Just the FAX – Are you still faxing manually?
In a world where email has changed the way both individuals and companies communicate with one another, it’s easy to forget that only a few years ago, faxing was the accepted worldwide standard for the timely transmission and reception of just about any document. While the use of email to transfer documents continues to grow in popularity, the use of faxing isn’t going to end any time soon, since much of the world still relies upon faxes for the transfer of critical information. Although the Internet is changing the ways that companies look at communicating with both their customers and suppliers, faxing still represents a secure, convenient, and ubiquitous technology that almost all companies worldwide accept and make use of.
Although a popular communication mechanism, most companies still rely on traditional manual faxing using a dedicated fax machine. While still acceptable in cases where a company rarely or very sporadically requires the ability to send or receive faxes, the manual fax machine is clearly out of date in any environment that regularly relies on fax communication. The main issue with manual faxing is the need for individuals to literally get up, walk to the fax machine, wait for their fax to send, and then return to what they were doing - just to send a single document. Furthermore, the user sending the fax needs to look up the recipient’s fax number, possibly create cover pages, and more. On the receiving end, time is wasted with the sorting and manual routing of faxes, which can easily be lost, forgotten, or otherwise not received in a timely manner. At the end of the day, manual faxing leads to only two sure things – lost productivity, and by extension, wasted money.
The Need for Fax Servers
A popular solution in recent years has been to use network fax servers as a replacement for the traditional fax machine. Fax servers comes in two main flavors – those that integrate with a company’s email systems, and those that don’t. While a fax server that doesn’t integrate with email may be a suitable choice for companies that don’t rely on (or use) email for business purposes, an integrated fax/email solution makes much more sense for companies today. In this article I’ll discuss the pros and cons of a fax server solution that integrates tightly with Exchange 2000, leveraging a company’s email infrastructure to support advanced faxing services. The product is GFI Software’s FAXmaker for Exchange. GFI FAXmaker for Exchange works with Exchange versions 5.5 and 2000 to provide fully integrated faxing capabilities to users from their desktop.
How it Works
Unlike many of the standalone fax server products on the market, GFI FAXmaker for Exchange provides a connector into the native Exchange environment, allowing you to leverage user’s existing familiarity with working from Microsoft Outlook. The basic principal of network faxing is not unlike using a desktop system with a dedicated fax modem to send and receive faxes. However, in the case of GFI FAXmaker for Exchange, the server acts as the centralized facility for the sending and receiving of faxes, while also handling message routing functions.
When fax messages are received by GFI FAXmaker for Exchange, it will route them to the correct user(s) according to the rules defined by the administrator. For example, messages can be forwarded to the mailbox of an individual user, to a common mailbox dedicated for faxes, or to an Exchange public folder. These routing features are part of what helps to make GFI FAXmaker for Exchange such a powerful product.
Of course, in order to be able to send and receive faxes via this Email to fax gateway, an appropriate fax device is required. This can be a traditional Class 1 or 2 fax modem, ISDN card, or a dedicated fax board from a company like Brooktrout. Once the server has one or more of these devices installed and configured, the server component of GFI FAXmaker for Exchange can be installed on the Exchange Server. While the installation of the server software is very straightforward, one potential issue involves the need for minimal schema modification in Active Directory environments. As such, schema modification must be enabled on your forest’s Schema Master prior to attempting the installation. Once installed, GFI FAXmaker runs as just another Windows 2000 service.
Along with the GFI FAXmaker for Exchange server component, there is also an optional client component that can be installed on user desktops. The client software installs both the FAXmaker printer on client systems, along with the FAXmaker viewer, a program to view any faxes received. If only used to send faxes from within Outlook, installation of the client software is not explicitly required.
Users Sending and Receiving Faxes
While I’ll evaluate some of the technical implementation details of the product shortly, the real litmus test for any software is whether it is intuitive and easy for users to figure out. In this respect I couldn’t have been happier with GFI FAXmaker for Exchange. After installing and configuring it for 5 different Outlook users in my office, it took only a brief demonstration of its capabilities for them to get the hang of things. Although the concept of “printing” the fax threw a few users off, they immediately understood the concept once Outlook automatically opened a message with the fax attached. From here, the users simply chose the recipient of the fax (using the user’s “Business Fax” entry) from either their Outlook Contacts or the Exchange Global Address List, as shown below.
Ultimately, a cover page is attached to the fax by GFI FAXmaker at the server level. The information is gathered from the To, From, and Subject lines, with the message on the cover page gathered from the contents of the what would normally be the email message itself.
While they found sending faxes using GFI FAXmaker for Exchange easy enough, what my users loved most was the ability to receive faxes directly into their Outlook Inbox. Upon receipt, the users found the concept very intuitive - they treated the fax as they would any standard file attachment, without my prompting. This ultimately opens the fax in the GFI FAXmaker viewer, as shown below.
One of the obvious issues when implementing a fax server solution is how the fax server software knows which mailbox to route a fax to upon receipt. GFI FAXmaker for Exchange supports six different methods of routing faxes to an appropriate mailbox. While each method has associated advantages and disadvantages, support for the various methods provides the maximum flexibility possible. The six methods include:
- CSID – When any fax machine sends a fax, it includes a Caller Sender Identification (CSID) at the top of the fax. This method is useful for routing messages when all faxes from a particular company are destined for a single user.
- DID – If your company has a line with multiple Direct Inward Dial (DID) numbers, each of these virtual numbers can be associated with a user or department, allowing routing to occur based on the DID number the fax was sent to.
- DTMF – Dual Tone Multi Frequency is a technique whereby the user sending the fax presses a key combination that represents the user once the call is connected. Although this method is highly scalable, it relies upon a correctly configured PBX or the sender understanding the process.
- OCR – Optical Character Recognition (OCR) can also be used to route faxes with FAXmaker for Exchange. When OCR is used for routing, GFI FAXmaker will scan the text looking for names or keywords associated with an account and route the fax accordingly. Unfortunately, this method is only about 70% accurate, and cannot distinguish between users with the same name.
- Line – Line routing is a very straightforward method whereby a physical fax line is associated with a user or department. A useful choice for routing faxes as the departmental level, it still requires a dedicated fax line for each recipient, making it impractical for faxing to many individual users.
- MSN – MSN routing is used by ISDN only. This method works similar to DID routing, except that it doesn’t require the purchase of individual DID phone numbers. Most ISDN lines support more than one MSN number by default.
- Manual – Manual routing is a method very similar to traditional faxing where all faxes are routed to a single internal mailbox or exchange public folder. From here, a designated person would examine and forward all received faxes by mail.
FAXmaker Configuration Tool
The initial configuration of GFI FAXmaker for Exchange involves the detection and configuration of the appropriate fax modem, ISDN card, or fax card to be used. Once the cards are detected, all configuration tasks can be carried out using the simple MMC-based FAXmaker Configuration tool shown below.
The tasks associated with configuring GFI FAXmaker for Exchange are surprisingly easy. I had no trouble configuring the software to support licensed users and the routing methods to be used for each. For example, to configure OCR routing for a user account, you simple right click on OCR, choose New, and then specify a keyword or phrase to be used in OCR searches. After doing so, the phrase properties dialog box opens, as shown below. This allows you to choose which user(s) messages with the search phrase will be routed to. While the user interface allows you to associate multiple users with a search string, it unfortunately does not allow you to associate multiple search phrases with one user in a single step.
One handy feature in GFI FAXmaker for Exchange is its ability to allow you to design and implement your own custom fax cover pages. By default only a generic cover page is implemented, but both HTML- and RTF-based cover pages are supported. If you plan to implement a fancy custom cover page for your organization, your best bet is to import a pre-designed version that includes the appropriate (and very simple) tags in order for the To, From, Subject, and Company fields to be properly populated by GFI FAXmaker. A nice touch with the cover page feature is the ability to define which users are associated with a given design. Beyond cover pages, the program also allows you to define headers and footers that can be added to outgoing faxes.
Filtering Junk Faxes
Much like spam email today, junk faxes have long been a problem for companies. While most manual fax machines are incapable of blocking junk faxes, GFI FAXmaker for Exchange has the ability to automatically delete junk faxes according to the CSID of the sending device. Furthermore, the program also includes an option to delete any fax received without a CSID. GFI FAXmaker for Exchange also allows copies of any junk faxes to be stored to a specified folder, just in case.
Like most of the solutions from GFI Software, GFI FAXmaker for Exchange also includes a dedicated monitoring tool. FAXmaker Monitor provides access to two utilities, Server Monitor and Queued Faxes. As the name suggests, the Queued Faxes tool will allow you to view information about all faxes waiting to be sent, which line they are using, and so forth. The Server Monitor tool (shown below) displays the status of faxes being sent or received, allows you to restart the server, and also debug or abort faxes in progress.
After thoroughly testing GFI FAXmaker for Exchange, my feeling is that GFI Software has again hit the nail on the head when it comes to developing useful, cost-effective applications that will ultimately save companies time, effort, and money. While companies with very low faxing requirements aren’t likely to be in the market for a fax server, any organization that uses faxing to communicate important information with its customers and suppliers stands to save significant money through the implementation of a product like FAXmaker for Exchange.
While the product requires almost no administration once the original implementation is complete and routing rules are defined, I do have one piece of constructive criticism about the product. Although the need for fax viewing software and the installation of the fax printer necessitates that the client component be installed, my preference would be for companies like GFI Software to take advantages of the Group Policy features of Windows 2000 Active Directory and provide pre-built MSI files for the distribution of client software rather than standard EXE files.
On the whole, GFI FAXmaker for Exchange is an exceptional product, especially considering the fact that a 25-user license costs only $750. At a cost of only $30 per user, this is one product that will definitely pay itself back many times over in terms of increased productivity alone.
If you’re in the market for a fax server, GFI FAXmaker for Exchange is definitely worth pitting against any and all competing products. Dollar for dollar, GFI FAXmaker for Exchange can’t be beat.
MSExchange.org Rating: 5/5