Fax transmission is indispensable in the modern business world. You can find fax machines everywhere from "mom and pop" groceries to sky-scraping corporate towers. However, conventional faxing eats up paper and time. For example, if you want to fax the memo you just wrote on your word processor, you must first print it. Then, you have to wait for the fax machine to become available before you can dial the number. You may have to wait to ensure that your fax goes through correctly. And, finally, you may wait for hours before someone tells you there's an answer waiting for you.
One fix to your faxing woes would be to hire a full-time fax attendant. A better solution would be to automate sending and receiving faxes on the desktop. Transmitting a memo automatically will increase productivity. And just think of all the time you'll save not waiting.
It's not technically difficult to bring fax technology to the desktop. Most modern modems support it, and various software products are available to drive workstation-based fax/modems, even in the Windows NT environment. Direct desktop faxing is an excellent solution for small offices where administrators can funnel the workload through a single system or run direct-dial phone lines to each desktop.
In larger organizations, however, equipping each desktop with a direct-dial phone line and a fax/modem can be a logistical nightmare. For example, most Public Branch eXchange (PBX) systems aren't powerful enough to route inbound fax calls directly to each desktop. Even if your PBX has enough power, you must still face PBX cabling issues and a spectrum of administrative concerns. In short, it can be done, but no one really wants to do it.
A better approach is to deploy a network-based fax server. In this case, the fax server controls all fax send and receive functions, it handles communications with the PBX or public phone system, and it communicates with desktop systems over the LAN. A fax server expected to fulfill this scope of functions must be adaptable to a wide variety of network environments and, more importantly, be completely reliable. That's where NT comes in.
Fax Servers and NT
Fax servers for the NT environment come in all sizes and shapes. On the low end are products that provide shared access to a single fax/modem; on the high end are products that use specialized fax adapters and can handle the needs of 50,000+ desktop clients. This review focuses on native NT software products that provide send and receive fax services and interface with high-end fax adapters, such as those from Brooktrout Technology and GammaLink (a subsidiary of Dialogic).
Under this architecture, the fax server provides the central interface between the clients and the fax adapter. The fax adapter handles the interface between the phone system and the fax server software. When a client generates a fax, it is transmitted to the server where it's placed in a queue until a fax line is available. When the server receives a fax, it either automatically routes the fax to the appropriate client based on the phone number or other information, or the server keeps it until an administrator or fax attendant reads the cover page and routes it.
The fax server products I looked at shared a number of features. For example, they all support:
- User-managed phone books: Phone books allow you to conveniently organize information about the companies and individuals you fax. You simply select the appropriate entry in your phone book to send a fax, instead of keying in the fax number.
- Cover sheets: All the products support adding a cover sheet to your documents or sending only a cover sheet, if you just want to send a short note. Some products provide an on-screen designer to change or create cover sheets, while others support cover-sheet files from word processors (e.g., Word).
- Viewing and printing received faxes: You can print and view documents at both the server and client levels. Your fax server can act like a conventional fax machine if you set it up to print everything it receives.
- Sending fax images, cover sheets, or output directly from a Windows application to a fax printer: This is the minimal set of capabilities. Some products provide support for additional fax-generation techniques.
- Customization via a separate API kit: See the sidebar "Have It Your Way."
In spite of their similarities, the fax servers I looked at were different in several significant areas, including:
- Server environment supported: Some of them can run on either a Windows NT Workstation or Windows NT Server system while others function only on an NT Server system.
- Client environment supported: Most of the fax servers I reviewed support the full range of Microsoft client environments--DOS, Windows, Windows for Workgroups (WFW), Windows 95, and NT. Support for Macintosh and OS/2 clients was sporadic.
- Support for embedded fax-command codes: An application can embed fax command codes in a file or print stream. The fax server uses those codes to determine where to send the fax and how to format it. Support for embedded fax-command codes enables you to generate faxes with the information contained in a database or other external data structure.
- Email support: Several of the products let you send faxes via email using embedded codes to control the fax process. You can even receive faxes via email, in which case the fax image is mailed as an attachment file.
- Broadcast support: This capability lets you broadcast a single fax or automate the transmission of a series of faxes to multiple recipients.
- Fax On Demand (FOD): You can set up an information server so users can call from fax machines and request the transmission of canned documents.
- Direct support for scanners: This feature lets you scan a document into your server and transmit it as a fax.
- Optical Character Recognition: OCR enables you to translate the bit-mapped image of a received fax into a text-file or word-processor format.
Fax adapters support many types of attachments to the phone system. The simplest attachment is a series of direct-dial analog voice lines, called loop-start lines in Telephony terms. The most complicated attachment is a series of digital lines where each line carries the traffic for a range of phone numbers. A single fax adapter can handle many lines, although four is the norm.
The type of phone line you use is important to the fax server's automatic-routing capability. For example, if you use digital lines, you can use a public telephone feature called Direct Inward Dialing (DID) to funnel a range of phone numbers over a single line. The fax adapter can identify the number you've dialed, and the fax server can use it to route the fax to the appropriate client.
However, if you use a direct-dial line, your server can't handle automatic-routing based on the phone number. Instead, the routing information comes from sender identification or information that you enter on the phone keypad after dialing the fax number. This "after-the-fact" information is called Dual-Tone Multi-Frequency (DTMF) information. Although there are several formats and methods to input DTMF information, such as T.30 subaddressing, voice-prompted entry, and blind input, I will treat DTMF as a generic subject.
No matter what the routing format, fax adapters support more lines, offer better performance, and provide greater reliability than most modern fax/modems. High-end fax adapters have been on the market for more than 10 years and can be considered a mature and stable technology. Both Brooktrout and GammaLink make a variety of adapters with prices ranging from less than $1000 to more than $6000.
Despite their power and flexibility, high-end fax adapters can create two problems for NT-based fax servers: First, the majority of fax adapters are designed for the ISA bus operating in an Intel environment. Although there is some movement toward delivering broad support for fax adapters in the Alpha and PowerPC environments, today's market is firmly rooted in Intel technology, and all the products I reviewed ran on Intel.
The second problem a high-end fax adapter can create comes from how tightly the fax-server software is tied to the configuration and operation of the unit. Some products provided a level of integration so tight that you couldn't tell where the fax-server software ended and the fax-adapter services began. Other products, however, had terrible integration capabilities and provided crude tools for configuration and operation.
The Lab Environment
The hardware platform for my test server was a 60-MHz Pentium NT Server system equipped with 24MB of RAM and a Brooktrout TR114-I4L fax adapter. This adapter can handle four loop-start lines. My test client was a 60-MHz Pentium NT Workstation system connected to the server via a 10-megabit-per-second (Mbps) Ethernet network. I conducted my client testing using an Intel-based NT Workstation system. I also checked on whether client software for other environments was available (e.g., Windows, DOS).
I sent transmissions including cover sheets and existing fax images with the vendor-supplied client software from the fax server to a conventional Canon Faxphone B60 fax machine. I also used the client-side print interface to send faxes from native Windows applications. Inbound faxes were sent to the fax server from the fax machine and manually routed to the client. The specific products I reviewed and their overall capabilities are shown in Table 1 on page 72. (My choices of products for review are explained in the sidebar "Why & Why Not?" on page 65; my method for choosing Editor's Choice is described in the sidebar "The Selection Criteria.")
Copia International's FaxFacts is a powerful FOD product that can also be used for shared send and receive fax services (see Screen 1). Unfortunately, the send and receive services are second-class. FaxFacts just doesn't include many of the usability features that are in the other products. However, none of the others included extensive FOD capabilities and optional Interactive Voice Response (IVR) features of FaxFacts.
Installing and configuring FaxFacts was awkward at best. The version I had came on five disks, and I had to install each one separately with a command-line initiated installation tool. There's no GUI-based setup program to walk you through the steps. Configuring the Brooktrout adapter was another brutal, interactive, command-line process.
Once it was installed and configured, however, the FaxFacts FOD capabilities were available immediately. The product includes a demonstration FOD setup so you can get a feel for it. (You can alter the FOD capabilities to meet your own needs.) The server side of FaxFacts runs as a native 32-bit application under NT Workstation or Server. The version I tested had only a simple, character-mode screen to show the server-operation status. A new version now includes a GUI-based status screen.
The client side of FaxFacts uses a shared-directory area to communicate with the server. Copia provides some simple 16-bit Windows tools and a Windows print driver to integrate the 16-bit Windows client with the server. You can invoke the FaxFacts client operations from a command-line environment. This allows DOS, WFW, Windows 95, and NT clients to use the product but you don't get a GUI-based client this way, and you can't generate faxes from the applications by printing.
Copia markets FaxFacts to both Value-Added Resellers (VARs) and end users. If you're an experienced reseller, you should be able to easily overcome FaxFacts installation and configuration barriers and create sophisticated solutions. If you're an end user with a strong need for FOD, this product is worth the time. However, if you're looking for a simple out-of-the-box fax-sharing solution, you should look at the alternatives.
Brooktrout * 617-449-4100
GammaLink * 800-329-4727
FaxWorks Pro LAN
FaxWorks Pro LAN Windows NT from Global Village Communication allows a designated NT Workstation or Server system to provide send and receive fax services for DOS, WFW, Windows 95, and NT clients (see Screen 2). Clients must have shared-file access to the server. This means that DOS and Windows clients must have installed networking software, such as NT Server's client software.
The FaxWorks server system can be different from the file server. Although this provides flexibility, your installation must meet these four requirements:
- The software must be installed on the designated file server.
- The administrative-client software must be installed from the file server.
- The fax-server software must be installed on the designated fax-server system.
- The software for individual workstations must be installed from the file server.
Fortunately, GUI setup programs and printed documentation guide you through the installation process. FaxWorks even properly configures the Brooktrout adapter--a task that confounds other products. Once FaxWorks is installed and the services that drive the fax adapter are started, the FaxWorks server is started as an application and appears as a minimized icon.
The client software that Global Village provides with FaxWorks is particularly well done. The user interfaces to all the various client operations--including OCR and scanning--are simple and easy to understand. The company provides client software for DOS, 16-bit Windows, and 32-bit Windows. Print drivers for all the client environments provide a simple means of generating faxes from applications. The fax administrator can manually route faxes, or inbound faxes can be routed to the client based either on the DID used to place the call or on a DTMF entry that you enter.
FaxWorks Pro LAN is a powerful, first-class fax server that's easy to administer and easy to use--no doubt due to Global Village's experience in developing software for the Mac and Windows. An optional email module extends the product's capabilities to include sending and receiving faxes via email. FaxWorks Pro LAN is a "must see" product.
RightFAX calls this product the "2399 server for the BackOffice." It should be no surprise, then, that RightFAX-NT operates only in the NT Server environment (see Screen 3). However, it supports a wide range of client envi-
ronments, including DOS, OS/2, WFW, Windows 95, and NT Workstation. RightFAX-NT is a shared fax server with several advanced features, such as a broadcast capability and support for embedded fax commands.
A GUI setup program guides you through a relatively straightforward installation. I encountered one problem with the Brooktrout configuration process, because the default value provided for the first fax channel wasn't appropriate for the adapter. However, this was just a minor annoyance.
The RightFAX-NT installation process loads several applications, a series of services, and three Control Panel applets to configure fax adapter, server, and workstation operations. In addition, there are printed instructions that show you how to manually create a printer definition for a Hewlett-Packard (HP) LaserJet 4 or LaserJet III driver and outputs to a specific pipe port (\\.\pipe\rightfax). After you've configured the server, you can install the client software from the NT Server.
One of the unique characteristics of RightFAX-NT is how it receives fax input from clients. Instead of installing special print drivers on a client, you simply attach to the printer and send output to it as if it were a network printer. If routing information, such as the fax number, is not embedded in the print stream, RightFAX-NT will hold your fax in a queue until you add the missing information to the queue entry. If your clients are Windows-based, you can use a print driver that prompts for the information before adding the fax to the queue.
A person, DID, or DTMF routes inbound faxes to the clients. If you use DTMF, you can create and configure a voice file (.WAV) that tells the caller which keys to press. If you purchase an optional server-based OCR module, RightFAX-NT can scan the cover page of a received fax to determine where to route it. An optional gateway is also available to allow you to send and receive faxes via email. Even without the add-on modules, however, this product is a solid, no-nonsense fax server.
Equisys, a UK company, developed Zetafax, but Zetafax markets the product in the US. The Zetafax product runs on an NT Workstation or Server system and supports WFW, Windows 95, and NT clients (see Screen 4). Communications between the server and clients is primarily handled through a shared-file interface. Therefore, if Windows clients are required, they must be configured for network support.
Installing the server software was simple. A series of GUI-based installation and setup procedures lead you through the entire process. You can elect to load Zetafax either as an application or as a service. If you install it as a service, a Control Panel option is added to maintain the configuration information. You can change it later, if you wish, and reconfigure it to run as an application--or vice versa.
A separate disk handles the configuration of the Brooktrout adapter. This is an awkward involved task. First, you configure the services using a character-
based installation tool executed from the command line. Then, you have to manually update one of the Zetafax .INI files using a text editor. However, after I did this, Zetafax's GUI-based device-configuration module became inoperable. Since the default routing for inbound faxes is configured at the device level, I had to look through the .INI file with a text editor until I found the user-routing entry--a nasty problem.
After configuring the server software and adapter, you install the workstation software from the shared-file area created during the server-software installation. Printer definitions that spool print jobs formatted for an Epson LQ-1000 printer to file are set up on each workstation. The client software detects that file and prompts for the fax number and other routing information before forwarding it to the server. The client software is easy to use and supports advanced functions, such as direct scanner support and hooks to third-party OCR modules.
Zetafax supports manually routing faxes to their recipients, either directly or as email attachments. It can also route automatically to clients based on DID information, a DTMF entry, or the sender's identification of the caller. The basic Zetafax design and implementation is clean. Most of the problems I encountered came in configuring the Brooktrout adapter. Zetafax doesn't have all the features some of its competitors do, but its feature set will address the needs of most organizations.
Omtool's Fax Sr. server and client provide an impressive array of features. These include a graphical cover-page designer, fax-broadcast capability, support for fax transmission via email and embedded fax codes in the print stream, and least-cost routing when multiple fax servers are available (see Screen 5). The main server module runs as a service in the NT Workstation or Server environment. The supported clients include DOS, WFW, Windows 95, NT, and the Mac.
The Fax Sr. installation process is GUI-driven and includes an automatic Setup Wizard to walk you through the installation, configuration, and testing of both server and client software. In theory, this should greatly simplify the installation process. In reality, however, I was unable to run the Setup Wizard successfully, because I didn't use the default settings for the Brooktrout adapter. I ended up spending more than a few minutes on the phone with Omtool's technical support to finish the installation. Like many of the other products I reviewed, the Brooktrout adapter is Fax Sr.'s Achilles' heel.
Omtool provides client software and installation instructions for all its supported clients. The client software was simple and straightforward to install and operate. Fax Sr. supports two types of communication between the server and its clients: file sharing and task-to-task. Client-side print-to-fax operations are handled by print drivers. The NT print driver runs as a minimized application and prompts for routing information when it receives a new print stream. This approach worked well--except when I forgot to run it before printing.
Fax Sr. supports server-to-client routing via DID and DTMF and includes a separate program for manual routing. If you use multiple fax servers in a WAN environment, Fax Sr. can determine which server offers the least-cost call and route the fax there.
In one area, Fax Sr. stands head and shoulders above the others: It includes extensive monitoring and debugging tools so you can see the status of each aspect of the server operation. Fax Sr. is strong enough when it comes to least-cost routing and operational monitoring for it to be an industrial-strength, enterprise-wide fax solution for medium-to-large networks.
The server portion of Optus Software's FACSys software installs and runs as a series of services on an NT Server system (see Screen 6). Administration and client software are available for WFW, Windows 95, and NT environments. This is a clever product that supports sending faxes via Dynamic Data Exchange (DDE). For example, you can drag-and-drop a file on the recipient's DDE monitor to send a fax. FACSys is also the only product I reviewed that includes extensive send and receive email capabilities in the base product.
Like several of the other fax servers, the server and administrative functions for FACSys can run on different systems. The server software must be installed on an NT Server system, but the administration/configuration function can be on any supported client. Installation instructions and procedures to load the FACSys server, administration, and client software are clear and accurate--even for configuring the Brooktrout fax adapter.
Separate client installation disks are provided for Windows 95/NT and WFW. It installs a logical print port. Then, you create a printer definition that uses a LaserJet 4 print driver and print to the logical print port. This port automatically shows up in the list of available ports, so it's simple. To use the fax-print interface, drag-and-drop, or DDE, you run a monitor utility that appears as a minimized icon.
Once the client software is installed and the monitor activated, you can print from any Windows application to the fax server, send information from the main client screen, drag-and-drop files on the monitor icon, use email to generate faxes, and even create your own DDE client to send faxes. Received faxes can be routed via client software or email (as an attachment file).
FACSys supports both DID and DTMF to determine the route for inbound faxes, or you can manually route them. It doesn't include OCR capabilities or support for direct scanner input. Despite these two missing features, FACSys is a powerful product that's easy to install, easy to use, and adaptable to a number of environments and applications. FACSys offers more options for sending and receiving faxes than any of the others. You should take a look at it!