Unified Communications, Unified Messaging and Good Old Voice Mail

ShareThis is my first posting as a “Unified Communication”, so it seems like a good moment to explain what I mean when I use terms such as UC and UM. Some people whom I’ve talked with at TechEd and other events were rather hazy about the differences between UC and UM, so there seems to be a need to clarify it. In this posting I’ll cover UM only, to keep things brief.

Unified Messaging (UM) is itself a rather nebulous term. Everyone seems to agree on some of the characteristics of UM. Voice mail and e-mail are presented together, visually, to the user in their mail client. There is an over-the-phone interface to allow messages to be listened to, replied to and deleted. Beyond that, there is little consensus. Should all messages be contained in a common store? Should fax be supported, and how? How is identity managed? And so on.

I’m happy to talk about Microsoft Exchange Unified Messaging as “UM”. It’s the product I work on, and it’s the product I use every day. So, as long as I’m careful to say “Exchange UM” when there is any danger of confusion, I can clarify the underlying principles and describe the features when I’m asked about it.

Exchange UM is packaged as one of the server roles in Exchange 2010. (It was introduced in Exchange 2007). It has three main feature areas:

•Voice Mail. The basic call-answering functionality. If a user does not answer a call to their phone, the call is eventually forwarded to a UM server. It answers, and plays the user’s greeting, such as: “Hello, this is Michael. I’m sorry I can’t take your call. Please leave a message.” The caller then hears a BEEP and records their message for the user. UM arranges for the message to be delivered to the user’s Exchange Inbox. The user can listen to the message by using a mail client such as Outlook or Exchange 2010 Outlook Web App (OWA), or by using…
•Outlook Voice Access. This provides a telephone interface to Exchange that works for any phone. A user calls a number that is answered by UM; they identify themselves to the system with a sequence of touch tone keys. UM then tells them what’s new, for example: “You have 2 new voice messages and 8 new e-mails…” What sets UM apart from older voice mail and unified messaging systems is that users are able to access not only voice mail and e-mail over the phone, but can also access their calendar, and call or send voice messages to Personal Contacts or other users. And they can do this with voice commands, because speech recognition is enabled in all of Exchange 2010 UM’s 26 language packs.
•Automated Attendant. Many companies want to provide telephone callers with a convenient way of reaching their employees, even if the caller doesn’t know the employee’s telephone number, but only the company’s main “switchboard” number. An Automated Attendant is a system that answers the phone in such a case, prompts the caller, collects their input and tries to direct their call to the correct person. Automated Attendants are sometimes chained together to make multi-level menus. Exchange UM allows the Automated Attendants to be speech-enabled, so that the caller can simply say the name of the person that they want to contact.
The architecture that underpins Exchange UM is true to the “Unified” name. All messages are stored in Microsoft Exchange. All messages are transported by Microsoft Exchange. All identities (and the vast majority of configuration details) are managed by Microsoft Windows and Active Directory. Administrators who already know Exchange will find a few new concepts in UM, but they all relate to its connection to the world of telephony. Much of UM will seem very comfortable to the Exchange administrator.

In my next post, I’ll try to differentiate UM, now defined, from UC. In later posts, I’ll talk about Exchange UM’s relationship to the “world of telephony”, and how to connect the two together.

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