Deploying unified messaging without going insane

Exchange 2010 enhances unified messaging capabilities, but you don't have to be a telephony expert to deploy them

The release of the Unified Messaging server role in Exchange 2007 had many administrators curious about their ability to deploy the features without having an extensive telephony background. Many administrators hesitated, fearing the unknown. However, Exchange 2010's unified messaging capabilities and management features should make administrators reconsider the pros of using the Unified Messaging server role to provide a universal inbox.

Unified messaging is not a replacement for your PBX or your telephony guru. Granted, your legacy PBX may not work with the Unified Messaging server role (although a simple VoIP gateway can often connect the two), and you may want to deploy an IP-PBX, which would eliminate the need for a PBX/VoIP combination. Ultimately, you are going to need trunk lines coming in, connected to some form of PBX to allow for multiple client sharing through extensions, and a telephony expert (who may or may not be you) to manage those items. But you don't require all that to start.

[ Read J. Peter Bruzzese's "Now's the time to get serious about Exchange 2010." | Watch InfoWorld's three-minute video explanation of unified communications. ]

The Exchange 2010 Unified Messaging server role is meant to manage the voice mail side of your organization. Callers can leave a message if you aren't at your desk or if your line is busy, and that message goes to your inbox. You can, of course, access the message though your phone system in the traditional way, but you can also access your calendar, contacts, and other Exchange-related features and make adjustments, all through the phone.

Getting started with unified messaging

You can begin by installing Exchange 2007 or 2010 and making sure to install the Unified Messaging role on a server, either a stand-alone unit or a server that runs other roles (with the exception of the Edge Transport or, if you're using Exchange 2007, a clustered mailbox role). Once the Unified Messaging role is installed, you can begin creating dial plans, UM gateways, UM policies, and the UM auto-attendant (which is your Exchange phone operator). I've posted a few videos on configuring a UM server at my Exclusively Exchange site.

Once you have the server side configured, you'll probably want to test the system, though doing so may seem a bit impossible given the fact that you don't have it connected to anything tangible. There are a couple of tricks for testing at this stage. One, you can use the Exchange Management Shell with the Test-UMConnectivity cmdlet to see if the system is configured properly. You might also consider using the UM Test Phone, which is a softphone (like Skype) that lets you call your Exchange UM server and test how the auto-attendant works.

Personally, I wanted to go beyond the testing; I wanted to see my Unified Messaging server role in action -- but not on my live production network. So I contacted the Microsoft Exchange group and the Unified Communications team for assistance. With their guidance, I was faced with the decision of working with a Fonality Trixbox server, which felt a bit beyond my capabilities because it required some Unix background and telephony know-how; plus, I would need an FXO (foreign exchange office) card for inbound/outbound PSTN (the standard public telephone switching netwoek) calls as the most cost-effective solution. I could also have picked up an AudioCodes or Dialogic IP gateway, which would give me all the functionality I needed to perform a front-to-back test of unified messaging.

I went with an AudioCodes MediaPack, which included two FXO ports and two FXS (foreign exchange system) ports. For those of you not fluent in FXO/FXS (neither was I before this), the FXO ports are what you attach to your PBX or directly to your PSTN line. You connect the FXS to your test phones.

Anyhow, the MediaPack is an amazing little box! Within a couple of hours (because my Exchange Server's Unified Messaging role was already installed and set up), I could use an outside line to call into my organization, have the Exchange Server pick up the call, leave a voice mail, have that voice mail delivered directly to the inbox of my test user, and have the contents of that voice mail translated and put in an e-mail for easy perusal. My test user could call the auto-attendant, retrieve that voice mail over the phone, and make calendar adjustments.

Note: While I waited for the AudioCodes box to arrive, I contacted Ralph Musgrove, who works for Concord Fax (currently the only provider of Exchange 2010 Fax Services that integrate with unified messaging), who invited me to Miami where we ran a bunch of tests with unified messaging. I've posted videos of the tests.

My advice to all administrators looking to set up the Unified Messaging server role in Exchange and/or the Office Communications Server is to create a fully functional test lab. Yes, you will need to learn some telephony terminology, but you can do it. It'll give you the confidence to really take advantage of the unified communications capabilities in Exchange 2010 when it come time for its deployment.

What Exchange 2010 brings to the unified messaging table

I already mentioned the voice mail preview, one of my favorite features in Exchange 2010's unified messaging capabilities. With speech-to-text translation, users can quickly read their voice mail and get the gist of the conversation. With Outlook 2010, if the speech-to-text engine didn't translate something clearly and you want to listen to the recording, you don't have to sit through the whole message. Instead, you can click directly into the message, at the line you want to hear, and Outlook 2010 will play the audio from that spot.

Note: The fax receiving features have changed between Exchange 2007 and 2010. In Exchange 2007, you can receive inbound faxes through the Unified Messaging server role, but the capability was just basic. In Exchange 2010, Microsoft worked with specialized fax vendors, so now a fax goes to the fax vendor, which then sends the fax as a TIFF attachment via e-mail to the user. Typically, fax vendors let users send faxes through e-mail, eliminating the need for a fax machine. Although the faxing workload is now handled elsewhere, Exchange 2010 authenticates the user with the vendor through a mailbox policy.

Exchange 2010 also lets users create their own call-answering rules, supports more languages for text-to-speech translation and speech recognition, improves name lookup from caller ID, and adds a message-waiting indicator.

Where are you in the world of unified communications? Have you implemented unified messaging in your organization? What pros and cons would you like to share with readers?

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.