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FAX SERVERS: FAXING A LA LAN

By Bill Michael and John Jainschigg , Computer Telephony Oct 1, 1999 (12:00 AM)

URL: http://www.cconvergence.com/article/CTM20000510S0048/

Conventional fax is expensive.

In a worst-case scenario you start by laser-printing the document (burning paper, chemicals, ergs). Then you walk to the printer, grab your pages, walk to the fax machine, fill out a cover sheet. Then you try to figure out how to dial the fax machine, load your stack of paper into the hopper, and wait to make sure everything’s cooking right (burning mental energy — the scarcest resource in any corporation,plus long-distance ticks). Then you hang around and check, and check back in five minutes, etc., etc., to see if the fax goes through (more mental energy). Meanwhile, their fax machine is (hopefully) burning paper, chemicals, and ergs. But of course, since you can’t be absolutely sure — you end up calling the recipient to check if they’ve received your fax (thus sending a final burst of mental energy, ergs, and money up in smoke).

Even if you just look at labor and telco charges, the numbers get scary fast. Figure a three-page fax takes five minutes to send, and costs 30 cents for long distance. If a $20/hour employee sends ten such faxes a day, you’re down $5,096 per employee, per year. And that’s just for outbound, “casual” faxing. Handling received faxes (collating, pigeonholing, etc.) costs money, too.

Meanwhile, conventional fax equipment can’t give you the sizzle of advanced applications: fax blasting (e.g., faxing a twelve-page sales report to 200 managers), fax publishing (e.g., faxing a monthly newsletter to 2,000 subscribers), fax-based order-processing, fax on demand, etc. Nor can most conventional fax machines provide a gateway for low-cost/high-reliability Internet transmission of fax documents (without the help of a service bureau).

For all these reasons, you need a LAN-based fax server. Available at many scales and price-points, fax servers make faxing as easy — and (in principle) as inexpensive — as e-mail. By letting you fax from your PC desktop, a server eliminates some of the complexity of physical document preparation and handling, and facilitates PC-centric document-base management. By managing the file conversion, raster conversion, image file storage/assembly and transmission process on a central resource, a server frees local (and remote) PCs from CPU and disk overhead. By providing a central line interface to telco (or PBX) facilities, a fax server cuts down on the need for house wiring and “separate outside lines for the fax machine.” By providing coherent error-management, retry, and reporting, fax servers give you greater assurance that documents have gone through as intended, and save you the trouble of physically monitoring the transmission process. By managing inbound routing to electronic “fax mailboxes,” servers eliminate the labor of collating and delivering received faxes, reduce the number of inbound faxes that “go missing,” and secure received documents from unauthorized eyes. And by cooperating to support least-cost routing and/or IP WAN/Internet transmission of documents, fax servers can reduce phone charges.

And that’s just the beginning. Even inexpensive fax servers are now offering feature perks such as remote fax retrieval on-the-Web, limited document self-service via fax-on-demand, and sophisticated fax publishing/blasting/mass delivery. More expensive (and specialized) systems support electronic forms entry and other EDI-like features, aimed at automated fulfillment and supply-chain automation.

What’s more, you can afford them. Labor savings alone are sufficient, in almost every case, to justify replacing standard fax machines with a server. The financials become even more appealing when you consider that upwards of 60% of all “interoffice voice traffic” is now fax: a network of compatible, LCR-capable, service-bureau-aware, IP-enabled fax servers can make huge chunks of your phone bill disappear.

BETTER FAXING WITH TECHNOLOGY

Technically, fax servers can get pretty nifty. Sending faxes to and from a PC environment is a nasty undertaking, and developers have worked overtime in recent years, creating products and architectures that won’t break down, thrash, suck up mass storage and CPU time like water, crash client PCs, or drive end-users crazy. Products are available for use across all popular network architectures; NT and TCP/IP support, predictably, get better all the time.

Architecturally, most products subdivide the three functions of a) port management; b) document assembly, rasterization and queueing; and c) client communications at the process level, but load all three functions onto a single PC server, running NT or Unix. In the most high-end, large-scale architectures, you can distribute functions across the LAN, filling up separate fax-card boxes to gain lots of ports and sequencing fast, multi-CPU machines with lots of RAM and disk-space to handle raster conversion.

You don’t want to skimp on board hardware; a low-grade Class 2 modem will fail during the handshaking process far too frequently. Most fax servers use intelligent fax boards (and line interface cards) from Dialogic or Brooktrout; a few use NMS hardware or Commetrex.

In one case, Castelle’s FaxPress, a generic (perhaps even shared) NT server is employed for client communications, rasterization, and other functions, but this machine is slaved to a self-contained, external box, containing proprietary fax hardware and the line interface. This isn’t a bad idea: the NT server doesn’t have to do port management (so it can be shared with other applications), and you don’t have to fool around with fax boards, which can be troublesome to install.

But you may not have to do that, in any case. Fax servers tend to be sold pretty-much turnkey, these days — so your dealer/integrator will probably assemble and configure your system. If you insist on doing it yourself, the hardest parts involve board installation and server/service configuration. Once the server is up and running, recognized across the network, with fax boards installed, feature configuration is usually not too difficult. In most cases, no more than a few hours’ work (and an average of two calls to technical support) will get you up and running.

If you’ve ever used a faxmodem, you already have the gist of what a fax server works like from the client side. For single-destination outbound faxing, most systems arrange to have the fax server emulate a network printer, addressed by a modified standard print driver on the client machine. To fax, you hit Print, select the fax server, and go. Windows pop up to let you enter cover-sheet info, select from local fax-number lists, etc.

The big difference is that a fax server works faster. Instead of using your local CPU and hard disk for document-to-raster conversion (rasterization), and your COM port for connection management, a fax server lets you shoot your document across the LAN, where the server does the muscle-work of rasterization and port-handling. If you send a lot of multi-page documents, or send the same document to multiple destinations, you’ll see the productivity benefits instantly.

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