiple smaller boxes, say, 24 ports, for high availability. The vendor boasts the ability to support as many as a quarter of a million users in one Active Directory domain.

Using the administrator, we configured system resources, including SIP lines, and connected Communité to its assigned Asterisk server. We also set Active Directory synchronization on a schedule.

A system manager orchestrated stopping and starting all Communité systems and subsystems. It looked like a GUI of the Unix ps command and showed the system and subsystem, and it let us easily change trace files from normal to debug in the event of a problem. Once the system was up, it was easy to explore the administrative and user interfaces from the Web.

Communité provides two Web administration utilities: an administrative site for IT to provision users and configure attendant menus, and a portal where users can configure UM rules and notification options and see a Web view of their voicemail inboxes, if they are set as voicemail users.

Using the administrative pages, we provisioned user accounts with pull-down menu options. First we set up classifications and services that applied to all users, Exchange users and voicemail-only users. These services included dialing restrictions for international dialing, long-distance calling, and local and/or toll-free calls. It also included a service to retrieve voicemail over a browser and other services associated with UM, UC and fax.

UM options included e-mail and calendar access. The calendar access was neat--we listened to our events of the day over the TUI.

Under UC services, Communité included an FMFM service for users to configure their contact points in order of priority. For example, we set a rule to ring our office line first. If there was no answer, it would ring a second line in the office. If there was no answer there, it would ring the ZyXel Wi-Fi Phone in the home office. Setting up the rule was straightforward, but implementing it became difficult with Asterisk.

At first, Communité would not forward to a SIP phone on our Asterisk system. The forwarding request was returned with an "Authentication Denied" response. After we turned off the authentication service on the Asterisk server for testing, FMFM worked. But you don't want to eliminate authentication on phones--they are IP-based endpoints that have the same insecurities as other IP applications.

Communité includes a slick follow-me call-analysis module with an answering-machine-detection feature. When both are enabled, an algorithm attends the FMFM routine and determines whether a human or a machine answered the call, based on the length of the remote greeting. If it's an answering machine, FMFM will continue to the next phone on its list or stop and allow the caller to leave a voicemail. Sweet.

Although Communité does not use the Domain User and Group MMC (Microsoft Management Console), like Siemens' HiPath does, it was easy to provision users for UM in Exchange and/or voicemail-only mode over the Web. One nit: We had to type in the user's e-mail address on the Exchange system. You might think that such tight integration with Active Directory and Exchange would let us search the directory for a user. Nope.

We also could not set up more than one UM and/or voicemail store per user. Although we could select the user to be a member of a shared mailbox, we could not provision multiple message stores in Exchange or voicemail, as we could with HiPath. So if you need multiple message stores per user, your first choice for UM should be HiPath.

At $56,000, Communité came in with the highest price tag for 100 UM and 1,000 voicemail users with 24 concurrent SIP sessions. But when you consider that this includes the hardware and voicemail, and given the ease with which we could integrate with Active Directory and Exchange 2003, we consider the cost reasonable. In addition, first year hardware and software maintenance charges are included. Although Asterisk integration was less than ideal, Communité held up its end like a trooper; next time, we'll stick with a Vonexus IP PBX or another supported SIP server switch.

Communité 2.3.1. $56,000 (as tested). Interactive Intelligence, (317) 872-3000.

Although Siemens' HiPath provides excellent integration paths into LDAP-based directories and enterprise message stores and provided the most control over system management and configuration, Communité beat it out, thanks to tighter integration with Active Directory and more intuitive administrative tools. But even in the second seat, the HiPath should be on anyone's shortlist for UM products because of its top-flight voicemail-only functionality and conventional UM performance, all at a low price.

The Siemens team came to our labs with confidence in their software and its ability to use Intel-based hardware running on Windows Server 2000 or 2003. They proved their point by installing it on a "black box," integrating it with an Active Directory domain and our SIP-enabled Asterisk PBX, and enabling Exchange Server 2003 as the unified message store. Our collective hat was off to them.

Siemens XpressionsClick to Enlarge

For testing, we installed HiPath on a Windows 2003 Advanced Server running on a dual-processor Intel Xeon (3.0 GHz) server with 3 GB of RAM. That easily met Siemens' recommended platform for 2003 Server (an Intel PIII, 1-GHz processor with 1,024 MB of RAM). Siemens recommended an increase in the virtual memory of the box to twice the size of the physical memory. But with 3 GB of RAM, we kept virtual memory at its default of 768 MB.

Prior to installation, we disabled IIS and SMTP support for Windows. Siemens provides its own Web server, Web APL (Access Protocol Layer) and SMTP process for messaging--don't try installing this on a DC (Domain Controller) that requires Windows support for SMTP. Once the prerequisites were done, installation proceeded over multiple CDs and placed all HiPath components onto the one server in 417 MB of disk space. Note that HiPath components can be distributed over multiple servers for high availability and to improve performance.

HiPath components include Windows services along with Win32- and Web-based applications and a command-line interface for operation and administration. The server components are split into two groups: kernel components and APL components. The HiPath kernel includes four components: An MTA (Message Transfer Agent), a proprietary database (Infostore), an Extended Message Reporter Service (XMR SVC) and a Name Locator to find resources.

Access to kernel components is by APLs that integrate with common external protocols, such as SMTP and HTTP, and provide applications for administrators and clients. In addition to the HiPath components, Siemens used ScanSoft's Speechify 3.0 for its TTS engine to read e-mail and fax message headers over the TUI from an Exchange message store or Phonemail. Phonemail is Siemens' repository for voice messages that are pulled from the voicemail stores of a supported PBX, or it can be used as the repository to originate voicemail. In our tests, we used Phonemail to receive voice messages from our Asterisk system and synchronize them with our Exchange server, acting as the UM platform. In effect, Phonemail was used as a dual-message store to synchronize between Exchange and Phonemail for a fully redundant system. In the event Exchange was down, UM could continue from Phonemail.

Much of the integration work with Active Directory and Exchange was done with LDAP directory synchronization through an Exchange Connector. The connector was installed on the HiPath server, so we needed a local copy of Exchange's System Manager on the HiPath host.

Once we installed both the Connector and Exchange System Manager, we clicked on a radio button in the System Manager Connector configuration area to begin global synchronization of directory information. The synchronization included messages between HiPath's Phonemail system and the unified message store in Exchange. HiPath uses the extensionData in Active Directory to hold HiPath-related data. It is part of the user-defined elements in the schema, and we found it a less intrusive integration than the full schema upgrade done by Communité.

As with Communité, adding UM users was as simple as creating them in Active Directory. We installed an MMC snap-in to enable a Siemens MRS (Message Routing System) tab in each user's profile. There, we implemented a default profile for UM users that included synchronizing their Exchange and Phonemail inboxes and activating CTI so advanced TUI functions, like showing programmable function keys and speed-dialing numbers, could be displayed on the phone.

Siemens' Web Assistant (HTTP) and its Communications (Win32 application) tools do double duty on the system. When we logged into these applications as a user, they acted as portals to Phonemail. The Web Assistant provided a Web browser interface to all our messages from an easy-to-use, no-nonsense GUI. We also could configure messaging and implement rules-based message routing. The Communications Win32 app let us access Phonemail and easily configure groups and distribution lists for messaging.

When we logged on to Web Assistant and Communications as an administrator, we could configure all the parameters of system resources and users. We easily added and removed phone lines and users, and moved phones from one user to another. We assigned a main number to phones and could add five additional numbers here as well. As many as 99 alternate numbers can be added to a user's profile.

Being able to map multiple mailboxes to individual users provides for role-based access to messaging and let us configure group mailboxes with ease. Like the other products, we could keep these configurations as voice-only or integrate the message stores with Exchange. But only HiPath had full synchronization between the UM stores.

In addition to the multiple numbers we created, we added numerous alerts (again, as many as 99) to inform us when new messages arrived in our UM store on Exchange. Alerts let us ring phones in a cascading effect or broadcast the ring to all of them. We could set alerts to call us on the TUI or light up the MWI to inform us of new messages.

Presence management was available in the Communications application as well, and we found it granular and highly configurable. We managed presence status as available for users, but to not alert them of new messages while at home after hours.

We also set a trusted number for voicemail and other functions. A trusted number is not prompted for authentication, so we could listen to e-mail and voicemail without entering additional key strokes for identification purposes. Convenient. In addition, we created a few personal greetings (maximum nine) triggered by who was calling and time of day. Because the next generation of knowledge workers will be used to configuring their own phone services, having been weaned on cell phones, these features will become de rigueur for enterprise users.

Siemens provided the best price for its UM software, though fax services were not an option for the SIP version of HiPath. That will be forthcoming in the next release. HiPath also came in at half the price of our other participants, and that included both software and hardware.

HiPath Xpressions 4.0, $22,000 (as tested). Siemens Communications, (800) 765-6123, (561) 923-5000.

3Com's IP Messaging Module trailed rivals mainly because of its weak integration with Active Directory and Exchange. Although we could use Exchange as a single message store, IPMM's Outlook plug-in was not available in our testing window, and its feature set suffered when it was separated from 3Com's IP Telephony module and IP phones.

3Com was the only participant to enter an appliance. It shipped three IBM xSeries 306 eServers with dual Intel P4 processors and 2 GB of RAM. Two of the servers contained VCX V7000 systems sporting 3Com's IPMM in redundant mode. The third eServer contained a dedicated TTS engine. The IBM xSeries 306 eServers can handle as many as 150 ports (simultaneous users). Customers also can get an IBM 346 eServer that can handle 250 ports.

The VCXs were powered by GNU Linux (kernel 2.4.21) and protected by a firewall based on ipTables. And like both Communité and HiPath, it came with Web-enabled system administration. But before we got there, we needed to configure the system with the Active Directory and Exchange Server 2003.

3Com's ApprenticeClick to Enlarge

The VCXs included a first-time boot script to configure the host, network and DNS. We were assured by 3Com's on-site support team that there are also scripts to integrate the system with Nortel and Octel PBXs. Because we were more concerned with our now-beleaguered SIP-based Asterisk, we fired up Call Technologies' Apprentice application using appmon.exe over a telnet session. Ideally, this would have been done using a remote display over SSH, however, we had difficulty getting the correct font display with the Cygwin tools on our Windows XP system.

Once we got into the Apprentice interface, we found a rich set of tools to configure and view system health. We reviewed and set up connections to our Active Directory Domain and Exchange Server. We also added the Exchange Server as an IMAP server. We need to use a command-line interface to add the Asterisk server as a trusted endpoint. Once that was done, we set up subscriber profiles for the phones connected to the Asterisk system and 3Com phones set up on the VCX system. The phone configuration included a rich set of options, especially to notify users of new mail.

After the phones were set up, we turned our attention to the Web tools. IPMM provided three Web interfaces: one for administrators, one for users and one for Web provisioning. The IP messaging system interface was not available in this release.

The Web provisioning interface provided many of the GUI tools found in the Apprentice application, accessed directly from the server. Although not as pretty as rivals' interfaces, it matched their configuration options for UM and UC, including FMFM. It did not, however, provide the call analysis that Communité did.

The user Web pages were a little prettier. They provided access to all system messages (voice, e-mail and fax). We could manage the rich set of alerts available, as well as create and manage greetings and set up distribution lists. But we were more interested in the Exchange/Outlook message store--we had the basics but couldn't go much beyond UM features without the vendor's modules for IP Telephony and IP Presence based on SIMPLE.

Before we wrapped up, we put 3Com's redundancy to the test by simply unplugging the box while logged in, reading mail. We did not even notice it was down. The as-tested price is $53,200 for 100 unified-messaging users and 1,000 voicemail users, including the appliances. If you don't need the redundancy, the price would start at $13,000 for a 100-user unified-messaging system that would include licenses for voicemail as well.

3Com IP Messaging Module, $53,200 (as tested). 3Com Corp., (800) NET-3Com, (508) 323-5000.

Sean Doherty is a senior technology editor and lawyer based at our Syracuse University Real-World Labs®. A former project manager and IT engineer at Syracuse University, he helped develop centrally supported applications and storage systems. Write to him at [email protected].

We set up a discrete computing environment for each UM platform under test in our Syracuse University Real-World Labs®. We used Microsoft Virtual Server 2005 on a Dell 1650 machine (Intel PIII, 1,133 MHz) with 2 GB of RAM to virtualize machines using Microsoft Windows Server 2003. We installed VMware 5.0 on a dual-processor Intel Xeon (3 GHz) box with 3 GB of RAM running Microsoft Windows 2003. We used VMware to virtualize three Red Hat Linux 9 machines running Asterisk 1.0.9, the open-source PBX.

Using Virtual Server, we set up three separate Active Directory domains, each with its own domain controller, DNS server, Exchange Server 2003 and FaxCore eponymous fax server (Build 4370). The FaxCore server received its own dedicated platform using a Dell PowerEdge 2450 (Intel PIII 600 MHz) with 1 GB of RAM and a Brooktrout Technology TR1034 fax board.

Each domain also received a running copy of Asterisk configured for SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) signaling. Each Asterisk server was configured with SIP phones from Polycom (IP SoundPoint 600s), Sipura Technology and ZyXel (WiFi phones).

We set up Siemens' HiPath Xpressions 4.0 on a Windows 2003 Server running on a dual-processor Intel Xeon (3.0-GHz) server with 3 GB of RAM. 3Com and Interactive Intelligence sent us their own servers. 3Com delivered three IBM e-Servers. Two contained its VCX system in high-availability mode, and a third housed a dedicated TTS engine. Interactive Intelligence shipped us Communité 2.3.1 on a Dell PowerEdge Server (Intel PIII 997 MHz) with 640 MB of RAM.

We evaluated each of the UM platforms for features, price, ease of installation, configuration and integration with Active Directory, Exchange 2003, the FaxCore fax server and the Asterisk PBX.

All Network Computing product reviews are conducted by current or former IT professionals in our own Real-World Labs®, according to our own test criteria. Vendor involvement is limited to assistance in configuration and troubleshooting. Network Computing schedules reviews based solely on our editorial judgment of reader needs, and we conduct tests and publish results without vendor influence.

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