A single business transaction has many elements and as technology broadens the audit trail becomes more convoluted.
The telephone was the first electronic device to fragment traditional mail communications and since then we have seen the rise of fax, e-mail, instant messaging, digital telephony and teleconferencing.
Tightening regulations regarding corporate governance are increasingly forcing companies to unify their messaging systems and fill in the cracks in the audit trail of a transaction. Combined with the prescribed timescales for retention of information, the new regulations are increasing the amount of storage space tied up by historical records.
Regulations such as Sarbanes-Oxley and Basel 2 are deemed to cover textual information in e-mails, but attention is being drawn to instant messaging. Companies with an eye to the future are also looking to store recorded voicemails and, as voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) telephony becomes more widespread, complete telephone calls will be added to the storage burden.
It has yet to be tested in court, but governance regulations may already be deemed to cover all forms of messaging. Sarbanes Oxley refers to the need to store “digital records” and VoIP voicemail or telephony recordings are digital in nature.
The problem with storing complete calls is that they also have to be indexed. Voice recognition technology is improving but there is a resistance to trusting it as a reliable conversion method.
Paul Cheslaw, vice-president and general manager of unified messaging specialist AVST, believes that this will come as unified messaging evolves into what he calls unified communications.
“Unified messaging will become a component of a unified communications portfolio,” he says. “Other applications that you would typically find joining fax, voicemail and e-mail would be teleconferencing, instant messaging and collaboration technology. This would be supplemented by integration into business applications. When a salesperson comes out of a sales call, they would call up the unified communications server and enter the details of the call into, for example, Salesforce.com.”
Storing complete calls for transaction records is being avoided except in financial dealing rooms, but this does not mean that voice is being totally ignored. Voicemail recovery on the move is becoming an area of extreme interest.
“For a long time voicemail was looked at as a nice-to-have not a must-have,” says Cheslaw. “Now that e-mail has become so pervasive and people are spending so much time with their e-mail open on their desktops, they are beginning to understand the benefits unified messaging offers to both desktop and mobile users. Even Microsoft is building an element of unified messaging into its next generation of the Exchange product.”
Microsoft’s launch of the Vista operating system and Office 2007 suite will bring collaborative working into the mainstream next year and elements of this may be considered crucial to good governance. Microsoft’s Exchange Server 2007 for 64-bit x86 architected servers will also use Exchange Unified Messaging (EUM) to break down some of the current barriers.
The new servers will store many types of messages in a single inbox alongside traditional e-mail. Using the Outlook 2007 interface, users will be able to retrieve e-mail, voicemail and faxes. Any of these messages will be available to searches or may be forwarded to other users.
EUM will also support Outlook web access and remote working will be supported through improved services in Exchange Activesync to push messages directly to mobile devices.
Combining the telephone and the computer has been a dream of the industry since 1984. ICL, a UK mainframe maker later taken over by Fujitsu Services, was the first to attempt some kind of integration. Working with Sinclair, better known as a home computer manufacturer, the company produced a computer based on a modified Sinclair QL motherboard with an integral telephone and modem. This was marketed as the ICL One-Per-Desk and also rebadged as the BT Merlin Tonto.
The product did not sell well because it did little more than allow numbers to be dialled via the computer. Incoming calls could be answered by a synthesised voice but messages could not be recorded. It did, however, open many suppliers’ eyes to future possibilities.
It was not until the mid-1990s that unified messaging really took off. Cheslaw says unified messaging was first developed in the UK by a company created by Imperial College, called Vmail, but the company was bought by VMX in 1993, a US company that eventually emerged as Avaya after being the subject of a chain of acquisitions.
Avaya was a leader in the VoIP world, but the market has become very competitive and Siemens and Alcatel are currently leading in the European market, according to Shomik Bannerjee, an analyst at Frost & Sullivan.
“The VoIP market is growing rapidly. In fact, far more quickly than the manufacturers expected but in line with the more optimistic predictions of analysts. There are two reasons for this. One is the replacement cycle. Most companies bought new PBX systems near to the millennium because of worries about Y2K issues. The replacement cycle of seven years is coming to a close now and equipment is being replaced.
“The second is that through 2002 to 2003 we had a very bad phase where the GDP was growing incredibly slowly. Replacement activities were postponed but now, with the economy reviving in most parts of Europe, there is renewed activity to buy new hardware and software.
“Initial scepticism on what should replace the existing infrastructure has changed and the telecommunications landscape has evolved as better products have become available and prices have dropped. It is now accepted that IP is going to become the networking protocol for telecoms.”
There is a misconception that storing voicemail will bloat storage systems but the figures contradict this. Barry Butler, a senior analyst at Juniper Research, says the average increase in storage is minimal. “I have been told that the typical one-minute voicemail message takes up 100Kbytes of storage. The incremental impact on mail servers on top of the current e-mail and attachment storage space is usually less than 5%,” he says.
AVST’s Call¬Xpress product shows a similar light touch. “Typically we use a .wav file, a G.711 codec. This records at 8kbps so one minute of storage would be 480Kbytes,” says Cheslaw. Extrapolating that out to 1,500 users, each with a one-minute voice message and all of the overheads for storing their names and greetings messages, takes 720Mbytes of space, according to figures from AVST. So the additional requirements for one of these systems can be fairly minimal, and a lot can be fitted into 1Gbyte.
The decision of where to store new data is made easier because any current storage, local Raid, storage area network, network attached storage or even a standard attached disc would be suitable. Quality of service is not a problem because this can be handled by most of the current crop of IP switches. In fact, the only problem, according to Cheslaw, is where to locate data.
“We are finding that it is critical to give businesses the option of where they store e-mails, faxes, voice and other data. Because of compliance issues we are finding that our users are split into two camps. Some say that they absolutely must have their voicemail stored with their e-mails to make it discoverable and easier to back up. An equal number do not want to have everything stored together and discoverable. It depends on the philosophy of the individual companies,” he says.
For the time being, apart from ensuring sufficient capacity, storage does not appear to cause any more of a headache than e-mail but as unified messaging expands to encompass videomails and teleconferencing, streaming will become an issue.
Storage suppliers are beginning to target the demands of large file storage and streaming data. For example, Isilon Systems uses clustered storage for data-intensive business applications and clustered computing environments. Companies that need this tend to be in oil, gas, media and internet services, but the advent of mainstream online conferencing will create new potential users.
“The issues start to come into play in larger enterprises, both in terms of capacity and concurrency. Thousands of employees not only scale the volume of data but also the number of simultaneous accesses,” says Jeff Alsford, EMEA region technical director at Isilon.
“Conventional file systems may become restricted by the volume of read and write data. Isilon’s clustered approach scales both read and write capability linearly maintaining the capacity/throughput relationship.”
Perhaps one of the biggest users of such expanded unified messaging services would be the call centre. The advice offered by the helpdesk is critical and, especially if customers are involved, has to be closely monitored for quality.
“The biggest factor to be considered here is regulation, with companies required to keep records for months and sometimes years. Here the need for a highly scalable storage solution becomes very obvious,” says Alsford.