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Zen and the Art of Fax Servers

What are they, what do they offer, and how can they save you money?

Fax servers are big business, and big in business today. Shipments of fax servers in 1996 totaled slightly more than $150 million and are projected to grow to more than $250 million by 1999, according to International Data, a computer industry marketing research firm in Massachusetts. If you don't already have a computer-based fax server at your business, you soon will.

A fax server solution for your business means many things: It means better productivity for your staff (no more standing around waiting for the fax machine), better control over your fax costs (no more sending low-priority faxes at high-cost daytime business telephone rates), and better responsiveness to your customers (customers get their faxes more rapidly because your staff can produce them more easily). However, with numerous fax packages on the market today, determining which fax server software is right for your business is difficult.

What are the market segments fax server software packages address? What features do fax server packages offer, and how can you benefit from these features? Read on for Zen and the Art of Fax Servers.

Faxing Classifications
The fax market has five primary classifications (plus one specialized market segment): standalone, workgroup, department, company, and enterprise. Businesses often begin their computerized faxing interaction with the standalone segment and move up through the segments as the demand for fax resources increases. This evolution is the business fax server market lifecycle.

The market identifies a single user with a direct connection to a telephone line as a standalone user. The standalone market is the level most users are familiar with. This level is common for most Windows users because Microsoft includes Microsoft Fax with Windows 95 machines (and now provides Microsoft Personal Fax for Windows NT machines) and most new computers sold today include a fax-modem for personal communication.

In the business world, standalone faxing was common for a long time (and still is in many small businesses), primarily because device-sharing software did not exist to let a group of users share a single outbound fax device. However, this level of the fax market is the most expensive to maintain because each machine must have a fax-modem and a telephone line.

The next market segment is the workgroup fax segment. This segment is the logical outgrowth from standalone faxing in the business community, as more employees realize they need to fax from their desktop. Businesses have consolidated their faxing activities onto one server because maintaining multiple phone lines is expensive and software is available to let several users have a fax modem. This market segment consists of a single nondedicated fax server with a single outbound fax-modem and telephone line such as a Win95 machine running Microsoft Fax and a shared network fax device for others to access. (Microsoft's Personal Fax for NT does not allow device sharing at this time. It supposedly will under NT 5.0.) This situation is common for small businesses and large companies that have not consolidated their faxing activities at a higher level.

Workgroup-level fax servers have some problems. Because they are usually on nondedicated machines, they use resources and affect one user's machine. That user might experience a slowdown or accidentally shut the machine off, causing fax server sudden death. If the machine requires a logon or password for security, the fax server becomes unavailable if the user logs off or if the machine reboots. And, because the user must be logged in at all times to make the fax server available, this solution presents even more security problems in any kind of network environment.

The department market segment is the next level up from the workgroup fax market. Department fax servers differ from their workgroup counterparts by moving the fax server to a dedicated machine hosting the fax server. You can configure this dedicated machine to automatically log on in network environments with a secure ID and password, and you can physically secure it in areas with other network equipment. Department fax servers today represent the largest market segment. They offer a good compromise to handle inherent problems with solutions in lower-level market segments and offer expandability and growth potential as businesses increasingly use faxing resources in day-to-day operations. For example, department-level fax servers can start out with one telephone line for faxing, and you can add more lines as demand for fax resources increase.

In large companies with several functional areas (such as a marketing group, engineering group, and accounting group) or business locations, each group or location can implement a group-level fax solution. This configuration is the company-level fax server market segment, where you have multiple dedicated servers with one or more lines per server, each servicing a specific group within the company. In this segment, the servers operate independently of one another.

The final market segment in the business fax lifecycle is the enterprise-level fax server. With enterprise-level fax server solutions, you have multiple dedicated servers, each with multiple fax lines, at multiple business locations working together through LAN or WAN links. These servers work cooperatively to share resources and workloads, providing a comprehensive, fluid fax solution.

Another market segment not typically part of the business fax lifecycle is the specialized market. Specialized fax markets address fax solutions the average business does not need. Examples of specialized fax server solutions include those that provide fax broadcasts (where a sales company faxes a flyer to hundreds of customers overnight) and fax-on-demand server (where your customers call in to retrieve fax documents--a popular solution with many computer technical support departments). Special servers and software designed to address a company's specific needs fall within this fax server market segment.

Server Features
Now you're familiar with the different market segments providers of fax server software packages address. Let's look at some features common to all levels and some that are specific to certain levels.

At the workgroup and standalone fax server levels, users are looking for utilities to help them produce their faxes more easily and automate the fax transmission process. Two popular features users like at these levels are having the fax server automatically maintain and generate a cover sheet for every outbound fax, and maintain a centralized address book of contact names and fax phone numbers. With these options, the user merely selects the destination from a list and presses a key to send the fax; the fax software automatically generates a cover sheet, and the address book provides the dialing directions.

Once you move out of the standalone and workgroup-level fax servers, resource management becomes a concern. This concern includes contention for fax resources, integration with electronic mail packages, and automatic routing of inbound faxes to user mailboxes.

Contention for fax resources is important, especially for single-server department-level environments. A server with many users sending outbound faxes means a long delay in the outbound queue. And long outbound queues mean receiving faxes is next to impossible.

Forced-scheduling features help to reduce fax contention. With forced scheduling, the server monitors itself. If it determines a user is monopolizing the fax server, it will automatically defer the user's faxes until a later time. Furthermore, during periods of significant outbound traffic, you can configure the server to pause to receive inbound faxes.

Contention is an issue easily addressed at the enterprise level. If you have multiple fax servers, you can use the overflow routing features that some fax server packages offer. Overflow routing lets your fax servers work with one another to help distribute the workload of your outbound fax traffic. For example, if your sales department is working feverishly to put out a new press release and its fax server is bogged down, the sales fax server will offload some of its traffic to other servers on your network.

Another popular trend with fax server products today is integration into the Web environment with HTML clients. With these Web interfaces, a standard Web browser lets users send and receive faxes. For example, one popular fax server product uses a combination of HTML (to collect control information such as 'To' and 'Fax #' information) and FTP (to retrieve the files you want to send) to process an outbound fax request. When you receive an inbound fax, the product displays it within your Web browser as a .gif image. Browser interfaces are a big plus in environments where you have people accessing your fax server from remote locations. Plus, users have that familiar, easy-to-use Web interface.

For companies dealing with confidential data, such as marketing research, medical, and legal firms, many fax server packages offer a secure transmission feature. With secure transmissions, the sending fax server collects the remote fax machine's Customer Subscriber Identification (CSID) and compares it to a static value on your server. If the ID doesn't match, the fax is aborted. This feature keeps confidential records from ending up in the wrong hands.

Integration with email systems is a feature that companies in any market segment want because it offers several benefits. You can maintain a common mailbox of fax destination names and addresses for all users. Users can send faxes directly from their email software, as if they were simply sending an email message. The email server then identifies the recipient as a fax destination and automatically routes the message to the fax server. Email integration also means you can automatically route any inbound faxes to users' mailboxes. Inbound routing can rapidly get complex and requires special fax hardware. I'll discuss email faxing in depth below.

Fax cost management is another feature important at almost every level. Most businesses pay per-minute telephone rates, so fax costs can grow tremendously if unchecked.

Fax servers provide several utilities to help manage costs. One utility is a deferred scheduling feature, where faxes go out at a later time when telephone charges are lower. Bundled transmission is a feature that lets the fax server send several faxes destined to the same remote number as part of the same transmission; this method prevents your system from repeatedly redialing and renegotiating the call to the remote fax server. Another option, Least Cost Routing (LCR), is particularly useful in large enterprise environments. LCR chooses the transmission path to minimize the cost of sending a fax. I'll discuss LCR more below and provide an example of how it can work in your environment.

Automatic Fax Routing
With any fax server solution, one of the factors important to users is the server's ability to route inbound faxes correctly. Routing generally implies the server knows how to communicate with an email server (such as Exchange Server or Microsoft Mail) to email the faxes as attachments to the destination user.

In the small standalone and workgroup-level fax server markets, automatic routing is not as important because all fax resource users are typically in the same physical business location. However, in the department and higher-level fax server markets, proper fax routing becomes crucial. Fax servers with routing capabilities use one of five different routing mechanisms: manual, CSID, dual-tone multifrequency (DTMF), ISDN/DDI addressing, or Direct Inward Dialing (DID).

Manual routing is the lowest level and highest maintenance of any routing solution and is most common in the low-end fax server markets. With manual routing, the software sends all inbound faxes to a common collection point, where a user (or fax administrator) manually inspects each fax to determine whom it belongs to. The fax administrator must then execute a command or function (depending on the software you're using) to send the fax to the appropriate user. If the fax server software does not integrate with an email package, the fax administrator has to physically print the fax for delivery to the end user. Clearly this labor-intensive solution is undesirable.

CSID routing is easy to implement and useful in markets with small numbers of users who typically receive faxes from the same sources repeatedly. All fax machines contain CSID information (when you receive a fax, this information is printed along the top of each page), and some fax servers can intercept this information. In a routing table, you can define a list of CSIDs and the users who need to receive certain faxes. You can then have faxes from specific CSIDs automatically appear in one or more mailboxes.

Unfortunately, even CSID routing has several problems. Suppose two employees, Jennifer (your payroll clerk) and James (your accounts receivable clerk), are set up in the routing table to receive faxes from a particular CSID. Both employees will receive all faxes from that CSID, even if a fax is intended for just one person. This situation can create a lot of work for each employee. They now have to sift through their inbox for specific faxes. This situation also creates a security risk, because two employees might have to receive data from a common source. For example, James and Jennifer might typically receive faxes from your bank. Do you really want your accounts receivable clerk to read the fax from the bank that states your company doesn't have sufficient funds to cover the weekly payroll?

With CSID routing, you have a significant amount of setup work, because you have to set up and maintain the routing table that matches CSIDs with users. CSID routing doesn't alleviate the need for manual routing. If the fax server receives a fax from a CSID that is not in your routing table, the fax will go to a default mailbox for manual processing.

DTMF routing offers an easy solution to manual and CSID routing problems. With DTMF routing, the remote fax machine or telephone system sends a DTMF code to the fax server. The DTMF code identifies the destination for the fax. Each user, or a group of users, can have a mailbox, and the DTMF code automatically identifies the mailbox to route the fax to. Thus, Jennifer can have all faxes identified with a DTMF code 2100 sent to her, and James receives all faxes with DTMF code 2200. However, timing considerations (the inability of the sending fax source to identify when to send the DTMF code) and incompatibility with other fax machines (where a fax machine, once it is listening for your fax machine's identifying fax tones, cannot send a DTMF routing code) prevents DTMF routing from working in some instances.

If you work for a company large enough to justify having a PBX or Centrex system, you can take advantage of DID routing. With DID, specific fax extensions ring at one or more of your fax servers. The fax server picks up the DID code of the destination exchange and automatically routes the fax to the user who is mapped to that exchange. This method is similar to DTMF routing, except that your telephone system automatically identifies the destination to your fax server. Because your local telephone company has to provide you with a logical dial-in number, this solution can get expensive if you have many users and you want to assign each user a personal inbound fax number for automatic routing purposes.

Least Cost Routing
LCR is a fax server software mechanism that chooses the outbound fax's transmission path. That is, the software analyzes the destination telephone number of the outbound fax and selects an appropriate transmission path designed to minimize transmission costs. Although primarily larger organizations with multiple fax servers will take advantage of LCR, even a small, multisite business can exercise this extremely useful option.

Let's look at a typical scenario: You are Director of Information Technology at a large high-tech products firm. Your sales and marketing department is in New York (212 area code), but your engineering and technical staff is in Silicon Valley (415 area code). Both sites have an enterprise fax server, and you maintain a dedicated high-speed internal network link between the sites.

Because your products are high-tech and in demand, many California firms call each day requesting that your sales department fax product information. You could use some of the cost-savings features of your fax software, such as the fax scheduling feature, to wait until after 7 pm Eastern time to send the fax (even with the three-hour time-zone delay your potential customer will get the fax the same business day). But your customers demand immediate access to information. So, you have to send your faxes from New York to California during peak business hours, and your fax telephone bill is thousands of dollars each month.

LCR can help you significantly reduce the cost of faxing. You can configure your fax software to automatically route any faxes bound to a fax number in the 415 area code over your WAN link so that the fax server in your California office can physically send the fax. This method saves the cost of a long-distance call at peak business hour rates.

Naturally, this scenario is simplistic, and you have to do a full cost analysis to determine whether you would really save money. Real-life scenarios will be more complex, with a myriad of factors contributing to the overall cost of sending a fax. Does your national WAN carrier charge you for packets? If so, you need to factor these costs into the true cost of using LCR to send a fax.

Pay close attention when you use LCR. For example, within each area code, most Regional Bell Operating Companies (RBOCs--such as Nynex, Bell Atlantic, or PacBell) have local calling areas, usually defined by the three-digit prefix of each seven-digit telephone number. Anything you send outside the local calling area is an intrastate long distance telephone call. And RBOCs often have higher intrastate long-distance rates than the national long-distance carriers. Depending on the tariffs in the states where you have fax servers, you might spend less money sending the fax through your usual long-distance carrier than sending a fax intrastate long distance.

Most LCR-enabled fax packages have several ways for you to define the path an outbound fax will take. Most packages let you define a series of area codes and telephone prefixes and a routing path. When you combine this approach with a few high-quality multichannel fax boards and a network link, you can save a significant sum each month.

Key to Success
The key to picking the proper fax package for your environment is preparation and research. With an understanding of the different features software vendors build into fax server software, you are now better equipped to determine the key features you need to include in your solution. Make a list of the features you need, rank them in order of importance, and compare them to feature lists of different server packages to help you narrow down your selection to a few packages. The buyer's guide on page 77 lists vendors for fax-server products to help get you started.

Unfortunately, when you're researching different network fax solutions, you'll find that many companies use different standards to determine the market classification they address. One company might define a department-level fax solution as including both nondedicated and dedicated servers, and another company might use only the dedicated server definition to address that market segment. Thus, a vendor targeting one particular market segment might have features another vendor targeting a completely separate market segment has, and you need to fully research the features each vendor offers. Software vendors usually provide test drive versions of their software--something you definitely want to take advantage of.

Now that you're familiar with the different markets fax servers attempt to address and some features you can expect in fax server products, which one is the best for you? To help you answer that question, the next several issues of Windows NT Magazine will present reviews of NT-based fax server products. With these reviews, you can get a better understanding of the features each product offers and how easy they are to use.

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