Fax servers lower costs, ease administration

As easy and reliable as it is to share electronic files via e-mail and the Internet, agencies cannot survive without the ability to share hard-copy documents. And although it incorporates rather ho-hum technology, the fax machine remains the standard way of transmitting paper documents.

While faxing is commonplace, agencies that employ hundreds of fax machines have to deal with many hidden costs, including supplies, telecommunications fees, and the time and personnel involved in moving a document from a fax machine to a recipient's desk.

One solution is a fax server, which can replace multiple fax machines and cut down on phone lines, supplies and staff time. The payback period for a typical fax server is usually just a few months when the reduced personnel time for delivering faxes is included in the equation.

Fax server sales are "seeing growth figures of 25 to 100 percent a year," said Lee Weinstein, president of Syscom Services Inc. "It reminds me of 12 or 13 years ago of how fax machines were just starting to be accepted." Syscom has installed fax servers in offices for the Army, the Customs Service, the Food and Drug Administration and the Social Security Administration, among others.

The FDA uses its fax server for office automation. "Now it takes a minute as opposed to 15 minutes using a standard fax machine," said Rich Schmelz, general manager at Syscom. "The time savings are huge."

In fact, Syscom is working with an agency within the Commerce Department to fax-enable 6,000 users at the desktop. Yet Weinstein and Schmelz stressed that fax servers often are part of larger solutions, such as forms automation fax-back systems and fax broadcast services. Syscom, for instance, constructed the fax broadcast solutions for the Clinton and Bush presidential campaigns.

In this comparison, we evaluated four fax server solutions that are well-suited for organizations running Microsoft Corp.'s Windows NT servers and Windows 95, Windows 98 and Windows NT clients. Three were software-only solutions: RightFax Enterprise 6.0 from RightFax Inc.; Fax Sr. 3.0 from Omtool Ltd.; and Zetafax 5.5i from Equisys Inc. We also evaluated Castelle's FaxPress 3500, an integrated hardware and software solution.

If you want a powerful fax server with many advanced features and flexible management, your best choice is RightFax. If you would rather have an out-of-the-box turnkey solution and are willing to pay extra, then your choice should be Castelle FaxPress 3500.

Fax Sr. is as powerful as RightFax but not as flexible or easy to use. Zetafax was the least favorite because of its antiquated interface and lack of features.

All the fax server software solutions require installation of multichannel port adapters, which are add-in boards that provide multiple analog fax ports. The most popular makers of these boards are Brooktrout Technology Inc. and Dialogic Corp. Installing these boards can be difficult. We spent a long time trying to configure our Brooktrout TR 114 PCI board, only to find out that the supplied drivers did not work. Even with drivers supplied by the fax server vendors, we ran into trouble and had to employ technical support services.

FaxPress 3500

FaxPress 3500 was the only turnkey hardware/software solution among the fax servers we tested. The hardware component is the size of two laptops stacked on top of each other. In the back are an Ethernet cable connector and four phone line connectors. Future models will have more phone line connections. The front of the box simply has two status lights: green and red.

Installing FaxPress was easy. Because we had all the right protocols on our Windows NT server, we simply ran the install program. We then chose the Windows NT server/client installation instead of the Novell Inc. NetWare option. We entered the unit's serial number and other basic configuration information, and FaxPress completed the process.

The hardware responded by displaying the green status light. Installing client software also was simple and can be done using the supplied CD or, better yet, directly from the network server.

Overall, FaxPress had the simplest configuration of all the products tested. To configure FaxPress, we logged in as a supervisor and accessed special administration features. The administration interface is split into two areas: On the left is a hierarchical tree, which indicates where users, mail boxes, phone books and cover pages are stored. On the right are details about material on the left side.

We had trouble locating default supervisor log-in parameters, so we had to set them manually. Also, we could not find a way to specify the area code in which the fax server is located during the FaxPress configuration. This inability means that faxes sent within the same area code fail if the user dials the area code before the number.

To migrate users from a Windows NT domain, we had to install a separate utility named FaxPress Client under the program group. We would have preferred to have been able to complete all administrative actions using one interface. As an administrator, we were able to view, route, delete and print faxes. We could see faxes in the queue, but the current status of a fax was not indicated. The only hint that something was happening with the fax was a changing icon.

FaxPress supports the most basic methods of routing, including manual, Direct Inward Dialing, Dual Tone Multi-Frequency and T-30 Subaddressing. It integrates with Messaging Application Programming Interface-compliant e-mail systems, including Microsoft's Exchange, Lotus Development Corp.'s Notes and Simple Mail Transfer Protocol-based e-mail. FaxPress also supports Internet faxing using Castelle's own faxing mechanism and third-party Internet faxing protocols enabling an e-mail client to send and receive faxes. Also, FaxPress has strong ties with third-party solutions, so it can easily integrate with IBM Corp.'s AS/400 as well as Unix and SAP platforms.

FaxPress' emulation of Internet Explorer's interface means that users will know their way around the program quickly. There is nothing fancy about the client software, but it is easy to use. Menus let users take such actions as viewing, printing and storing faxes. FaxPress also comes with a simple cover page editor and a new fax notification module.

Sending and receiving faxes was not time-consuming. The server quickly responded to client requests to send a fax. Routing incoming faxes from server to client also was speedy.

Of the fax servers tested in this roundup, we liked FaxPress for its ease of use. Agencies looking to quickly implement a fax server solution should consider Castelle's FaxPress 3500.

RightFax Enterprise 6.0

The basic installation and configuration of RightFax Enterprise 6.0 was uneventful. It was the only software solution that automatically installed and configured Brooktrout drivers. Also, there are only a few manual steps that need to be done ahead of time, such as installing an HP-PCL driver on the RightFax server and clients. We also had to manually create a Windows NT share to publish the client installation files.

RightFax's deployment options include the ability to load balance fax processing across several RightFax servers. We were impressed with the way the product let us specify the processes we wanted to run on certain servers. RightFax also has unattended installation options, which use a basic unattended answer file, for deploying client software on a wide scale.

RightFax administration tools are robust, but they could use some refinements to make the administration process a bit easier. RightFax separates administration tasks into several tools, while we would have preferred a single, comprehensive management tool. Importing users from a Windows NT domain into the RightFax system was a breeze, but the product does not offer a direct method for importing users in a Novell NetWare environment. One nice feature is that RightFax allows administrators to set an option that will automatically create a new account for users when they send a fax through the system.

RightFax offers strong user administration capabilities with respect to controlling permissions for various tasks. You can delegate administration, but this is an all-or-nothing proposition; you cannot assign particular users to a specific administrator. We liked the detailed view of all RightFax networking services in the main console. RightFax includes the ability to manage multiple servers from a centralized administration console. The product also provides a centralized phone book.

RightFax supports DTMF and DID routing as well as predetermined automated routing based on the incoming or source phone number. It also supports routing codes and provides great scripting capabilities to perform advanced routing options. In addition, RightFax provides printing options, such as printing all incoming or outgoing faxes for a given user. RightFax uses groups to apply common settings to a number of users in a single step. However, only a few options, such as applying a routing code, are available.

Overall, the client interface for RightFax is easy to learn and navigate. Like most fax programs, the user's chief approach for outbound faxing most likely will be printing to the network fax driver from the most commonly used applications. Addressing a fax with RightFax is fairly easy, as the product can use the common server-based address book as well as the MAPI-registered address book or Lightweight Directory Access Protocol-based directory server. However, these addressing options only were available when printing to the fax driver and not when creating a new fax directly from the fax inbox.

RightFax did not include a separate cover page editing tool. Creating and managing cover pages is relegated to administrators, who can publish custom cover pages on the server. Cover pages can be created in any application that allows printing to an HP-PCL driver. For users, the process of selecting a cover sheet is easy, but there is no smooth way to preview cover sheets aside from performing a print preview on the entire fax.

The RightFax inbox application provides basic fax management capabilities, such as moving faxes to folders or forwarding a fax to other users. Basic administrative fax routing also can be performed from the main fax inbox. As an administrator, we were able to view any user's fax inbox, which, of course, has security implications.

As with FaxPress, we did not experience delays when we sent outbound faxes, and the server and client collaborated effortlessly when routing inbound faxes.

The RightFax client is supported only on Windows-based platforms.

Although not as simple to administer as FaxPress, RightFax delivers a complete fax server solution for an organization of almost any size. The strength of this product lies in its comprehensive fax server management tools.

Fax Sr. 3.0

Unlike RightFax, which automatically installed the Brooktrout board drivers, Omtool required us to configure them manually. We spent more than five hours trying to get the Brooktrout board working. Eventually, we called technical support and were told that we should use newer drivers with a graphical user interface. These new drivers worked, and once the board was set up, the rest of the server installation and configuration was simple.

Omtool supports a range of fax boards and modems, including Brooktrout boards, Dialogic's GammaLink boards or Natural Microsystems' multiple-port fax cards in addition to external fax/modems from Multi-Tech Systems Inc. and ZyXel Communications Inc.

Server administration is done using Fax Sr.'s administrative module, called System Manager. With System Manager, we connected to the server and were able to configure server details such as phone lines and applications. Another benefit of Fax Sr. is that systems administrators do not need to visit each desktop to install the software.

Fax Sr. provides the most powerful set of routing, reporting and management tools in this comparison. It lets the administrator create rules for routing outgoing faxes for least-cost sending and special rules for broadcast faxes. In addition, administrators can block fax transmissions to specified numbers or patterns, and the program handles PBX codes with ease. Administrators can require that outgoing faxes from specified users get manager approval before being sent.

Fax Sr.'s incoming fax routing also is sophisticated. The program supports DTMF, DID and cover-page OCR routing. Faxes also can be delivered to a "general delivery" account for manual distribution.

Fax Sr.'s reporting and remote server management capabilities are first-rate. You can generate fax traffic reports that include such statistics as the average number of pages moved per hour and the average wait time. Administrators can monitor fax queues and server status in real time, and the program's Activity Monitoring Client will send alerts if any of the system's services goes down. In addition, it's a snap to set up archive directories for faxes sent and received.

Integration with e-mail and other applications is one of Fax Sr.'s strong suits. Gateways allow Microsoft Exchange and Lotus Notes users to access Fax Sr.'s faxing capabilities, so users can send and receive faxes without leaving those applications. Users also can tap existing databases for address books.

For those who do not already use Notes or Exchange, Omtool provides its own client. The client looks identical to Microsoft Outlook or Internet Explorer, so users will not spend much time learning the interface. When we first started the client, it asked us to log on to the server giving a name, e-mail name and a fax server name. That step creates a new account on the fax server. The problem, however, is that we had to know the name of the fax server. It would have been helpful if a drop-down box displayed a list of available servers.

Outlook users can re-send failed faxes, prioritize outgoing faxes and receive real-time reports on fax status. Fax Sr. also adds support for billing codes and creating Outlook forms. As with other products we tested, users can create their own phone books, where they can manage their contacts, and folders, where they can manage sent and received faxes. Unlike others, the Fax Sr. client supports local modems, so if a user has a modem attached to his computer, he can use it to send and receive faxes.

As with other fax servers in this comparison, we did not notice any delays when faxing documents and receiving faxes from the client.

Fax Sr. is another sophisticated software-only fax server. Although just as flexible as RightFax, the administration tools are not as intuitive or simple to use. Nevertheless, Omtool's offering is strong for organizations of any size.

Zetafax 5.5i

Installing Zetafax gave us as big a headache as we got from the installation of Fax Sr. The problem was with erroneous instructions for installing drivers for the Brooktrout board. As with Fax Sr., the instructions called for a command line installation of the drivers, which did not work. On the technical support staff's recommendation, we downloaded a new version of Zetafax that provided us with a user interface for Brooktrout installation. The new version worked on the first try. After the software is loaded onto the server, an awkward user interface requests administrators to import users from the domain. Once that is done, the server is ready to go.

We were not impressed with Zetafax's administration tools. The server administration interface was modular, and its look reminded us of Windows 3.x applications. Importing users from a Windows NT domain was easy enough, but we found a glaring flaw: Zetafax gives users folder and fax access to each other's directories. To enforce security, we had to manually edit each user's rights.

As with the other fax servers, Zetafax works with most popular e-mail systems, such as Exchange, Notes, Lotus' cc:Mail and POP3. We did not like the server interface because it gave minimal server status and channel status information. Also, to make changes to the server, we had to launch another utility.

Zetafax supports most basic methods of routing, including manual, DID, DTMF and T-30 Subaddressing.

Installing the client is a matter of sharing a directory from the fax server. We did not like the fact that the workstation files were not in a special installation directory where users could do minimal damage. Instead, the files were located in a ZFAX\SYSTEMS directory.

The user interface is outdated and awkward to use. It is divided into three panes: Inbox, Outbox and Filed. Only basic actions such as view, forward, print, delete or save are available. There is no built-in OCR or cover page editor, although other applications can be used. Phone book management was weak. To edit the phone book, we had to add a new user, but that step still failed to bring up a phone book. Manipulating address book entries is done by choosing the Search option, which is a little odd. Sending and receiving faxes using Zetafax was not a problem, however.

Although Zetafax can certainly do the job as a fax server, it was our least favorite because it does not offer enough flexibility and power out of the box. In sum, both the server and client interfaces need a lot of work to bring them up to current standards. However, Equisys will be shipping an enhanced version of Zetafax in March. Zetafax 6 will feature a new graphical user interface, least-cost routing and a streamlined wizard for installing DID cards, company officials said.

Conclusion

If you are managing a workgroup with lots of fax machines, consider buying a fax server. These products provide administrators not only with cost savings but also with time-saving management and reporting tools. In addition, today's fax servers integrate with most e-mail systems, so they are easy for users to learn.

—Kvitka is a technology analyst at the InfoWorld Test Center.

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Fax server routing methods

The key advantage to fax servers is the ability to deliver a fax directly to a person without human intervention. Fax servers incorporate several routing methods; some are practical, while others are not. And some methods are more expensive than others.

The easiest and most commonly used method of routing inbound faxes is manual routing. With this method, a fax is received by the fax server and is stored in a general delivery box. The fax server administrator or anyone who is designated as the router then manually sends the faxes to their intended destination.

The Dual Tone Multi-Frequency method of routing has been around for a long time but is rarely used because it is too cumbersome. DTMF is a fancy term to describe push-button or touch-tone dialing. Each user in the fax server directory has an extra set of digits that the sender must know. When someone sends you a fax, he has to enter your extra digits after dialing the fax number.

Direct Inward Dialing is a more straightforward method of fax routing, wherein each user has a designated fax number. DID is a telephone service provided by a local telephone company. To use DID, an organization must also purchase an external DID hardware interface and request the local phone company to provide a DID trunk line. Although this method is popular, it is also considerably more expensive than manual routing.

Other routing methods include T-30 Subaddressing, which is similar to DTMF. With T-30, the sender has to include the recipient's fax mailbox ID with the dialing number. Optical character recognition also can be used. OCR software looks at the front page and then tries to translate and identify the name of the recipient and forward the document. But OCR technology is not 100 percent accurate, so many organizations prefer not to use it.

PRODUCTS TESTED

Available on the GSA schedule.

Score: 7.50

RightFax Inc.

RightFax Enterprise 6.0

Available on the GSA schedule.

Score: 7.50

Equisys Inc.

Zetafax 5.5i

Available on the open market.

Score: 4.90

Omtool Ltd.

Fax Sr. 3.0

Available on the GSA schedule.

Score: 7.40

AT A GLANCE

Fax Servers

Pricing: Prices range from $3,156 to $6,242 for the software and hardware.

What's Selling: Agencies interested in decreasing expenditures on fax supplies, telecommunications charges and personnel are looking into fax servers.

Where to Find Bargains: On the GSA schedule and direct from vendors.

What to Specify: Decide whether you want a turnkey solution or a software-only solution that requires a fax board. Consider what administration tools and flexibility you need. Be prepared to spend time getting your fax server up.

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