At TMC Labs, we're futurists. We like to think that someday, advances in
biometric security and encrypted digital signatures will render paper
documents and ink obsolete. Until then, we still need to fax things.
Bridging the gap between primitive fax machines and the paperless society
are network fax servers. The latest such product we reviewed is VSI-FAX 4.0,
from V-Systems, Inc. We found that VSI-FAX is reasonably priced, easy to
use, and offers a good feature set. It lacks some of the features of the
industry heavyweights, like fax-on-demand and OCR, but it does offer Web
browser and command line interfaces (CLI), Outlook integration, and XML
support. We tested the Windows NT edition, which is administered as a
snap-in to the Microsoft Management Console (MMC) interface. Versions are
also available for UNIX, Linux, Lotus Notes/R5, and Baan. We feel that this
product is best suited for small- to mid-sized Microsoft shops, and for
larger organizations that favor UNIX or Lotus breeds.
The TMC network already runs a fax server, so we set up a devoted LAN on
which to test this product. This network was quite simple and used just two
computers, both NT 4.0 Servers. The first computer was a primary domain
controller with Exchange 5.5 and the NT Option Pack. The second computer ran
the VSI server. Both were older Pentium II machines, and both had Outlook
2000, Office 2000, Service Pack 5, and 128 MB of RAM.
Installing the fax server is mostly a matter of standard wizards -- or so
we thought. First, we had to enter a proof-of-purchase ID into the VSI Web
site, which gave us the actual installation key. The version we received was
still in beta, and we encountered numerous minor bugs and glitches along the
way. However, many of these issues had more to do with Exchange and our own
unique configuration. The VSI support staff was helpful in solving most of
it, so we're confident that real-world installers will not have the same
problems that we did.
There are six components to install from the main installation menu.
These include the actual server, the MMC snap-in, a cover page editor, the
VSI SDK, the Outlook client, and the Web client. Obviously we installed the
server itself first; along the way, we also installed the provided drivers
for our Brooktrout TR-114PL board. Without the miscellaneous snags that were
nobody's particular fault, the installation would have been complete in just
a few hours. Issues like configuring users, cover page templates, and Web
security will take up more of the installer's time in actual
The version of VSI-FAX that we received included a getting started manual, a
server manual, and online versions of the manuals for the covermaker, SDK
MMC, Outlook, and Web applications. Several readme files (release notes)
were also included, plus a summary card for controlling VSI-FAX from a CLI.
We were very pleased with the comprehensiveness and the overall quality
of the online help in VSI-FAX. The release notes and the server manual were
almost as good. However, the getting started manual and the portions of the
release notes that addressed product installation were very poor -- our
installation headaches were not because of any bug per se, but they might
have been avoided if there were better explanations of the installation
By now, you are probably wondering what caused our hassle. The culprit
was publishing VSI-FAX's organizational forms to Exchange. An individual
ownership setting in Exchange was not properly set, but the setting was
buried in a submenu of a submenu of a submenu of... well, you get the idea.
Worse, the getting started manual and the Outlook release notes devoted a
combined one-half page to the topic. It's possible that a veteran IT manager
who works with Exchange on a daily basis may have known about the hidden
setting, but it took a veteran TMC Labs engineer and two VSI support
staffers three days, several conference calls, and hours examining the NT
registry to find it -- and we're not exactly newbies! We like this product's
operation manuals very much, but the installation documents are substandard.
Powerful features are included for both administrators and end users. For
administrators, there are features like LCR, fax logging/monitoring, support
for fax boards and fax modems, and custom integration into standard Windows
applications. End users get the Outlook client and Web client, DID/DNIS/DTMF
routing, fax merge, print-to-fax drivers, and Windows 2000 support.
Of the numerous administration features, the most impressive ones are the
MMC administration and the command line administration. The MMC snap-in, is
very easy to learn -- in general, we like applications that use the MMC,
because it eliminates the issue of proprietary interfaces that don't conform
to Windows conventions. Plus, by using the MMC, you're more likely to have
the most efficient OS hooks and minimal resource and memory needs, and you
can have a faster time-to-market because there's no need to design a new
In VSI's case, there are 11 main MMC options. These include classes
(device groups), devices (modems or fax boards), directories (people/groups,
public/private), licenses (one per active client connection), queues
(separate for each device, class, and LCR module), resources (attachments,
cover pages, overlays), profiles (multiple masters, and users), users
(personal privileges and settings), event logs (details every device, class,
and process), inbound logs (records received faxes), and outbound logs
(records outbound faxes).
VSI's CLI is the second way to administer the application, in both the
Windows and UNIX/Linux environments. Although VSI does not recommend using
the CLI as your standard method, it's a very powerful and fast way to make
quick systems changes or to diagnose bugs. Fortunately, the 370-page server
manual is mostly devoted to the CLI commands and syntax.
Faxes are sent using Outlook or the Windows print driver. In Outlook
(which needs to be the 1998 version or later), VSI adds two buttons to the
toolbar: One for sending, and one for viewing the fax status. Selecting the
send button opens a new interface with four tabs. The first tab, General,
resembles a typical Outlook new message view. The second tab, Sending
Options, includes: Delivery report (on each attempt, failures, never,
success, or always), delivery priority (low, medium, high, urgent),
resolution (fine or standard), delay send (date and time), paper size
(letter, legal, A4), orientation (portrait or landscape), retry strategy
(default, three attempts, four attempts, international), device/class, cost
code, and dialing affixes. Cover Page is the third tab, with options to
enter a text message or custom header, and to enter your organization's
name, contact information, and user-defined fields. Alternatively, you can
use the included cover page editor software to make a more elaborate
template. The final tab here is Attachments, which is very simple -- just
choose "add" and select the file.
The fax status button and the Windows application fax drivers both do
exactly what you'd expect them to. The fax status interface provides
information such as the recipient's name and fax number, the
"from" data, the message status (queued, sending, sent, etc.), and
the device name and time that the message was submitted. LCR, CIS, and
user-defined fields are also shown. Meanwhile, the Windows drivers operate
by selecting the appropriate VSI system from the Printers drop-down list.
The rest of this process is self-explanatory and works the same as sending
your output to any printer.
The next major option is the Web fax feature, and the Web client is very
straightforward. The main options are Inbox, Outbox, Create, Directory,
Options, and Help. Most of the options are the same as those in the Outlook
client -- for example, in the Create menu, the four tabs and options are the
same as those described in the paragraph above.
As we described in the Installation portion of this review, we
configured our testbed with two computers: One was a primary domain
controller and Exchange server, the other was the VSI server. The first
thing we noticed is that users added with the appropriate privileges in the
NT user manager automatically appear in the VSI MMC snap-in. For large
implementations, this is a great time-saver. The rest of the MMC functions
are equally easy to learn and to use. The CLI is more powerful for precise
system control. It's obviously more difficult to master than the MMC, but
anyone with a grasp of UNIX or DOS fundamentals should be able to do so.
We configured several users with different privilege sets. In testing the
clients for Outlook, Windows applications, and the Web, we found that each
is good for certain situations, and each is very easy to learn. End users
should have no trouble with it. The only exception to this rule stems from
the cover page and groups/classes applications, which can get complicated.
However, it's just as simple to establish corporate policies that limit
template and group creation to the IT staff.
One of our favorite VSI features is the Directory option of the Web
client. Although it's a very simple interface, it includes a good search
tool for larger directories, and entering contact information is a one-click
process. The downside is that short of using some advanced
administration-level tools or the CLI, there's no easy way for end users to
import their personal Outlook address books. Even stranger, the Web client
does not work properly in some versions of Netscape Navigator. (We plan to
run some continued tests with the Navigator 6.0 beta, which was released
just before this review's deadline.)
We're also impressed with the program's other attributes, such as the
SDK, with features like sample API code, COM status control, and the
complete XML-F document type definition (DTD). Otherwise, there is fax
broadcasting and merging, Windows 2000 support, native file imaging,
signature and logo options, and server load balancing.
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
Other than the issue of documenting the installation process, the main
areas where VSI-FAX 4.0 can be improved all are in its feature set. We feel
that more power needs to be given to the end users, in terms of
customization and contact management. A docs-on-demand feature and OCR would
be useful additions, as would more thorough Web integration. We like the
UNIX, Linux, and Windows 2000 options.
This product has been on the market for a long time, and it's been improved
since the previous release. Although it has some good features and it's very
cost-effective, we feel that it still needs some fine-tuning. We love the
power of the CLI; more of this power should be accessible through the MMC.
We also are very fond of the online help for its "How do I?" and
"Fundamentals" sections. This product is worthy of your
consideration, and its main purpose -- to save you money by sending faxes
over IP instead of over the PSTN -- works quite well.