The fax is alive and well with a wealth of options to serve large and small organizations

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The vendor listings in this issue's Buyer's Guide range from simple fax servers to complete unified messaging systems that include a fax server component. Fax server appliances—a combination of hardware and software that provide Plug and Play (PnP) installation—are also represented.

When evaluating the listings in this Buyer's Guide, you should consider your messaging environment and your needs. How many fax pages per day or per hour must the system process? On the low end, you might need only one analog fax modem connected to a standard analog telephone line. On the high end, you might need support for a distributed network of fax servers supporting Least Cost Routing (LCR) and multichannel digital T1 or ISDN Primary Rate Interface (PRI) intelligent fax boards.

Windows client support is standard with all the systems this Buyer's Guide lists. If some of your users are on UNIX, Linux, mainframe, or AS/400 systems, you might want to consider the high-end fax systems that offer broad client-platform support.

Do you want your fax server to integrate with your email system so that you can send and receive faxes using your standard email client? Some fax servers can integrate with Microsoft Exchange Server, SMTP mail servers, and Lotus Notes. Some products support other messaging platforms.

Some fax server software lets you fax documents you create in Microsoft Word, spreadsheets you create in Microsoft Excel, and old DOS documents. Other features provide fax-on-demand support and let you use a programming API to create custom fax applications.

Mail merge and broadcast fax features are standard for most fax servers, although products differ in their ease of use and speed in these areas. Most vendors will let you try before you buy, which gives you a chance to verify that the product's interface is truly user-friendly, that you can create customized or graphical cover pages that will suit your company's needs, and that the product can generate faxes fast enough to meet your volume requirements.

Most companies want a fax server to support an accessible list of fax numbers, but making those numbers available on the fax server can require a lot of work. Check the product's options. Some fax servers require you to create a directory in a proprietary format and import names and numbers from text files. Other products let you use any ODBC-accessible database as your fax directory. When you integrate a fax server with an email server, you can store fax numbers in email address format.

Keep in mind whether you want to set up your fax server for manual or automatic fax distribution. Intelligent fax boards that support Direct Inward Dialing (DID) with digital T1 or ISDN lines can identify the fax recipient. When you assign each person or group a dedicated fax number and configure the telephone system to direct calls to all fax numbers to the same fax modem pool, the server can automatically route incoming faxes to the correct person. Other fax servers can scan the fax's cover page using optical character recognition (OCR) technology to determine the intended recipient. Or you can rely on manual distribution, in which someone views each fax's cover page, determines the intended recipient, and forwards the fax to that person.

With all our attention today focused on digital media, it is amazing that the fax is alive and well. If you have any doubt, notice the number and variety of products in this month's Buyer's Guide.