VoIP vendors get both messages

Avaya tops slate with advanced voice-recognition and text-to-speech wares.

In this Clear Choice Test we evaluated the latest unified messaging packages from IP telephony vendors Avaya, Cisco, Nortel and Siemens Communications. A subsequent test is planned of stand-alone and third-party unified messaging offerings.

Unified messaging isn't a new concept, but IP telephony vendors are spicing up their unified messaging offers with advanced user interfaces and more accurate voice recognition and text-to-speech technologies.

In typical installations, the unified messaging system is a software add-on to a PBX system that works with it to provide efficient, consolidated, "hands-free" access to voice mail and e-mail via any phone device, located anywhere. In most cases, the unified messaging system handles the voice mail directly from the PBX and provides the processing necessary to integrate the voice mail and e-mail via a LAN connection to the e-mail server.

In this Clear Choice Test we evaluated the latest unified messaging packages from IP telephony vendors Avaya, Cisco, Nortel and Siemens Communications . A subsequent test is planned of stand-alone and third-party unified messaging offerings.

Avaya topped the competition because of its well-done Web interface to unified e-mail and voice mail, superior voice-recognition interface, and outstanding TTS accuracy and performance.

Siemens placed second, with its major strengths being exceptional administrative access to the unified messaging environment, a very good Web interface to unified e-mail and voice mail, and tailorable voice recognition options.

Cisco boasts exceptional survivability options and added voice mail security . There were some missing pieces, though, such as no Web interface to unified voice mail and e-mail, and no voice-recognition access to e-mail.

Nortel's strengths included broad language support and tailorable voice recognition. Architecturally its unified messaging only works with Nortel PBXs. Nortel's TTS readout (what you hear as the unified messaging system is reading your e-mail to you) was poor, comparatively speaking, and a proprietary voice mail-encoding format complicates matters by requiring that a Nortel-specific player be installed on your laptop to play the message.

All packages tested comprised one or more servers, client software and the underlying telephony infrastructure to fully exercise the unified messaging features specified in our test plans (see "How we did it" ).

For consistency, we standardized on Microsoft's Exchange e-mail message store and the Outlook e-mail client. Each vendor provided an Exchange server (2000 or 2003) and any necessary Outlook client plug-ins.

We found that, for the four products we tested, an estimated 80% of the e-mail/in-box-based unified messaging features and user interface are effectively the same. The real action lies in new unified messaging interfaces, which promise simpler access and greater user productivity. Our test focused on all supported interfaces, including the classical e-mail in-box-based access, Web-based interfaces and the next generation of telephone user interface (TUI). Our test went beyond typical TUI evaluations in that we attempted to do it all by voice interaction, where the user could maneuver through the unified messaging system entirely "hands free" - ideally via a clean "natural-language" flow, where the system would read out e-mails accurately and in the appropriate language.

In general, the Outlook Inbox provides the highest level of functionality for unified messaging across the products tested. Additionally, the Web Outlook interface, which is not supported by all the vendors, enables quick access from anywhere, anytime. However, this Web-enabled view provides much less direct access to the messaging environment.

Avaya MMS and UCC

Avaya's Modular Messaging System (MMS) includes all the features we sought except voice recognition, which comes from the Unified Communications Center (UCC).

Avaya provides what we consider the best Web interface, similar in many respects to Microsoft's Outlook Web Access. It is clean and easy to use, and is a viable alternative to processing voice mail and e-mail via the Outlook in-box. A small but noteworthy shortcoming is that there is no direct interaction with telephone dialing. You can't directly place a return phone call to, say, a voice mail source from the Outlook interface; you must go to an associated phone and dial a code to place a return call. We found that Cisco and Siemens were similarly limited.

Avaya's voice recognition - based on Nuance 8.5, a third-party speech-recognition software engine from Nuance Communications - is superb in terms of the natural-language flow of the interface. The system is built around some 40 fixed phrases. It is not readily extensible or user trainable, but we found it adequate for general-purpose, speaker-independent access to the full range of voice mail and e-mail functions. A nice touch is that the user can say "help" at any point and get useful and practical guidance on how to proceed.

Avaya's TTS - based on Speechify 2.1.3, a third-party TTS software engine from Scansoft - also did the best job delivering TTS, and achieved perfect scores in four out of seven test messages. A perfect score means every word in the message was correctly identified and spoken. And the correct foreign language was applied automatically in all cases, based on an analysis of the text in the body of the e-mail message. Avaya's standard TTS package includes 11 foreign languages, nine of which can be active at a time.

In the Avaya configuration, voice mail messages were stored on the Exchange server. Voice mail could alternately have been stored on an Avaya Linux-based voice mail server, which can be deployed redundantly. It's also possible to have the Avaya server back up the Exchange server, so voice mails are still accepted and saved if the Exchange server is unavailable.

Configuration-wise, Avaya's package works with many third-party PBXs, including those from Cisco, Mitel, Siemens and NEC. Additionally, Avaya says its unified messaging system will connect with Nortel, Cisco and Siemens PBXs via Q.Sig over a T-1 by this summer. Avaya's MMS and UCC connect separately to the underlying PBX, but many connectivity options are supported, ranging from analog trunks to T-1s with PRI signaling to the more advanced Q.Sig interface.

There is good flexibility in terms of voice mail vocoding settings, including G.711 and Microsoft's GSM 6.10. Scalability is adequate. Up to 69 concurrent unified messaging sessions, supporting several hundred or thousand users, are supported per Avaya server, and the system can expand to up to 10 servers. Avaya does not offer an integrated fax server feature with its unified messaging package.

Siemens Xpressions

Siemens can store voice mail on its HiPath Xpressions server or directly on the user's Exchange e-mail server. With the Siemens software running on Windows 2003 servers (recommended; Windows 2000 also supported), redundancy can be achieved via Microsoft's server clustering.

Like Avaya, Siemens offers a nice Web interface for access to all unified messages. However, Avaya's was a tad easier to maneuver. Siemens' Outlook interface offered a little more flexibility than the others in some respects. For example, Siemens lets the user deposit voice mails into either of two Outlook folders, and then retain full access, including via voice recognition, to messages in either folder. With the other packages, full access was generally supported to voice mails in just one folder.

However, as with Avaya, the user cannot launch phone calls directly from the Outlook interface. Siemens says this can be accomplished via a separate computer telephony integration application it offers, called SimplyPhone.

Siemens' voice-recognition component we tested was still in late beta. It is scheduled to be added to a maintenance release of Siemens' unified messaging package this summer. The third-party speech-recognition software engine, SpeechWorks Version 3 from SpeechWorks International, requires its own server. We thought the voice recognition was particularly well done. An extensive vocabulary of terms is supported and, with assistance from Siemens technical support, the vocabulary can be extended.

While Siemens also gets its TTS capabilities from Speechify, it only uses Version 3.02. The shortcoming with this earlier version is that only German and English are supported, one at a time, set system-wide. The unified messaging package cannot automatically detect and apply different languages based on the text body of e-mails. Siemens says language support will be expanded in the next release.

The HiPath Xpressions package runs over 14 other vendors' PBXs, including many European companies (Ericsson, Alcatel, Philips and Ascom). Connectivity is ISDN PRI in almost all cases. Scalability of Siemens' package is configuration dependent. With sufficient Windows server resources, up to 255 concurrent ports are supported. However, there can be only a single voice mail message store.

A fax server is integral with the Siemens package; it is separately license-enabled and adds $40 per seat to the total package price.

Cisco Unity and Personal Assistant

Cisco's Unity Enterprise unified messaging package gets its strength from its voice recognition and high-availability features delivered as separate components.

Voice recognition is delivered via Cisco's Personal Assistant software - driven also by Scansoft's Nuance engine, which requires its own server. The Personal Assistant voice-recognition functions were well integrated - but support only voice mail access. Cisco does not support voice-recognition access to e-mail, and cannot deliver the same hands-free maneuvering through e-mail and selective playout via TTS that competitors can. The Unity package also includes Scansoft's RealSpeak TTS software engine, which performed nearly as well as Avaya's TTS, but did not achieve any perfect scores in our test e-mail messages.

Cisco does not offer a Web interface to unified voice mail and e-mail.

Despite these competitive shortcomings, Cisco deserves recognition for a couple of nice interface touches. One is the Outlook embedded player: Only Cisco offered single-button playback of voice mail attachments directly from the Outlook interface. The others required a couple of steps to identify, select, open and playback a selected voice mail message. Also, Cisco did some nice engineering so that you can accelerate the playback of a lengthy voice mail while the content remains perfectly understandable. Nortel also offers a "speed-up option" from the Outlook player, but the playback quality isn't nearly as good as Cisco's. (Note that this is not fast-forward, which skims over content, and which all of the vendors that we tested support. When you fast forward, you typically don't hear anything as you move through the message, when you "speed-up" you hear the message - only faster.) Also, all of the vendors support some manner of "speed-up" via the audio, or TUI, access to voice mail.

Cisco gets high marks for configuration and architecture, thanks in large part to its high-availability and survivability options. One, called Unity Message Repository, provides voice mail backup to the Exchange message store. Another is a disaster-recovery software utility, called DIRT, that comes free with Unity.

Adding to its configuration appeal is that Cisco's Unity package runs with 17 other vendors' PBXs. The linkages are quite diverse, and include a specialized Cisco gateway that converts Session Initiation Protocol call control on the Cisco side to and from the protocol of the other PBX.

Cisco's scalability is achieved via clustering of multiple servers. Generally, the per-server concurrent-port capacity is based on the power of the servers you run it on. Cisco says that up to 7,500 users (seats) can be serviced by a single Unity server. Cisco offers the broadest range of settings with regards to voice vocoders, in terms of storage space and bandwidth consumption.

Cisco also gets high marks for its secure voice mail support. If a voice mail is marked secure in Cisco's Unity system, it only can be played from a system phone, and not via the Outlook player. Also, secure voice mail can't be copied or forwarded.

Cisco also offers an add-on fax server but at $25,000, it is too expensive for all but the largest, fax-intensive companies.

Nortel CallPilot

Nortel's CallPilot unified messaging package is useful and rich, but it only works with Nortel phone systems, which is a major disadvantage. That, and the fact that only Nortel employs a proprietary voice mail-encoding scheme - so voice mail has to be played out via Nortel's player application, are two reasons we rated the CallPilot package below average in the configuration and architecture category.

Despite those limitations, we generally laud the Nortel package. For example, only Nortel lets users directly place phone calls from the unified Outlook interface. The user can select a recent voice mail, hit the one-touch recall, and the phone system will automatically place a call to the voice mail source, connecting to whatever phone device the user has associated with his laptop.

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