How have fax server products matured in 2 years?

Faxing from the desktop saves time, and products that serve the needs of organizations of all sizes saturate the fax server market. Two years ago, Windows NT Magazine examined this market in a series of four reviews that discussed the features of 20 fax server products (see "Zen and the Art of Fax Servers," December 1997; "The Fast Track on Fax Server Software," January 1998; "So Many Faxes, So Little Time," February 1998; and "The Fax Stops Here," March 1998). In this article, I revisit the field to see how the market has matured.

Fax server products fall into the following categories: desktop (individual user), workgroup (small office), departmental (workgroup within a company), company, and enterprise (large multisite company). A sixth category consists of specialized or niche products that don't fit into the preceding categories.

Because looking at fax servers in every category could easily consume several dedicated issues of this magazine, I cover enterprise-level fax servers. Enterprise fax servers comprise two broad subcategories: production and network fax servers. The difference is in the fax server's purpose. Production fax servers integrate into your production environment—your accounts receivable system, for example—to perform an automated task such as faxing invoices to hundreds or even thousands of customers. Network fax servers can send faxes from desktop systems on a network and route inbound faxes to users' email inboxes, so users never need to leave their desks to send or receive faxes. For information about how I tested the products, see the sidebar "Testing Fax Server Products," page 172.

I looked for products that provide enterprise-level features such as centralized management, cost accounting, load balancing, integration with email systems, and, for software-only products, the ability to work with high-end fax boards such as Brooktrout Technology's TR114. Many of the products I look at also provide Least Cost Routing (LCR) and server load balancing and integrate with mission-critical applications such as SAP R/3 or PeopleSoft.

In any large environment, centralized management is important. In networks where servers might be hundreds or even thousands of miles apart, administrators can't always travel to the fax server to configure and maintain it. With a centralized management tool such as a client management application, administrators can perform these administrative functions from their desks.

In large distributed computing environments, LCR can help reduce the cost of sending faxes. For example, if your offices in Los Angeles and New York connect with a dedicated network link and a user in New York needs to send faxes to clients in the Los Angeles area, you can reduce long-distance charges by forwarding the fax from New York for the Los Angeles server to send. LCR lets you configure two or more fax servers on your network to hand off fax traffic to another server when doing so makes sense.

Server load balancing lets an overloaded fax server hand off traffic to another fax server. Without server load balancing, if server A is overloaded, faxes might take many minutes or even hours to send, even though server B sits idle. One product I reviewed, GFI FAX & VOICE's FAXmaker for Exchange 6.0, has a line-based load-balancing feature that uses outbound-only lines during light traffic periods but at peak traffic times employs unused inbound lines for outbound traffic. Several implementations of load balancing exist, including a master/server configuration, rules-based configuration, and free-form, in which all fax servers on a network operate as one large fax cluster. I discuss unique load-balancing features in some of the individual product reviews.

The Players
I found 15 enterprise-level fax server products to test, a combination of software-only products and turnkey products that provide an integrated hardware and software solution. The software products are Copia's FaxFacts, Esker's Faxgate for Windows NT—Enterprise Edition, Fenestrae's Faxination, FAXmaker, Omtool's Fax Sr. Enterprise, DPD International's Gold-Fax for Windows NT, serVonic's ixiFAX, Interstar Technologies' LightningFAX 6.5, SCH Technologies' Merkur, AVT's RightFAX, and V-Systems Incorporated's (VSI's) VSI-FAX. The turnkey fax solutions are Biscom's FAXCOM 7000NT, SpectraFAX's Fax Liaison, Castelle's FaxPress 5000, and TOPCALL International's TOPCALL server. For a summary of all the products' features, see Table 1, page 184.

Results
Overall, testing went surprisingly well. I encountered only one small problem installing a software package, and the vendor easily resolved that difficulty. All the products sent faxes easily, and no problems arose. Each fax server I tested handled everything I asked it to do. Modern fax hardware is so fast that only the slowest part of the faxing process—transmitting the fax to its destination over a telephone line—delays completion of the task.

Inbound routing of faxes to Microsoft Exchange Server was equally easy, although I occasionally had difficulty with some software packages' dual-tone multifrequency (DTMF) routing capability. Because DTMF routing is inherently unstable (most vendors agree it should be the method of last resort), I didn't penalize products that occasionally had a problem with this feature.

When I was able to use Calling Station Identification (CSID) routing, I merely configured the software to route all messages from my company's CSID, IDEAMATION, to my email inbox. This form of routing is much more stable than DTMF and worked flawlessly. However, CSID has a problem: If someone sends separate faxes to different people in your organization, CSID can't determine to which recipient the software needs to route each fax. Consequently, your server might send faxes to the wrong person.

All the products have good centralized management capabilities, although some approach management differently than others. LCR worked flawlessly in the products that offer it. The only product that offers line load balancing, FAXmaker, uses outbound-only lines when they're available and uses inbound-outbound lines when outbound-only lines aren't available. Some products let you configure server load balancing, but most products configure this feature for you so that subsequent servers simply appear as additional lines in the fax server environment.

My testing left me with the strong impression that the fax server market has matured significantly over the past 2 years. I find choosing a review winner difficult. At the base level, all the products fax well, and all are stable. What differentiates the products from one another are additional features. For example, some products can integrate with UNIX systems by using Common Internet File System (CIFS), whereas others offer an X client for UNIX systems. Some products let you broadcast faxes, whereas others let you mail-merge faxes. Ultimately, choosing a fax server for a particular environment boils down to finding the product with the exact feature set you need.

For Exchange Server integration, Faxination is second to none. Fenestrae developed this product specifically to work within an Exchange Server environment, and Faxination is time-tested, having gone through several revisions. For Exchange Server-only shops or companies that use Exchange Server in conjunction with other services Faxination supports, the product is a good investment—if you can afford it.

If you need Web-client interoperability, consider Faxgate. This software has a powerful Web client that lets you send faxes and perform housekeeping functions such as maintaining a personal fax address book. Faxgate also lets you attach documents to a fax (like you can attach a document to an email message), so you can use the Web interface to fax a Microsoft Word document.

My favorite products are TOPCALL and RightFAX. TOPCALL's message server approach is a technologically savvy solution that lets the TOPCALL server's role grow as corporate communications grow. On the software-only side, I enjoyed working with RightFAX. The software's sophistication, modular components, and affordable price are attractive.

In my reviews of individual products, I provide each product's strengths and weaknesses. I don't discuss some features—such as call accounting, LCR, and load balancing—if the features performed as I expected and I found nothing exceptional to mention. In a few instances, if I found that a product lacks a common feature or has a unique or positive attribute, I share my discovery.


FaxFacts
If you need a fax server product with fax broadcasting, fax-on-demand, and mail-merge capabilities, the FaxFacts server is ideal. FaxFacts has the features to create a comprehensive production fax server for your business.

Copia's automated installation program makes installation a breeze. The program walks you through three steps: creating the installation directory; using the FaxFacts Configurator, which Screen 1 shows, to select options to install; and performing the installation. After installation completes, the product is ready to use.

Copia's approach to centralized fax resource management is unique. Rather than using a client application to connect to the fax server and modify operational parameters, you use a series of configuration files on the server. To change the server's operation, you connect to the server and edit the appropriate file. The benefit of this approach is that you can connect to the server from your laptop without any special client software—a real plus in a large corporate environment if you need to make a quick adjustment when you're away from your workstation.

The only difficulty with this approach is figuring out the command language. For example, I wanted to test sending faxes from my SCO UNIX host. With FaxFacts, you create a fax-to-send file that contains a series of commands that tell the server how to process the fax. The product includes documentation, but the reference manual is difficult to understand and doesn't provide examples of how to use the commands, so creating the command file took longer than I expected.

One FaxFacts feature I found useful is automatic server load balancing. Some of the other products require you to configure load balancing manually (e.g., define master and slave servers and tell the product how to perform load balancing when usage exceeds a certain threshold). With FaxFacts, you merely update the configuration files to include additional servers. The product treats all lines across all fax servers as one large fax server and automatically uses the first open line to send faxes, regardless of which server the line is attached to.

How many times have you had a long fax abort halfway through and had to start over at the beginning to send the fax? FaxFacts' Intelligent Retry feature eliminates that inconvenience and can save money if you routinely send faxes to locations with poor-quality phone lines. Intelligent retry lets you configure as many as eight retry strategies for the software to use to respond to a fax failure. For example, I created a default retry strategy that resends a failed fax's unsent pages.

FaxFacts' price is inexpensive, and the product's pricing structure is simple. A two-tiered pricing structure charges per line on the server and per client for each seat on the network. The Fax Mail component, which routes faxes to users' email inboxes, adds $185 per line.

FaxFacts
Contact: Copia * 800-689-8898
Web: http://www.copia.com
Price: $550 per line and $50 per client
DECISION SUMMARY:
Pros: Convenient centralized management, fax load balancing, smart retry of incomplete faxes, good fax broadcasting, fax-on-demand, mail-merge capabilities, inexpensive
Cons: Poor documentation and difficult configuration command language

Faxgate for Windows NT—Enterprise Edition
Faxgate is the most advanced member of Esker's family of workgroup, departmental, and enterprise-level fax products. Faxgate includes all the features that Esker's lower-level products include, plus specific enterprise-level features that integrate the fax server into a large corporate environment.

Although the documentation's description of the installation process is straightforward, installing and configuring the server, then installing the Exchange connector as the documentation instructed, yielded an unusable system. I received several undocumented error messages, but Esker's technical support team quickly determined that the way I had configured my NT system caused the errors.

After I installed the product so that it was functional, I used the software's Microsoft Management Console (MMC) snap-in to manage the fax server environment. This tool provides a Windows Explorer-like interface for managing multiple Faxgate servers and requires no special client software installation. The MMC snap-in installs as part of the server installation. After you put the snap-in on a network drive, you can access the snap-in from any authorized workstation, so you can manage the server from desktops on your network. Faxgate also includes a separate administration program for configuring aspects of the server's operation. Screen 2 shows how I used the Faxgate Administration Program to configure the software to automatically monitor the fax server's disk usage and notify me if available disk space falls below the level I specified.

The software sent faxes to and from Exchange flawlessly. The only difference between sending a fax with Faxgate and sending an email message is that to send a fax, you select a fax recipient rather than a mail recipient from your address book. Faxes you receive through the Exchange connector appear as attachments in your email inbox, and you can view the fax by double-clicking the attachment. This tight Exchange Server integration lets you administer user and fax server configurations directly from Microsoft Exchange Administrator.

Faxgate offers numerous connectors that let you integrate the software with diverse mission-critical environments. For example, the ERP Connector for SAP fax-enables any SAP R/3 application, the optional SNA Link integrates fax capabilities with business-critical applications running on SNA mainframes and AS/400s, and an optional AFP Link component lets you fax Advanced Function Presentation (AFP) documents from SNA mainframe and AS/400 applications.

I most enjoyed using the IntraFax Web Client feature. This component lets you send faxes from non-NT Web-connected computer systems on your network. I was particularly pleased that this feature let me send faxes from my SCO UNIX host running Netscape Navigator. This component is a powerful tool in an enterprise environment that lets you create and maintain a personal fax address book. In addition, you can attach Word documents to a fax you want to send. The product supports attachments for more than 40 file types.

Another powerful feature I like is Faxgate's embedded forms capability. I used this feature to create a form with the Template Designer, a special layout program that Faxgate supplies. The Template Designer outputs a PCX graphics file and a template. The template combines the graphics file with a text output file that contains the data to overlay on the form. Faxgate maps each line of data in the text file to the corresponding location on the faxed document. The resulting faxes look as though you laser-printed a document and faxed it manually.

Faxgate takes an à la carte approach to pricing. You pay only for the components and license counts you need. You pay a license fee for each line you want to use and for each user account. Other options, such as the Exchange connector, have separate license fees. Even with all these fees, Faxgate's price is reasonable. A typical installation that includes 1 fax line, 25 user licenses, and Exchange connector and Universal Mail component support might cost $2495.

Faxgate for Windows NT--Enterprise Edition
Contact: Esker * 800-838-2637
Web: http://www.esker.com
Price: $2495 for 1 line and 25 user licenses
DECISION SUMMARY:
Pros:Web client and the Microsoft Management Console add-in make a tightly integrated solution; supports SAP R/3, SNA mainframes, and AS/400; has embedded forms capability
Cons:Integrated Least Cost Routing/load-balancing feature requires extensive setup


Faxination
If you want a fax server product that tightly integrates with Exchange Server, Faxination is for you. Faxination is a completely integrated fax messaging system for Exchange Server that lets users use their Exchange client software to send and receive faxes.

Installing the software is simple enough, although it seemed more complex than in some other products. The apparent complexity is partly because the product configures itself during installation, requiring more up-front work but saving you the configuration step later. After installing Faxination, I had a functional system immediately.

The software provides two mechanisms for configuring and managing the Faxination environment. I used Fenestrae Server Administrator, a separate Windows program, to access the Faxination Coversheet Editor and change the default fax cover page, as Screen 3 shows. You can also use Exchange Administrator to configure attributes for each user's interaction with the product.

Channel routing is a helpful feature of the Faxination software. This feature lets you give high-priority users virtual access to a dedicated circuit. I used the feature to assign a specific fax line on my Brooktrout fax board to a department, person, or group. I assigned line 1 to the marketing department so that when I originate faxes from other departments, line 1 remains clear. Line 1 becomes active only when a marketing staff member sends a fax.

Because of Faxination's tight integration with Exchange Server, your options for sending faxes from other platforms, such as UNIX-based systems, are limited unless you run a mission-critical application that Fenestrae supports. The Universal Mail Connector lets you send faxes with SMTP, and the Universal Output Connector lets you embed scan strings into documents and print the documents on an NT print queue. Both options let my SCO UNIX machine send an outbound fax.

Another of this product's features that I like is the Enterprise Logging capability. The software lets you log all Faxination activity to an Exchange public folder or any other Microsoft Data Access Components (MDAC) source, such as a Microsoft SQL Server database. I saved my Faxination log data in an external database. I can use Microsoft Access to read this database and create custom reports on its contents.

Faxination is available in a Standard Edition and a Corporate Edition. Most enterprises will want to purchase the Corporate Edition, which supports an unlimited number of fax lines and optional product connectors, such as Fenestrae's Telex and Mobile connectors, for connection to other services. The Standard Edition, with a limit of two fax lines and no connector support, better suits departmental environments.

A downside to Faxination is the product's high price for large user bases. The base product includes a five-user license. You can get additional Client Access Licenses (CALs) in groups ranging from 10 users ($545) to 500 users ($19,225). However, you need to buy a CAL for each user who accesses the Faxination server. Thus, if you run a business with three shifts and 200 computers shared between the shifts, you need to purchase 600 CALs. Other products offer unlimited user licenses for significantly less money.

Faxination
Contact: Fenestrae * 770-622-5445
Web: http://www.fenestrae.com
Price: $2895 for five-user Corporate Edition; $1495 for five-user Standard Edition
DECISION SUMMARY:
Pros:Universal Mail and Output connectors provide unlimited interoperability; channel routing feature lets you dedicate a fax line to a particular person or group; excellent product for heavy Microsoft Exchange Server environments; enterprise logging capability Cons:Expensive for large environments--rather than a Client Access License, you must buy a user license for each user who sends or receives faxes

FAXmaker for Exchange 6.0
FAXmaker integrates seamlessly into your Exchange Server environment and lets you send and receive faxes directly from your Exchange Server or Microsoft Outlook client software. Installation and setup are straightforward, but I needed to download GFI's drivers for the TR114 fax board. FAXmaker can't see the board when you use Brooktrout's NT drivers.

FAXmaker has an API for heterogeneous system support, but the product doesn't support IBM mainframe or midrange systems or applications such as SAP R/3. Within these limitations, heterogeneous-environment operation with FAXmaker is simple. I used the product's Text API to test this capability. The Text API lets you configure the fax server to monitor a directory on the NT fax server. When you put files in the monitored directory, the fax server processes them. I used CIFS to share this directory, then mounted the directory on my SCO UNIX host. Following the product's documentation, I embedded tags (i.e., special command sequences that tell FAXmaker what to do) in text documents and saved the documents to the mounted CIFS share from my UNIX box. Unfortunately, the Text API is limited—it doesn't let you render PostScript files or other embedded documents as you can on the Windows platform. However, the API does provide rudimentary fax-sending capability from non-Windows platforms.

The product's centralized management capabilities are thin. FAXmaker's integration with Exchange Server means you can use Exchange Administrator to configure how users interact with the fax server. Screen 4, page 175, shows the FAXMaker Connector Properties window, which you access from Exchange Server by selecting FAXmaker Connector, Properties. But although you can install Exchange Administrator on another computer, you need to be physically present at that server to configure the fax server. So if you need to change the text-API directory that the fax server monitors for jobs, for example, you need to be at the fax server to make the change.

The product's LCR capabilities are excellent. I easily defined routing tables in Exchange Administrator for my two servers—making one of the servers a default server to handle traffic not explicitly routed elsewhere. Then, I assigned each LCR entry a cost—a feature not available in all the products I tested—that FAXmaker uses to compute the cost of sending the fax from the nondefault server.

The product's line-balancing feature is also excellent. The feature uses outbound-only lines during times of light traffic and both inbound and outbound channels as needed during periods of peak activity. Unfortunately, the product has no server load-balancing capability, so it can't distribute traffic equally between multiple servers when one server is heavily loaded.

FAXmaker is a bargain. Multiuser upgrades, including an unlimited-user license, are available. You can download a trial version of the software from the company's Web site.

FAXmaker for Exchange 6.0
Contact: GFI FAX & VOICE * 888-243-4329
Web: http://www.gfi.com
Price: $695; includes a 4-port, 25-user license
DECISION SUMMARY:
Pros: Offers many features found in more expensive products; excellent value for the price; excellent support for heterogeneous systems; tight integration with Microsoft Exchange Server; line-based load balancing
Cons: Limited centralized management capabilities; no server load balancing


Fax Sr. Enterprise
Fax Sr. offers enterprise-level features and is modular and expandable. Installing the product in my test environment was time-consuming. First, I downloaded special Brooktrout drivers from the Fax Sr. Web site and installed them. Then, I ran the Fax Sr. installation program twice—once to install the main components and again to install the Exchange Gateway, which routes inbound faxes to Exchange. I rebooted after each step so that the software component installation could complete. Finally, I configured the Exchange connector to send faxes and configured which users had faxing capabilities.

Fax Sr. offers a centralized management program that lets you manage your fax server from an NT Workstation client. This program, the Fax Sr. System Manager, doesn't offer a Windows Explorer-like interface. When you start the program, you need to manually select the fax server from a drop-down list. However, the System Manager let me do everything I wanted to do, including configure new modems on the fax server, examine and modify fax transmission queues, and configure the email interface.

I particularly like the automated archiving feature. By setting two directory values with System Manager, you can configure the product to automatically archive all sent and received faxes into directories you specify. This feature's benefit is that it lets you access inbound and outbound faxes after they've been sent and received, even after you delete them from your system.

I also like the product's add-ins for the MMC. Two of these, the Fax Sr. Queue Snap-In and the Fax Sr. Service Snap-in, let you monitor and modify Fax Sr. operating parameters with the MMC, as Screen 5 shows, rather than with System Manager. When you use the MMC, you can control the Fax Sr. system with NT facilities.

The product's LCR worked without a hitch. You use System Manager to configure a series of phone-number patterns on your servers. When a fax number matches a phone-number pattern, Fax Sr. routes the fax to a specific Fax Sr. server for processing.

Fax Sr. has true server load balancing, which means the server can offload fax-server traffic to other Fax Sr. servers when a queue contains many faxes for delivery. I tested this feature by configuring one server as the source server and setting a threshold at which the source server passes faxes off to target servers. I configured one target server with a participation level (i.e., the amount of traffic the target server accepts from an overloaded source server). You make these settings in System Manager's outgoing faxes configuration window. I loaded the source server with a dozen faxes, and the source server passed traffic to the target server successfully.

The product can handle fax requests from non-Windows systems. Like several other products, Fax Sr. monitors a directory for files that contain tags and faxes those files based on information in the tags.

Fax Sr.'s base price includes a 25-user license. An unlimited-user license is $4995. Additional options, such as email gateways and support for additional fax lines, have separate prices.

Fax Sr. Enterprise
Contact: Omtool * 800-886-7845
Web: http://www.omtool.com
Price: $2495; includes a 25-user license
DECISION SUMMARY:
Pros: Numerous enterprise features, including automated fax archiving, server load balancing, and management using Microsoft Management Console snap-ins
Cons: Cumbersome installation required several reboots and downloading Brooktrout drivers from the Web

Gold-Fax for Windows NT
The Gold-Fax network fax product contains many unique features that make it a useful, productive fax server for almost every environment. Gold-Fax sends faxes easily and quickly over the Web and from legacy applications, Windows desktops, or email software. Installation is more time-consuming than for most of the other products. The documentation is concise, but you must install each product component through a separate setup program. The lack of a consolidated installation program forces you to reboot several times during the installation. Rebooting was only a minor annoyance, but it added 20 minutes to the installation time.

A feature I particularly like, although it requires additional configuration, is Gold-Fax's integration with the NT SAM database. As part of the initial setup, you need to use User Manager for Domains to create four global groups: Gold-Fax Users, Routers, Managers, and PrivSenders. Then, you use either User Manager for Domains or the Gold-Fax Manager Program to specify which NT users can access the Gold-Fax server. The excellent integration means you need not maintain a separate database of authorized fax server users.

For interoperability with other platforms, Gold-Fax offers a Web interface, which I installed on one of my servers. From my SCO UNIX machine running Netscape Navigator, I connected to the fax server and specified a series of options for sending a fax. As Screen 6 shows, the Web interface has many of the same features as the standard client interface and the Exchange Gateway—the Gold-Fax component that lets users send faxes from an Exchange Server client and receive faxes in an Exchange inbox. Four index tabs let you navigate between and specify each option.

Gold-Fax can render attachment files from external applications. The product has an internal conversion program to convert attachments, such as a basic text file, into a format Gold-Fax can use. However, the conversion program can't render complex graphics or word-processing documents. Gold-Fax lets you configure an external attachment-rendering capability so that you can send Word documents. To take advantage of this capability, however, you need to install a copy of Word on your fax server. You can also configure the product to offload the external attachment conversion traffic to another machine.

You can send a fax from heterogeneous applications by printing text output to Gold-Fax's Hewlett-Packard (HP) printer driver on the fax server. Embedded tags instruct Gold-Fax how to fax the document. You can expand this capability to more platforms by coupling it with CIFS printer-sharing capabilities. This feature let me share the Gold-Fax printer and send print jobs to it from my SCO UNIX host. Although powerful, this feature is also limited: You can send only text, not embedded documents or graphics, from non-Windows systems.

Gold-Fax is attractively priced. The software includes support for 1 line and 10 clients. Additional client licenses cost as little as $38, and additional lines are $249.

Gold-Fax for Windows NT
Contact: DPD International * 714-695-1000
Web: http://www.dpd.com
Price: $995; includes 1 line and 10 clients ($1195 with Microsoft Exchange Server connector)
DECISION SUMMARY:
Pros: Uses existing Windows NT security structure; Web interface for faxing from any Web-enabled platform; prints to printer driver from any Common Internet File System-enabled platform
Cons: Lack of text-file API limits legacy-system support to Common Internet File System-enabled systems; limited basic rendering capabilities


ixiFAX
ixiFAX is a simple yet powerful production fax server for enterprise environments. With ixiFAX you start small, then add components to the product as your needs (e.g., integrating with mission-critical applications and heterogeneous UNIX applications) grow.

Installation is simple. An automated installation utility runs when you insert the installation CD-ROM. You need to run the utility several times: once for the server, once for the Exchange connector, and once for each optional component. After each component installs, you must reboot to integrate the changes with your configuration. After installation, you configure the software by using the ixiFAX Administration program, which lets you observe the status of your fax ports and change their configuration, as Screen 7 shows.

The base product has a limited feature set. To send a fax from any Windows application, you print the document to a special print driver installed on the system. If you install Exchange Server or Microsoft Mail (MS Mail), you can send a fax from email. ixiFAX includes a mail-merge-to-fax macro for using Word's mail-merge feature to send bulk faxes. Optional add-on components provide other features.

For sending faxes from heterogeneous applications, the product offers the optional ixiFAX File API Connector. With this add-on, ixiFAX can digest the contents of ASCII text files and files that contain Epson FX80 escape sequences. When you establish a CIFS connection between the ixiFAX NT server and a UNIX box, heterogeneous applications can generate an output file, which you store in a subdirectory. The ixiFAX File API Connector monitors the subdirectory and processes embedded keywords in the documents that tell the fax server how to process and send the files as faxes.

Another feature I like is the optional ixiOCR component. Typically, ixiFAX stores a received fax as a graphic image and transfers the fax to the recipient as an email attachment. When you install ixiOCR, the ixiFAX server can feed an inbound fax into the product's optical character recognition (OCR) engine to convert the graphics file to text, then email the text to the recipient, who can perform text searches and other functions on the received fax. Because OCR can be inaccurate, you can also configure the software to email the graphic image and the converted text to the recipient.

The product offers LCR and server load balancing. However, I found these options difficult to locate and configure. A central server administration utility lets you administer multiple servers, but the utility isn't helpful. The software package includes an online documentation kit in HTML format, but the kit was of little help in determining how to set up LCR and server load balancing. I needed to do additional research, mainly referring to the product manual's section about Registry keys, to determine how to set up the features.

ixiFAX has a tiered pricing schedule, and the base product price depends on the number of lines. Pricing maxes out at $23,600 for a 32-line license. serVonic prices options—such as ixiFAX Connector for Exchange, the OCR component, and text-file API—separately based on the number of lines in your environment.

ixiFAX
Contact: serVonic * (49) (8142) 4799 0
Web: http://www.servonic.com
Price: $940 for one line; options are extra
DECISION SUMMARY:
Pros: Modular structure provides flexibility and attractive features such as optical character recognition routing capability and mail-merge-to-fax macro; a file API connector lets you fax from heterogeneous applications
Cons: Some application components documented in German; server load balancing and Least Cost Routing features difficult to find and configure; poor documentation makes management difficult

LightningFAX 6.5
LightningFAX is an enterprise-level fax server solution that lets you uniquely manage fax resources, offers heterogeneous-environment support, and can extend faxing to legacy applications in your environment. Because the software is complex and includes many features, proper setup takes time and planning. My test version came with a 120-page Installation Guide that helped me set up and configure the product. Reviewing the guide and planning the installation is a good idea; that approach saved me considerable time.

You can run the NT SAM setup program to import usernames from the SAM database. A series of user default settings lets you easily configure users as you add them, as Screen 8 shows. However, I had to study the documentation to learn how to set different options.

LightningFAX is a true enterprise product that supports platforms other than NT. The software lets you run the fax server on IBM AIX and Sun Solaris servers. A Java client lets you send faxes from and view the faxes on non-Windows platforms. I tested sending faxes with the software's thin client, an ActiveX control that lets Outlook send faxes through the LightningFAX server. A thick client is also available, and I installed it on my Windows 98 laptop to test sending faxes from that platform. Both the thick and thin clients performed well.

The centralized management program, LightningFAX Manager, is a breeze to use. Its Windows Explorer-like interface makes navigation easy. I like LightningFAX's ability to allocate fax-board channels to specific resources, then let individual users access those resources.

I configured one Brooktrout board for two resources, with one channel as a high-priority resource and the remaining channels for another resource. I then assigned two high-priority users access to the high-priority resource. I assigned the remaining four users to the second resource and let them fight for an outgoing line.

LCR is a snap to set up with LightningFAX Manager. When you select Tools, LCR Table, a window opens and lets you enter dialing prefixes for routing faxes between servers. Although I tested only city prefixes, the software can also base LCR on area codes and country codes. This capability is useful for multinational companies with large WANs.

Unfortunately, aside from the LCR component, LightningFAX doesn't offer server load balancing for high-volume processing. You can specify multiple remote servers as destinations for LCR traffic and click the load-balancing icon to balance master-server traffic between the remote servers. However, you can't automatically hand off traffic from the master server to a secondary server if the volume on the master server becomes too high.

Pricing for LightningFAX is reasonable given its breadth of function. The base software includes 1 line and 50 clients; you can have unlimited clients for $2395. Additional lines cost $795 each, and the email gateway runs from $795 for 50 users to $1195 for an unlimited number of users.

LightningFAX 6.5
Contact: Interstar Technologies * 514-766-1668
Web: http://www.interstarinc.com
Price: $1095; includes 1 line and 50 clients
DECISION SUMMARY:
Pros: Windows NT SAM import program reduces setup time; you can assign specific fax lines to individual resources; server software available for IBM AIX and Sun Solaris-based systems; Java clients let you send and view faxes from non-Windows platforms; easy-to-use centralized management
Cons: No server load balancing except as implemented in the Least Cost Routing function; limited large-scale functionality


Merkur
Merkur is an enterprise-level fax server with ties to major mission-critical applications and tremendous scalability and flexibility. The product's support for numerous UNIX OSs in addition to NT lets you create comprehensive faxing functionality in virtually any heterogeneous environment.

Merkur uses distributed component architecture technology, which means that the fax server product is several different processes—each of which you can run on a different machine—and that all the processes work together to deliver fax services. This approach lets you distribute the processing workload among different machines, reducing the impact on individual servers in the chain. The approach also makes Merkur a flexible product because you can add supporting processes to the infrastructure at any time. The biggest problem I had initially was that Merkur uses Greek letters to designate different servers, and I had trouble keeping track of which server performed which function.

The software has many attractive features that work well. Installation on my test servers proceeded without a hitch. One drawback is that Merkur doesn't integrate with the NT user database, so you need to add your users to the product manually after you finish the installation, as Screen 9 shows. The product includes batch scripts that add users from UNIX systems but no similar feature for extracting data from the NT SAM.

Merkur enables server load balancing by default, so when you add servers to your network the product automatically sees them and distributes the workload across them equally. The software includes an LCR component to route traffic to specific servers. One feature I like is reduced-rates routing, in which the product defers sending a fax until a time of day when phone rates are reduced. Reduced-rate routing is a great feature for low-priority, non-time-critical, and bulk faxes.

The product has a feature for routing inbound faxes that I didn't see in any other product. In addition to the Direct Inward Dialing (DID) and Transmitting Station ID (TSI) routing that other products also contain, Merkur provides barcode routing. With this feature, the software looks for a barcode on the fax cover page and interprets that code as the delivery address. I wasn't equipped to test the feature, but it offers a unique solution for routing inbound faxes when traditional routing methods are ineffectual or unavailable.

Merkur's UNIX roots are evident in the product's use of environmental variables to control aspects of the server process' operations. Operations are well documented, and I found no need to vary any of the default operational parameters.

The downside to the software is price. However, although this product is costly compared with other products in this roundup, Merkur's ability to decentralize processes over several servers, support for interfaces to products such as SAP R/3 and PeopleSoft, and lack of per-user client access fees make the software attractive for large corporate environments.

Merkur
Contact: SCH Technologies * 888-724-6736
Web: http://www.sch.com
Price: $18,965; includes four-channel product with email gateway and enterprise resource planning connector
DECISION SUMMARY:
Pros: Heavy support for distributed-computing environments; self-configuring load balancing; barcode routing; support for high-end applications such as SAP R/3 and PeopleSoft
Cons: High price competes with turnkey solutions; product's complex distributed nature takes time to understand and properly integrate

RightFAX
RightFAX is a robust software-based fax server with enterprise features that let you expand the product for your production environment. Installing the software was easy. I inserted the installation CD-ROM and ran the setup program. A few prompts later, the software automatically copied the installation files, I rebooted my server, and the product was ready to configure. I used the product's Enterprise Fax Manager utility to configure my fax lines and set up users, as Screen 10 shows.

I like a couple of RightFAX's time-saving features, particularly Library Documents and Signature Files. The Library Documents feature lets you save documents to a special RightFAX directory on your fax server and use Enterprise Fax Manager to define the documents to RightFAX. Users can then fax the documents. This feature is useful in enterprise environments that maintain a centralized store of fax documents (such as credit applications) that multiple users can fax. RightFAX Signature Files are similar to signature files in Outlook. After you define a Signature File to the server, you can personalize your outgoing faxes by adding the signature from the Signature File to them. RightFAX Signature Files have a layer of security that lets you tell RightFAX which users have your permission to use your signature.

The software provides three methods for sending fax broadcasts: phonebook, mail-merge, and database. Using phonebook is similar to sending a typical fax to people in your phonebook. Mail-merge and database use Word's mail-merge and RightFAX's scripting capabilities to submit a series of fax jobs to the fax queue for outbound faxing.

The product's ability to automatically page an administrator if a problem occurs with the fax server is a helpful administrative feature. Of course, using this option for trivial events, such as when a user can't send a fax, would result in the pager going off continuously. Fortunately, you can configure the feature to page you when critical events occur. For example, I configured RightFAX to page me if available disk space gets low. In a production fax environment, the paging feature can help you institute an early-intervention program and head off problems before they occur.

RightFAX can perform several types of inbound routing, including digital, CSID, and DTMF routing. With an optional add-on component, the product can also use OCR to perform inbound routing. The software uses the OCR component to automatically convert inbound faxes to text, then scans the text for keywords, which you define in a special configuration file, that tell the software how to route the fax. Although this feature is helpful as a form of backup inbound-routing tool, the inaccuracies that OCR can introduce when converting image to text make the feature's usefulness questionable.

RightFAX is attractively priced. As do many other fax-server vendors, AVT uses a tiered approach with a per-line license and per-module license fee. You can buy additional lines for a modest fee. The entry-level version of the product costs less and lets you add the modules you want.

RightFAX
Contact: AVT * 520-320-7000
Web: http://www.rightfax.com
Price: $8995; includes one line and unlimited users
DECISION SUMMARY:
Pros: Can create libraries of fax documents; fax broadcasting; automatically pages administrator upon problem detection; lets you purchase only the options you need; attractively priced
Cons: Documentation light in some areas


VSI-FAX
VSI-FAX is a fax server solution with extensive support for UNIX systems. The product originated on the UNIX platform, and its UNIX roots are readily visible in the Windows product offering.

Product installation and configuration were smooth. Installation is as easy as inserting the installation CD-ROM and running the installation program in the subdirectory that contains your NT Server files. After installation, you need to perform minor configuration and setup operations to make the product ready to use.

VSI-FAX's UNIX legacy is especially apparent in its administration. You can use dozens of executable programs to perform even the simplest administrative function. Because the software doesn't have a centralized management feature, you can't administer it from a client system. But I managed to access some configuration files remotely through Server Message Block (SMB). When I installed a Telnet server, I was able to log on to the NT Server command prompt and execute command-line configuration commands. The software provides some graphical management utilities, but they appear to be only front ends for executing the command-line programs in the background. Screen 11 shows the User Editor interface.

The product doesn't offer an Exchange connector to smoothly integrate sending faxes from Exchange, but I used the software's standard features to work around this limitation. By default, the product supports using SMTP to email received faxes to a user's mailbox, and I easily configured VSI-FAX to automatically use SMTP to send inbound faxes to Exchange. The software includes an Outlook component that lets you send faxes in Outlook and use the SMTP email feature to receive inbound faxes in your Outlook inbox.

I tested the product's autosend feature for heterogeneous applications. This feature monitors the server's autosend directory for text files that contain embedded fax-server commands. The fax server automatically processes these files and submits the faxes for processing. Using the SMB capabilities of my SCO UNIX host, I used this feature to send several faxes.

For faxing over the Internet, VSI includes a Web-based faxing solution called VSI-Web for Windows NT that lets users connect to your Web site and send a fax through the fax server. However, this product supports only Netscape's Enterprise and FastTrack Web servers. VSI-Web checks for the presence of one of the Netscape Web servers. If neither Netscape server is installed, VSI-Web doesn't install, even if you have Microsoft Internet Information Server (IIS) on your NT fax server. Given the prevalence of sites running NT that also run IIS rather than one of Netscape's Web servers, this limitation compromises the product's viability.

Considering VSI-FAX's limitations, the software's price isn't a bargain. Pricing progresses from $1195 for a five-user license to $4995 for an unlimited-user license. The Web server extension is another $495. You can download a trial version of the software from the company's Web site and decide whether VSI-FAX fits your needs.

VSI-FAX
Contact: VSI * 800-556-4874
Web: http://www.vsi.com
Price: $1195; includes a five-user license
DECISION SUMMARY:
Pros: Excellent support for heterogeneous systems, including SMTP email capability; Web client lets you fax from Web-enabled systems
Cons: UNIX influence apparent in the numerous command-line utilities; Web client supports only Netscape's Web servers, limiting usefulness on Windows NT systems; no direct Microsoft Exchange Server integration

FAXCOM 7000NT
Finding a turnkey production fax server that looks at home in your equipment closet isn't easy. Fax servers are usually installed on PCs that require tables and other furniture for support. This setup isn't true of FAXCOM. You can easily mount this NT 4.0-based fax server on any equipment rack.

FAXCOM is the only unit I tested that requires two people to move it. The product is a rack-mount system that weighs 90 pounds and measures 19" * 12" * 19"—excluding the monitor. This rugged system sports a 500MHz Pentium III processor system with 256MB of RAM and three 9GB Quantum Ultra Fast/Wide SCSI disks in a RAID array. The front of the unit has a flip-down cover with a lock, so you can secure the system after you've configured it.

Setting up the system is a snap. Biscom does all the preliminary hardware installation and NT configuration, including assigning an IP address to your network's network adapter card (NAC). I used the program's Fax Server Administrator to perform minor tasks such as assign CSIDs to my lines and add users to the FAXCOM database. The Fax Server Administrator GUI, which Screen 12 shows, makes most administrative tasks easy to accomplish.

The software includes client software that you can install on your Windows-based systems to send faxes. A special print driver lets you send faxes from any Windows application by printing to the special printer. The product also includes numerous interfaces for connecting to email packages. I installed and used the Exchange component to send faxes from and receive faxes in my Exchange mailbox. The software supports DID- and CSID-based routing for inbound faxes and has a distribution list (DL) feature so that FAXCOM can automatically distribute inbound faxes to more than one recipient.

The product lets you easily maintain call accounting. The software automatically logs all outbound faxes in an ASCII file on the Biscom server. The FAXCOM documentation provides the file format. By periodically importing this file into a database or spreadsheet program, you can easily bill departments or clients for the fax resources they consume.

Biscom provides a special API for connecting to other systems. Using the API, I sent faxes from my UNIX system by using CIFS to mount the \BISFAX\SEND\OUT directory on my UNIX server. When I created output on my UNIX system that conformed to a specific envelope file format (i.e., with properly placed keywords and other data necessary to send a fax), the Biscom fax server automatically digested the information and submitted the job to the job queue for delivery. You can attach a file to a fax by putting the file into a specific subdirectory on the Biscom server before you create the envelope file.

FAXCOM offers excellent centralized management features. The Fax Server Administrator administers the fax server. For Exchange Server integration, you can perform other administrative tasks through Exchange Administrator. When you attach another FAXCOM unit to your network and make a small change to the server's configuration files, you're instantly online with a second fax server that provides server load balancing.

Considering the system's ruggedness and features, the product's price is reasonable. Depending on the exact configuration and options, your cost can be as low as $9995.

FAXCOM 7000NT
Contact: Biscom * 978-250-1800 or 800-477-2472
Web: http://www.biscom.com
Price: $9995; includes 2 lines and a 100-user license
DECISION SUMMARY:
Pros: Powerful, rugged hardware; easy setup; API makes faxing from legacy applications easy; excellent centralized management; easy-to-configure server load balancing; SMTP mail for sending and receiving faxes from other systems
Cons: 90-pound rack-mount unit requires two people to move it and needs a reinforced steel rack for installation


Fax Liaison
Installing a fax server can be time-consuming. You need to order software, then you need to build or buy a computer system and integrate the hardware and software. Fax Liaison lets you pick up the phone and have a complete solution requiring minimal setup delivered to your doorstep.

SpectraFAX's turnkey solution is massive. In addition to the software component, the product includes a complete computer system running NT 4.0 with SpectraFAX preinstalled and configured according to your specifications. My test system weighed 70 pounds and consisted of a Compaq ProLiant 800 server with a 500MHz Pentium III CPU, 256MB of RAM, and 9GB of SCSI hard disk space. The system also had a four-port TR114 card installed and configured for the system. SpectraFAX also offers services such as on-site installation and configuration to help you get your fax solution running.

I needed to do a small amount of setup and configuration to make the product operational. Configuration included running the program's FL Master Configuration module to define fax line parameters, including port groups and incoming-call-processing information, as Screen 13, page 182, shows. I also had to set up the Exchange gateway so that Fax Liaison could route faxes to and from Exchange. The setup process was well documented and took less than half an hour to complete.

Fax Liaison has several unique features that make it an exceptional product for large business environments. For example, in addition to including standard DTMF and DID routing for automatic inbound routing of faxes to recipients' email inboxes, Fax Liaison's integrated voice capability can send a voicemail message to users who have received a fax.

Fax on demand, another feature that uses the product's voice capability, makes Fax Liaison well suited to large businesses that want to establish a fax information repository that customers can access. The available disk space on your Fax Liaison system is the only thing that limits the number of documents you can put online for inbound callers to access. The product's excellent security system lets you assign PINs to individual documents or groups of documents and require the remote caller to enter the PIN before Fax Liaison will transmit the document.

Fax broadcast is another powerful capability. You can configure extensive fax mailing lists to send one fax to thousands of recipients in a matter of minutes, depending on the number of outbound ports you have available. When you factor in an intelligent fax retry algorithm for fax numbers that don't answer or are busy, Fax Liaison's broadcasting capabilities are unsurpassed. In addition, the product's extensive logging and reporting capabilities can help eliminate fax numbers that go out of service.

Fax Liaison lets you send faxes from heterogeneous systems as well as from Windows systems. The product's Directory Connectivity feature monitors a directory on your NT fax server for files that other systems (e.g., AS/400s, UNIX systems) put into the directory. Fax Liaison also offers server load balancing for larger environments in which a large call volume might overwhelm one server.

However, all this power is expensive. Pricing increases in 4-port increments until you reach 48 ports, at which point the product's price maxes out at a hefty $119,002.

Fax Liaison
Contact: SpectraFAX * 941-643-8700
Web: http://www.spectrafax.com
Price: $19,825; includes four-port turnkey system
DECISION SUMMARY:
Pros: Solution custom-tailored to your specifications; notifies fax recipients by voicemail; excellent fax-on-demand capabilities with voice support; fax broadcast feature allows easy, rapid distribution of faxes
Cons: Line-based pricing escalates cost quickly if you need many lines
*Limited only by hardware (e.g., number of available slots, fax boards used)

FaxPress 5000
FaxPress 5000 offers a complete and affordable turnkey solution with no compromise in the standard features you expect in an enterprise fax server. The FaxPress hardware unit is about the size of a small VCR, weighs 12 pounds, and consumes 1 square foot of counter space. The unit consists of little more than a box with a network connection port, a parallel port for optional printer connection, and phone-line ports for connecting to your outbound lines. My test unit had eight telephone ports.

The FaxPress server requires a network file server, however, to centralize its database and coordinate operation. The product supports both NT and Novell NetWare file servers; I installed the test unit on one of my NT Server 4.0 testbeds. Installation proceeded without a problem. The only requirement I had to fulfill was to provide the unique static IP address that the FaxPress server requires. The product is ready to use after you configure it.

As Screen 14 shows, the FaxPress client lets you perform standard fax functions such as composing a fax, selecting recipients from a variety of phone books, selecting a cover page, and attaching files to the fax. The software also includes several powerful features that help reduce the amount of time needed to send a fax. These features include letting you maintain a favorite-document list (e.g., price list, catalog) that you can quickly fax from a directory listing. You can even convert the document to fax format and save the binary image, which saves time when you next need to fax that document.

FaxPress lets you route inbound faxes to Exchange through Castelle's bundled Exchange Direct software. The product includes a full range of administrative utilities for creating phone books and cover pages and managing the outbound-fax queues.

For LCR, FaxPress includes the Castelle Internet Faxing (CIF) and Third-Party Internet Faxing (TIF) features. When you enable these features, the product automatically routes faxes based on rules you define (e.g., to a specific area code) to another FaxPress server across the Internet.

The way FaxPress lets you configure load balancing is interesting. The product operates on the principle of master and slave fax servers. A master fax server communicates with the user and hands off traffic as necessary to slave fax servers. A slave fax server can either rasterize the fax image (i.e., convert the image to a binary image) or place the fax call. You can configure several slave fax servers to one master if you want. Depending on your environment's size, you can even define a master fax server as a slave to other masters. Traffic routing is transparent to end users.

One area in which the product at first appeared to fall short is its support for interfacing with heterogeneous systems. I was unable to find a documented way to feed outbound faxes from my UNIX host to the FaxPress system. I later learned that you have two ways to send a fax in a heterogeneous environment.

One method you can employ is to use SMTP to email the fax to the fax server. The fax server then processes the fax and sends it to the recipients.

Alternatively, you can use the optional Advanced Embedded Codes Gateway (AECG). The AECG lets you send batch files from mainframes, minicomputers, and UNIX workstations.

The AECG also lets you integrate SAP R/3 into your fax environment. According to Castelle, support for PeopleSoft will also be in place by press time. Castelle makes available a software development kit (SDK) that lets developers use FaxPress to fax-enable their applications.

The eight-port product costs only a bit more than the four-port product, and both versions include an unlimited-user license. Compared with the high cost of other turnkey solutions, these prices make FaxPress an attractive solution.

FaxPress 5000
Contact: Castelle * 800-289-7555
Web: http://www.castelle.com
Price: $5995; includes four channels, unlimited users, email gateway
DECISION SUMMARY:
Pros: Powerful client software; direct integration to Microsoft Exchange Server; implements Least Cost Routing through Internet-based fax feature; optional developer kit lets you fax-enable your applications; supports mission-critical applications
Cons: No documentation for options for heterogeneous-system support


TOPCALL
TOPCALL's fax server is a completely custom-built and configured enterprise fax server. My 19" * 19" * 7" Pentium II processor-based test unit arrived with a TOPCALL systems engineer in attendance. This level of service is standard for a TOPCALL installation. Before delivery, TOPCALL's sales and engineering staff schedules conference calls with you to determine your installation-specific requirements. TOPCALL then builds your custom system and performs software installation, setup, and in-house testing before delivering the unit. This service ensures a high level of quality and minimizes problems. My test unit had 256MB of RAM and 9GB of disk storage.

Installing and configuring the product takes only a few minutes. Because TOPCALL does much of the setup offsite before delivery, onsite setup time is minimal. For my unit, TOPCALL installed NT, the TOPCALL server software components, and the File Interface software. Because the Exchange component needs to communicate with Exchange Server during installation, you must connect the product to your network before installing the Exchange component. The onsite installation process took about 30 minutes from start to finish.

The TOPCALL for Windows management window, which Screen 15 shows, provides an overview of system activity on the server. In addition to providing a detailed log of the activity the server software performed (in the upper pane), the software also provides a utilization monitor (in the lower pane) that shows how much line resources inbound faxes, outbound faxes, and idle time used.

The TOPCALL system is first and foremost a message switch. The system routes messages it receives to other systems that the TOPCALL system knows about. For example, if you have a Novell Groupwise system in your configuration, TOPCALL can route one message to both a fax recipient and a Groupwise recipient. The software's capabilities exceed PC-based solutions to let you route to Telex, X.400, SAP R/3, and several mainframe and midrange email systems. The switch can also route fax requests from heterogeneous systems, such as an AS/400. In addition, the product can archive and accept faxes through a Web interface.

TOPCALL's level of integration for legacy systems is exceptional. By default, my system has the TOPCALL File Interface, which monitors a directory on my NT server for files containing keywords that instruct TOPCALL to send a fax. I easily accessed this directory from my UNIX server by mounting the NT share. You can send attachments with the file interface because the TOPCALL server converts attachments to a rendered image.

Because the TOPCALL server has rendering capability, the software can offer a powerful file-reporting capability. When the software encounters an attachment type it doesn't know how to handle, you can supply a series of keystrokes for the software to use to handle attachments of that type. For example, if the software alerts you that it can't handle a .gif file, you can teach the software to open an application and print the graphic image to the TOPCALL-installed printer driver.

All this power and hand-holding doesn't come at a low price. Prices increase from the base price depending on options and the extent of the customization and integration services you need.

TOPCALL
Contact: TOPCALL International * 610-688-2600 or
888-486-7225
Web: http://www.topcall.com
Price: Starts at $19,000
DECISION SUMMARY:
Pros: Technologically savvy fax server; tremendous communications capabilities; excellent support for legacy applications; offers scalability and flexibility not available in other products
Cons: High price; level of sophistication all but ensures onsite support calls

Corrections to this Article:

  • The FaxFacts contact box states that the price of the Fax Mail component is $185 per line. The $550-per-line price for FaxFacts includes Fax Mail.