Network faxing made a small step forward last month with the availability of US Robotics Inc.'s Shared Access Fax Server. While far from perfect, this is the first box to try to make a true network fax server plug and play. However, it doesn't quite succeed and I don't recommend it for the enterprise: there are too many rough edges and it is far too difficult to install. It's biggest competition is from Castelle's FaxPress, which is a more mature product but more expensive. FaxPress comes in versions that support LAN Manager-based networks, while USR's box is just for NetWare. FaxPress comes with different port configurations than the USR box: the former has a parallel port in case you want to turn it into a print server, the latter doesn't. FaxPress also comes in one, two, or four phone line versions and only two out of the three (thick, thin, and 10Baset) Ethernet connectors. The USR box has two lines (although you'll need an external modem for the second line) and comes with all three Ethernet connectors. But these are quibbles. The real difference between the two boxes is that sending faxes is easier with the USR box: unlike FaxPress, you don't have to login to the fax server every time you want to send a fax. [CHECK] I should tell you up front that I am not a big fan of computer-based fax: in most cases, having your own fax machine is far easier to use and much more reliable. However, that situation is not very practical for the enterprise, or even for particular departments: phone-line charges can add up for all those dedicated fax lines (some estimates that I've seen state fax usage around a third of all business long-distance phone charges). Plus, since most of the output generated for faxing comes from a computer, it is a waste of time and paper to print this stuff out and then place it in a dedicated fax machine. By having many people share fax on the network, computer-based faxing begins to make more sense. Before you get involved in network-based fax, you'll have to segregate your faxing needs into four categories: -- outbound fax from computer-based origins. This is the best opportunity for network-based fax, since users can send the information directly from their computers to the fax modem without having to first go to paper. It is especially useful for fax broadcast, where you want to send a fax to multiple recipients, and sending email to mixed electronic and fax addresses. For example, if you have DaVinci or some other MHS-based email, you can use the USR box as an outbound fax gateway. To make desktop outbound faxing work, you'd like to have a series of macros and drivers for your major desktop applications (word processing and spreadsheet programs come immediately to mind) so that you don't have to switch between your regular network printers and your net fax devices when you want to send output to paper and fax respectively. More on this driver issue in a moment. -- outbound fax from non-computer origins. An example would be faxing a paper contract or purchase order with your signature. Here you are out of luck for net fax. Your best solution is to use a dedicated fax machine. There are some products that can scan these documents or try to append graphic images to existing computer-stored faxes (one of them is SoftNet's FaxWorks). However, both computer methods are nowhere as easy as taking pen to paper and signing on the dotted line and putting the resulting document in a dedicated fax machine. -- inbound fax. This is definitely second-best opportunity for the network fax, mainly because some process has to be used to route faxes to their ultimate recipient. You have a few choices: paper, email, a telephone trunk line or via operator intervention. The choice depends on how many faxes your company gets daily and what the patterns are (time of day, typical recipients, and so forth). For a small office or department, paper may be the best routing scheme: your fax modem can print all received faxes to a particular network print queue and a secretary can watch over this printer and distribute the resulting faxes. USR calls this option Autoprint. You can notify an administrator that a fax has come in via Novell's 25-th line message, which is nice. Email routing is better for larger enterprises, but will require some careful planning. Most of the net fax products are very limited in what kinds of email products they support, and the USR box is no exception: it only works with MHS-based systems. If you are using cc:Mail or Microsoft Mail, you'll have to install a separate computer as an MHS gateway to get your faxes over email. Yuk. Castelle's FaxPress supports both MHS and cc:Mail systems, which are on most models an extra $295 apiece. A third routing option is to use special telephony trunk lines called direct inward dial or DID. You obtain a block of numbers from your phone company. You assign each number to a particular user, and then tell the routing software how to get it to them. While it can be painful to setup the trunk line, this is perhaps the most elegant and dependable method to obtain inbound faxes. However, the USR box doesn't support DID: Castelle's FaxPress does. There are other routing options as well, but not as satisfactory as these three, mainly because they depend either on undependable technology (scanning for special ID codes in the fax cover page) or people (having an operator view each fax and route electronically). -- secure fax. The last category is where you absolutely have to have a secure link for sending the most sensitive of documents. Here you either want a desktop standalone fax modem or a dedicated fax machine: in either case, net fax won't do. Still with me on net fax? I told you it wasn't going to be easy. In the past, network fax required the skills of a systems integrator to pull all the pieces together. First, you needed one or more fax modems. Then a PC and a LAN card to connect it to the network. Finally, software and the patience and ability to get everything working and tested out properly. I've found that this piecemeal solution doesn't hold up too well. I've used a variety of standalone fax modems on both PCs and Macintoshes and found that none of them works very reliably. I have a simple torture test: I set up the device a few days before I have to leave town for a week-long business trip. I unplug my dedicated fax machine and connect the computer-based fax device to my fax line. If it is still running when I return and I've gotten all my intended faxes, it passes the test. (Castelle's box failed, by the way.) Usually, the software locks up or the modem hangs or some other gremlin rears its head. One product stopped running the minute I left town. Another reported in its log files all the faxes that I received: yet I couldn't find a single one and had to track down the senders. You get the idea: many of these computer-based fax products aren't yet ready for prime time. Fax is one of those things that you don't want to have your data center to monitor: once you put it in you want it to work 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. That's the appeal of a dedicated fax machine: sure the shiny paper is a pain, and occaisionally someone can't find that super-secret document, but at least you don't have to have a NetView operator monitoring your fax machine. I tested the USR device on a simple Ethernet NetWare network with both 3.11 and 4.01 servers. It passed the torture test, but just barely: several computer-based faxes couldn't be received by the device, although it did receive all the faxes sent from dedicated fax machines. One problem with using a fax server is that when you need to add more lines, it can get expensive. USR has hedged with adding a second external modem port on their box: If you've got an external fax modem, you plug it in and reconfigure the box to handle the second line. With Castelle's FaxPress, you'll have to buy a multi-line device. This could get pricey: both FaxPress and the new two-line hardware/software combination from SoftNet Inc.'s FaxWorks Pro LAN Server are more expensive than the USR box. Speaking of reconfiguring the USR box, this is another reason why I give the product thumbs down: it is a pain in the neck. Many of the really tricky routines such as adding the second line, or adding the fax server to a cc:Mail network, required manual editing of various text files -- this requires some skill and care. USR should pay some attention to this in the next version and produce an entirely graphical means of configuring the product. Getting the product installed took a call to tech support, mainly because the product's documentation is poorly done. It would be nice to have more explainations of what is going on from a NetWare administrator's point of view. Another thing I didn't like was having two installation routines: one for the DOS software, one for Windows. It is more of a mess than needed for something that should be so easy to install. Part of this is a function of the Facys software that USR licenses and includes in the product. I didn't test all the various modes of operation of the device: for example, I just set up the box to print all received faxes immediately to the same network print queue that my Hewlett Packard laser printer is connected to. This had the advantage of having all my faxes (on plain paper, yet) waiting for me when I came back from my trip. What if you have other network operating systems besides NetWare? Tough luck. You might want to try another product, such as FaxPress (if you have a LAN Manager-based network) or one of many others that support other NOS'. What if you have a mixture of desktop fax clients from various PC fax vendors? Again, you are asking for trouble. Ideally, I'd like everyone on the network to use his or her fax software and route those outbound faxes to the USR box., rather than having to buy individual fax modems for everyone who wants to do their own faxing. Notice I said ideally. In practice, you'll have to use the FacSys software that comes bundled wth the box. Part of the problem is caused by network redirection of the faxes from the desktop client to the fax server. There are two different types of redirection currently available: FaxBIOS and (Communications Application Specification (CAS). The former is new, with most noticeable support coming from Word Perfect version 6. The latter has been around for years -- although the network version is also fairly new. I couldn't get the network CAS to work with fax client software from Delrina and Trio, and several other vendors I spoke to didn't want anything to do with networked CAS. The FacSys client that comes with the USR server does support it, however. So while it is great that Motorola includes these interfaces in their product, right now they are more of a promise of things to come than of much immediate use. The bottom line on the USR box: it gives some serious competition to FaxPress, but still isn't ready for prime time. If the network redirection, documentation, and installation could be improved, and DID support added, it might be worth another look in a few months. Vital Statistics: US Robotics' Shared Access Fax Server Network-based shared fax server for NetWare networks Priced at $2495(ethernet), $2795 (token ring) (not tested) Shipping since April Ready for the Enterprise? No. UP: A single box that provides both inbound and outbound fax server for NetWare networks DOWN: Installation can be tricky. Second fax line will require separate extra-cost external fax modem. Documentation horrid. Competitve analysis: UP: Castelle has been shipping a multi-line fax server with similar features for several years that costs more. DOWN: First hardware fax server to offer support for FaxBIOS and networked CAS standards, but not of much use currently. US Robotics, Inc. 8100 N McCormick Blvd Skokie IL 60076 708 982 5010 708 982 5235 (fax) 800-USR-CORP fax back service: 800 762 6163 email: firstname.lastname@example.org (contact Laurie Lenz in the PR office for photos: 708 982 5230 ) Test bed: Ethernet network with NetWare 3.11 and 4.01 servers running on a Dell 486/D50 and Compaq Prolinea 486/33 respectively. Another Dell 486/D50 running Windows 3.1 and fax software from Delrina and Trio Data Systems. Hewlett Packard IIP laser printer connected to this network with a Xircom Pocket Print Server. Sharp UX-103 fax machine not connected to this network.