Despite the enormous growth of the Internet and e-mail, fax remains a viable communications medium. Not bad for a technology that was invented in by Alexander Bain, a Scottish mechanic in 1843. According to industry estimates, there are over 100 million fax machines in use in the world today. Surprising numbers considering the following scenarios:
Employees sending or receiving an e-mail would be forced to walk to the company e-mail machine (SMEM Snail Mail E-Mail).
The same procedure would apply for Web access and instant messaging.
If the above conditions were implemented in your office, messaging and research productivity would fall off dramatically yet fax machine sales and fax traffic remain vigorous why?
A key reason is that faxed documents unlike e-mails are considered legal documents in countries around the globe. Another major differentiator with e-mail is that it is text-based and fax is image-based, so the scanning and sending functions are combined into a single simple procedure. A plus factor is that an image is much harder to alter or modify than a text-based document. And, the last of the Big 3 reasons is that standard fax using the T.30 fax protocol delivers real-time delivery confirmation. There are other reasons but the above three definitely make fax an enterprise essential.
OK, we have determined that fax is critical to the enterprise and widely used, so how do we make it more efficient and productive. The answer is to install an enterprise fax server to achieve the following:
1. Legacy PSTN analog or FoIP-capable fax server technology provides desktop access and full integration with CRM, ERP, accounting and other office applications. This technology has existed for some time so it is proven and very easy to implement.
2. For the purposes of brevity, think of an enterprise fax server similar to enterprise e-mail like Outlook/Exchange. In fact, you can send, receive and manage documents from within Outlook, for example. By integrating the e-mail and fax servers, users can consolidate e-mail and fax correspondence within a single location. A key differentiator is that the top-of-the line fax solutions are simpler to install and maintain than e-mail servers.
3. Some fax servers also have true Web clients so you can send and receive faxes using any Internet connection regardless of location, such as a WiFi caf or via VoIP connection.
4. Lastly, if whether you are using fax machines or legacy fax servers, you can migrate to Fax over IP (FoIP) as your business migrates from standard telephone systems to VoIP solutions thus consolidating voice and data traffic.
5. The technology to fully integrate fax into the IP traffic stream has also existed for some time. The two protocols for sending faxes over an IP network T.37 and T.38 were both ratified in 1998, following joint development by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and the Internet Engineering Task Force. Again, proven technology.
T.37 is based on a store-and-forward asynchronous architecture like e-mail. There is no direct connection between the sender and the receiver so issues like paper out failures or busy signals cannot be resolved in real-time. Of course, without real-time connectivity, the sender does not receive an immediate notification of delivery success or failure.
The second standard, T.38, is similar to legacy PSTN transmissions since faxes are sent and received in real-time. T.38 is the fax equivalent of VoIP and the standard essential to true convergence. A fax is transferred via the Internet similar to the way VoIP call is made across the Web.
Sound simple? Well thats because it is simple. The next step is to select the appropriate fax application for your enterprise. Assuming the goal is for a fully converged IP network, the following features should be considered as basic and essential:
1. Sending or receiving a fax must be as intuitive and natural an activity as accessing any other document via the Web or e-mail.
2. Select a fax server solution that offers a thin-client interface that only requires a browser such as Internet Explorer.
3. Fax should be handled like any other form of messaging so integration with the corporate e-mail system such as Exchange is mandatory.
4. Evaluate your back office needs and determine if integration with back office application(s) is required. If so, then a .NET API and other integration tools are essential requirements.
5. If fax is critical to your operation look for an architecture that provides for fault tolerance and distributed deployment, providing redundancy and fail-over capabilities.
Lastly, I want to emphasize that all of the above technologies exist today and if you are in the planning stages of migrating to VoIP and a converged architecture, you do not have to wait to install a fax server. This is particularly relevant if you are still using standard fax machines. There are several products on the market that provide for standard analog PSTN deployment and also provide a simple migration path to FoIP IT.
Max Schroeder is the senior vice president of FaxCore Inc. (www.faxcore.com) and a Member of the Board of the Enterprise Communications Association (ECA; www.encomm.org), an industry forum promoting the deployment of voice, video, and data communications solutions in the enterprise. Schroeder is Chair of the Media Relations Committee and, in that capacity, is the ECA liaison for TMC.
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