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Enterprise Faxing as Easy as XML

A bridge between the 'old' world and the new

Back in the 1980s, faxes became the technology of choice for conducting business in what we all thought then was a fast-paced world. (Little did we know!) No longer did we have to wait days for the U.S. Postal Service to deliver purchase orders from our customers or invoices to them. Simply pop the proper paperwork onto the fax machine, hit the send button, and in 20 minutes or so it was received on the other end.

Of course, that was in the days before computing became ubiquitous. Before the Internet let us transmit our most current business requirements as e-mails and instant messages. Before, enterprises moved from keeping paper records to running everything through digital productivity and management tools such as customer relationship management (CRM) and enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems.

Ah, how times have changed. As for those purchase orders, invoices, and dozens of other types of business documents, today they’re being transmitted as…faxes? That’s right. The fact is that although many aspects of business have changed greatly over the last 20+ years, faxing is still a critical component of an enterprise’s day-to-day operations.

What that means to an enterprise application developer is that users still need to be able to move information from enterprise systems into fax form. They also need to be able to input information from inbound faxes into those systems.

Moreover, with the volume of faxes generated in the modern enterprise, sending and receiving faxes manually on a fax machine would be horribly inefficient – akin to trying to drain the Everglades with a coffee mug. Instead, a more programmatic approach is required.

Fax Servers Not the Answer
To address their general faxing needs, many enterprise-size organizations have moved from fax machines to fax servers. This is a step in the right direction since fax servers allow users to send and receive faxes directly from their desktops through their e-mail accounts. This method takes the initial step to making faxing easier for the user and it increases security by keeping faxes out of common areas. In addition, received faxes can be organized and stored in digital folders for future reference.

Nevertheless, fax servers do not offer the complete solution. This may work well for one-off faxes that are sent to address a specific issue or need. Where it doesn’t work so well is when the information contained in a fax needs to be drawn from or pulled into another enterprise application or when high volumes of faxes are sent on a repetitive basis, as in the case of monthly customer invoices.

In the former instance, creating a way to exchange data between the enterprise application and the fax server often means a lengthy, extensive development project. Enterprise applications and fax servers do not speak the same language, or even something close to the same language. The difference is more like old Celtic and some obscure Chinese dialect. Fax servers typically use their own proprietary language, which means developers have to learn that language in order to create something that comes even close to working. Just what developers need – one more language to learn!

The job is further complicated when a high volume of faxes is involved. Setting up the system to automatically send invoices through the fax server each month, for example, can be extremely challenging. The more fluid the list of recipients is, i.e., the more often the customer list changes, the more difficult it can be to keep the entire system in good working order.

One other downside of fax servers is the limitation on the number of faxes that can be sent or received at one time. While the volume is certainly greater than the one-at-a-time nature of fax machines, there are still limits set by the capacity of the phone lines to which they are attached. It is therefore possible that faxes will not be transmitted (or received) successfully due to volume issues. This means either they will have to be sent again later, or they won’t go through at all. Not exactly the desired scenario for purchase orders, invoices, or other critical business documents.

Internet Fax Services Provide the Answer
A better alternative for tying faxes into enterprise applications is an Internet fax service. These outside providers allow faxes to be sent and received via an Internet connection rather than over telephone lines. An Internet fax service offers all the benefits of a fax server – access through an e-mail account, privacy, security, convenience, etc. – but without the drawbacks. From a developer’s point of view, certain providers also offer an additional advantage – the ability to interface with enterprise applications via XML.

Rather than having to learn and program in an additional language, developers can use XML to make data more easily transportable between enterprise applications and the Internet fax service. Although this capability has only recently been introduced, it has already been leveraged in conjunction with more than 15 different development languages, including Microsoft C#, .NET, VB.NET, Visual Basic, Perl, Java, ColdFusion, and PHP.

With an XML-capable service, developers don’t have to make alterations to enterprise applications, nor do they need to create a completely separate application to map from one system to the other. The faxes are transmitted to and received from the Internet fax service as XML documents, greatly simplifying handling on both ends.

With an Internet fax service available, enterprises can set up a queue of faxes each month. Using the earlier example, once the invoices are ready they are submitted to the Internet fax service and disseminated without any human intervention. Received documents are sent through to the system by the recipient, where they are pulled into the application automatically; the data does not have to be manually entered, eliminating the possibility of human error.

An XML-based Internet fax service can normally be set up in a minimal amount of time, perhaps two to three days, versus the weeks or sometimes months of programming required to make a fax server operational. Because there’s no local hardware or software to install, there’s no additional maintenance burden on the IT department as there is with a fax server.

Another advantage to using the right Internet fax service is that there are no limitations on the number of faxes that can be sent or received at one time. There is no such thing as a busy signal or an overloaded server. In addition, reports of successful and failed transmissions are delivered to the desktop (or other designated area) in real time so any problems can be remediated quickly.

Keep It Simple
Faxing was designed as a simple, rapid, point-to-point communications tool. But the realities of modern business have made working with faxes a far more complicated operation.

An Internet fax service that offers an XML interface brings back the simplicity for both developers and users. It provides a way of directly linking faxes to enterprise applications in order to assure fast, reliable, and programmatic delivery and data capture. It really provides the bridge between the “old” world and the new.

More Stories By Steve Adams

Steve Adams is the vice president of marketing at MyFax. He has extensive experience in creating and marketing new products and expanding high-tech organizations. He has over 15 years of experience in the high-tech and software industry, most recently with Ottawa-based Spotwave Wireless, a provider of in-building wireless coverage solutions. Prior to Spotwave, Steve was with CrossKeys Systems Corporation, a global telecom software solutions provider. Steve is a graduate of the University of Waterloo and the Ivey School of Business.

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