One of the biggest hurdles on the road to converged networks is MIS and accounting
departments that place technology advantages beneath the costs of new equipment and
retraining employees. As evidenced by the continued success of traditional PBXs and voice
mail systems, even old-tech makers realize that technology is inevitable, but that there's
a ripe market available during the transition.
Another company that understands this is UltiVerse. The Massachusetts startup makes
UltiFax 1.0, an IP-based network fax solution commendable for its integration with regular
fax machines and Microsoft Outlook - so much so that the UltiVerse engineers developed a
telephone interface, but saw no need for a proprietary GUI. (As such, you won't find any
screen captures in this review, because you already know what Outlook looks like!) This
way, inbound and outbound faxes can travel between standard fax machines, Microsoft
Outlook, Web Outlook, or any combination of the three, all remotely customizable by the
end user through a telephone. This version of UltiFax is short on features and
documentation, but it works. Its customer-side premise and Dialogic-compatibility provide
tremendous promise for version 1.5, due this summer.
On the lowest level, IP fax technology (like its cousin, phone-to-phone voice over IP)
should completely shield the end user from the technology. Users can fax a document from a
regular fax machine, but instead of using the PSTN, the document travels on a
packet-switched network like a LAN, WAN, or VPN to its final destination at another fax
machine. At higher levels, the document is sent via Outlook, Web Outlook, or the TUI.
Regardless of this, we needed to set up a two-server test network.
UltiVerse engineers built the master server for us. This server consisted of a Pentium
II processor (233 MHz minimum), plenty of RAM (96 MB minimum) and a hard disk big enough
to hold an entire BackOffice suite (NT Server 4.0, NT Service Pack 3, SQL 6.5, Exchange
5.5, Internet Information Server, Message Queue, Transaction Server, and Management
Console). We also added the Dialogic system software, two VFX-40 boards, and one MSI-80
board, but there are several combinations of VFX-40, MSI-80, T1, and CP 6/12 boards that
are possible. We built a slave server on-site, which had essentially the same
configuration as the master, but which we configured as the backup domain controller to
the master's Exchange server.
Once the BackOffice suite and the Dialogic board were functional (typically about a
half-day task per server), we installed the actual UltiFax software. This process, like
much of UltiFax 1.0, is not pretty but works well with some tweaking. UltiVerse marketing
personnel described the current version as "beta-ish," with a real Install
Shield coming soon. Once we hammered out kinks in the network, which for testing purposes
consisted of just the two servers, a hub, telephones, and a fax machine, everything worked
fine, albeit slowly (see the Operational Testing section below).
Although UltiVerse has customers and real-world implementations, we feel that UltiFax is
not ready for the market - at least in the documentation sense. Online help and a promised
quick reference card for the telephone interface do not yet exist, and the
administrators'/installation guide is still in pre-beta/outline form. The
administrators'/installation outline does look promising, however, as it includes
configuration sections for NT Server, BackOffice, MSMQ, Exchange, and Dialogic boards.
There are also sections for creating administrative accounts, configuring databases and
SQL, adding subscribers, and testing the installation. Also in beta is a store-and-forward
On the opposite extreme is the end users' guide. Rather than being in beta but not up
to date with the software version, the end users' guide is in beta, but is written for a
software specification that doesn't exist yet. This guide is well written for
non-technical staff, and we hope that the final administration books are more technical
but of the same high quality. Meanwhile, features, usage scenarios, architecture, and
configurations are detailed at UltiVerse's Web site. Most of this information from the Web
site should be in the administration documents.
Much of the UltiFax feature set is best appreciated for its simplicity and concept. For
example, true Internet telephony is in place, but hidden from users. Sending and receiving
faxes using Outlook generates common .TIF files - just add third-party Exchange-based
voice mail and you could have quick and dirty, server-side, unified messaging. Anyone who
uses a Web browser can use Web Outlook, and .TIF files in e-mail open with Windows Imaging
in Windows 98, etc. For administrators in non-Microsoft shops, there are available hooks
for other messaging applications, including Lotus Notes and Novell GroupWise. The UltiFax
software itself runs on the NT services level - there isn't even an UltiFax entry in the
Start menu. Any configuration-oriented executable files are run directly from Explorer or
from a command prompt.
Features of UltiFax that are more tangible to end users include the voice interface,
documents on demand, a Windows printer driver, inbound fax notification via e-mail, pager
or voice mail, fax data encryption, functioning message queues (even when Exchange fails),
and logging/billing files. Unfortunately, many of these features don't exist yet for
The voice interface offers password protection, and a feature for sending multiple
faxes without having to back up and restart the sending procedure (much like the method
used for multiple calling card calls in which users are prompted to press one button to
make another call, or to press another button for other options). For UltiFax, "other
options" means listening to a list of new faxes and e-mail messages with the time,
date, and sender's name announced using text-to-speech translation. Options are also
available to print the message to a fax machine, to skip or review messages, or to archive
messages. We're told that a future option here will be documents-on-demand, but details
about that feature's capabilities are sketchy.
Testing fax over IP is an easy process. We opened a new message window in Outlook and
composed a message addressed to a fax machine - the format is [fax:phone number]. Almost
immediately after we clicked the send button, a success message appeared in the inbox, and
a few minutes later, the fax machine received the document. Because the fax machine was
plugged into a breakout box, which in turn was plugged into a board inside the slave
server, the PSTN was avoided, thus saving long-distance charges.
We also tested sending faxes from the telephone interface, from Web Outlook, and from
another standard fax machine. From the telephone interface, the system assumed that the
phone line we were talking on also had a fax machine attached, so users could dial in to
their account, choose the send fax option, and then load the fax machine. The fax
translated into IP and went on its way.
From a fax machine attached directly to a network or server, users can dial the far end
directly, and if the far end fax machine's number is in the database, then the server will
automatically intercept the fax call and send the fax over IP instead. Overall, because
there is no proprietary GUI, there isn't much to say about UltiFax's operation. If users
can operate a fax machine, a telephone interface, Outlook, and a Web browser, then they
can use UltiFax. Rather than calling it backward-compatible, we'd call UltiFax
everything-compatible. We can't think of many enterprise-scale applications that work so
well, and that are so shielded from the end users. The only real problem we had in testing
was that some faxes were very slow between servers and their final destination, but
UltiVerse engineers were unable to determine (as of our deadline) if this problem was the
fault of their own software or of Exchange.
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
Much of our room for improvement list includes features that are planned for this summer's
version 1.5. Documents-on-demand and a Windows printer driver are vital, and we would not
recommend any fax solution that does not include them. Better manuals for administrators
and interconnects are an obvious need, as is online help. The telephone interface is not
as user-friendly as it could be: There is no way to forward or delete faxes, no way to
manipulate faxes or e-mail between folders, and no way to go back to the menu you were
just in. There is also no text-to-speech (TTS) translation for e-mail messages, which is a
valuable feature found in several PC-PBXs, unified messaging systems, and virtual
receptionist services - TTS technology for actual faxes would be very difficult because
the software would have to OCR each message before translating its contents to speech.
We'd also like to see the addition of a dynamically adjusting, real-time fax message
status indicator, which would let users know the current status of sent messages (i.e.
preparing, queuing, en route, sent). One option is to use Outlook's sent and read
receipts, but that would require some processing power on the fax machine end, probably an
addition that is more trouble to develop than it is worth.
Fax over IP, as a concept, is great. Fax over IP that requires the end user to learn
nothing, and MIS personnel to integrate only with BackOffice, is even better. Given these
factors, UltiFax should be an award winner, but there is more to the equation. First, the
software is expensive, so potential administrators must weigh the one-time cost of the
servers and telephony boards versus their regular long-distance bills for faxing. For
large organizations, there's a good chance that UltiFax may make economical sense, as long
as their fax needs are not real time. Real-time faxing can be made to happen, but that
would introduce the factors of final-mile access and even the network infrastructure. If
an organization does opt for UltiFax, there is the lingering question of its readiness. We
feel that UltiFax has potential to be a market leader, but we wouldn't recommend it until
the fax driver, documents-on-demand, and documentation are complete. We'd also seek
UltiVerse's support, or perhaps even an UltiVerse partnership with next-generation voice
mail companies willing to integrate with Outlook as .WAV files. The people at UltiVerse
make a strong case that fax is not obsolete, but they also understand that Y2K issues make
now the perfect time to support unified messaging.
So, the UltiFax concept is great and their solution does work, but for now, other
options may be wiser. For service providers, UltiFax is not ready at all, because most
providers have more telecom knowledge than MIS knowledge, and they won't install an
NT-based solution that doesn't yet ship with instruction manuals. For MIS personnel in
mid- to large-scale organizations, UltiFax could be an appropriate solution. But if you
are planning to wait a few months before making a decision, a better choice might be made
then between UltiFax 1.5 or the simple insertion of third-party, H.323-compliant edge
gateways between the fax machines and the PSTN, coupled with a network fax solution like
RightFax or Omtool. The fate of UltiFax is in the hands of its developers, who have a
solid basis for a worthwhile application if they keep working on it.