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May 1999

UltiVerse UltiFax 1.0
UltiVerse Technologies
Watermill Center
800 South St.
Waltham, MA 02453
Ph: 781-642-7679
Fx: 781-642-8809
Web site: www.ultiverse.com

Price: Four increments -- $21,500/8 ports to $200,000/96 ports; servers/boards included.

Installation: 4
Documentation: 3
Features: 3
Overall: C+

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 guide.

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 public consumption.

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.

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.

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