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Media with Your Messages?

It's fun, but is it practical?

Today's message networks take on tomorrow's advanced messaging and unified communications services.

With over 40 billion e-mails sent each day, the world's communications backbone is increasingly traveling across message networks. Businesses execute transactions, partnerships, sales, negotiations, and marketing through their e-mail messages. Consumers chat with friends and family, read newsletters, and buy products. Furthermore, technology innovations are converging traditional voice, data, and wireless networks, so messages take shape not only as e-mail, but also as videos, voice mails, animated greetings, images, Short Message Service (SMS) and Multimedia Message Service (MMS) mobile messages, and faxes.

As message networks take on an increasingly central role in our communications, users need more flexibility to access their critical information from any device, anywhere, with a single click. This includes traditional devices like desktop computers and Web clients, but also mobile phones, voice interfaces, and many more devices yet to be invented. For all types of customers, emerging unified communications (UC) applications offer a great potential for better connecting individuals together and facilitating communications and collaboration. Specifically for businesses, UC applications have the potential to dramatically increase employee productivity and help remote or "deskless" workers, like salespeople or delivery personnel, better stay in touch with corporate headquarters.

UC technologies provide a bridge between traditional e-mail servers and mixed media content from the traditional telephony and wireless worlds. Gateways allow voice mails, faxes, and mobile messages to be centrally stored in highly reliable, scalable Internet message stores. New demands for storing this broad variety of content require a new generation of future-proof message network architectures. These UC architectures will need to employ components optimized to route, store, manage, and access Internet messages throughout their life cycle within the message network.

As these next-generation message stores take on the additional load of multimedia content, customers will need ways to manage the ever-increasing storage requirements. This becomes particularly critical as new mobile messaging formats, like MMS, allow for the rapid creation and dissemination of messages that include photos, animations, and video and audio clips from mobile phones and other devices. Furthermore, since mobile users will usually have limited physical storage on their device, the network-based store of their messaging information will be particularly important for retaining messages in the event they upgrade mobile handsets or move to a new service provider.

For this reason, storage flexibility will need to be built into whatever messaging system is selected. This includes integrating with networked storage solutions, like Network Attached Storage (NAS) and Storage Area Networks (SAN), so customers can leverage a plug-and-play framework for as-needed scaling to support new users and greater message volumes. Furthermore, management tools will be required that allow for easy management of the store, so customers can get an instant view into what's happening on their message store. This includes tools for tracking storage allocation, CPU usage, and other low-level hardware diagnostic information, like cooling fans and power supplies or even network-level elements.

A key element of converged message network architectures that address today's e-mail, as well as advanced applications like UC, will be the presentation of message content to the end user. Transcoding and media conversion technologies facilitate the transformation of message content to meet the varied requirements of individual devices and their respective user interfaces. Examples of this include the conversion of text messages to speech for access from voice interfaces, like traditional phones or the reduction of long text e-mails into short limited-character excerpts that can be sent via SMS.

A related challenge that will be created by emerging, converged UC architectures is the requirement for digesting this new abundance of message content centralized in one giant, unified mailbox. Users not only need the flexibility to get this information from anywhere, but also capabilities for managing the message traffic. This includes not only traditional tools for blocking spam, but also capabilities for preventing security breaches, like hacker attacks, virus outbreaks, or forwarding of confidential attachments.

Throughout the converged message networks of the future, routing and filtering systems will need to be put in place to direct message traffic. Powerful scanning tools will need to police messages for inappropriate content, including spam and viruses. Priorities will also need to be granted for different types of message content or users. For example, enterprises will likely want to prioritize voice mail over e-mail or SMS messages. Service providers will want to differentiate service options for "free" Webmail versus unified e-mail, voice, fax, and wireless messaging services.

For businesses, policies will need to be defined and enforced for controlling usage of message networks. Content filtering can be employed to watch out for harassing content, like profanity. Policies could be used to watch for inappropriate media embedded in e-mail, like an audio or video clip. Related to this, the same issues around online file sharing will also infect message networks, so both enterprises and service providers will need to better monitor and document user activity.

Furthermore, businesses will need to establish security policies for protecting sensitive voice mails or e-mails from being forwarded outside the company. Archival systems and quarantine queues will allow businesses to better track and store messages in the event of future electronic discovery requests. Quarantine queues will give administrators and management the power to control which messages ultimately get delivered, and auditing capabilities will further allow for the end-to-end tracking of a message throughout its life cycle from sender to receiver and even beyond.

With their experience in dial-tone reliable services, service-level billing, and network connectivity, service providers are in an ideal position to offer advanced messaging services, including UC, to their consumer and business customers. For example, many mobile operators deploying 2.5 and 3G wireless networks are already in advanced trials or early deployments of powerful UC services. Other wireline ISPs, portals, and traditional telecom providers are looking to offer these services to better differentiate their service offerings and generate new revenues, as well as lure more lucrative business customers to hosted services.

For service providers that want to generate revenue from UC services, effective billing system integration is critical. For example, mobile operators need to ensure that both their pre-pay and post-pay subscribers can authenticate and get appropriate access to these next generation services. Additional complexities emerge when you consider that billing for UC services may invoke new business models - such as when subscribers get charged not only for time-based usage, but alternative billing is done based on message content type, size of message and related attachments, or even on the specific applications being used. In addition to billing requirements, a converged message network solution will also need to fit into the Operations Administration Maintenance Provisioning (OAMP) framework already in use at the customer site. This includes addressing network diagnostics, managing downtime, defining classes-of-services on a per-user or domain basis, as well as integrating with existing systems for provisioning new users or service offerings.

For traditional enterprises and government institutions, UC technologies allow increased flexibility and productivity for employees. It's already been shown that employees using e-mail for business interactions can be three times more productive than when using a traditional voice interface. In addition to employee productivity and efficiency gains, these next-generation UC technologies will also allow the mobile workforce to remain better connected to their critical messaging information and more responsive to business requests from anywhere, at any time. And with advanced notification capabilities of UC technologies, users can more easily be reached or get access to their critical messaging information from truly anywhere, at any time. Similarly, educational institutions see these advanced messaging technologies as a way to better connect students, faculty, and alumni, as well as enable distance learning applications.

Converged architectures will allow customers to centralize multiple stores of traditional communications information, including voice mail, e-mail, and fax stores. The server consolidation that these next-generation converged message network architectures provide will dramatically simplify management, provide flexibility for deploying future services to nontraditional clients, and reduce ongoing hardware, software, and support IT costs. Today's economic environment will force any business looking at deploying UC services to focus heavily on how to best maximize operational efficiencies of their messaging and IT investments. With that said, all businesses looking to deploy advanced messaging services should stay focused on the significant end-user benefits that these services provide and the way they can dramatically simplify how each user - business or consumer - gets mail.

More Stories By Jeff Brainard

Jeff Brainard is an industry expert on messaging software and e-mail security. He is manager of product marketing at Mirapoint, responsible for product management and product marketing activities

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