Business Disruption in Document Communications – What Happened?

In the late 1990s, the Internet and the World Wide Web created massive technical disruption for the worlds of document communications and messaging. Now, nearly twenty years later, business communications looks much different than it did going into the Millennium and once major businesses such as the marketing of enterprise fax machines are deep into their long tail phase. In my last post, I noted several trends in both fax and email as the related standards communities pushed to transform these technologies for the new IP world. Let’s look at what happened.

One major driver of the success of fax in the Nineties was the classic network effect as postulated by Ethernet inventor Robert Metcalfe. In essence, Metcalfe had stated that a network became much more compelling as the number of connected devices increased.  In the Nineties, the fax machine vendors and computer fax companies were often on opposing sides in technical battles, but all of these companies benefited from Metcalfe’s network effect as it applied to the overall fax network. But as we crossed into the 21st century, fax machines designed to run on the circuit-switched phone network (aka the Public Switched Telephone Network or PSTN) had much less utility in an increasingly IP network connected world. As a result, physical fax machines began to disappear from larger enterprise offices and in smaller offices, they were often replaced by less expensive multi-function peripherals (MFPs), which were basically printers that also included fax and scanning features. This meant that the number of Group 3 fax devices in total at first plateaued and then began a decline. In essence, Metcalfe’s network effect played out in reverse. The fax machines and MFPs of the Nineties did not evolve to use the new IP fax standards, so as document communications moved to IP, these physical fax or MFP devices still only sent faxes over the PSTN and were less connected as IP communications became more prevalent.

If we consider the trends in computer-based fax, they played out differently. Companies like Brooktrout sold fax boards to independent software developers and the boards were incorporated in local area network solutions. These solutions also typically included tight integration with email.  By 2004, Fax over IP enabling technology started to be commercialized, using the ITU-T T.38 IP fax standards. T.38 had some technical issues, but it could use the same call control protocols — SIP, H.323 and H.248 — that were being adopted by the new Voice over IP networks, so T.38 became a popular choice for conveying fax over these VoIP networks. By contrast, the T.37 approach of Internet Fax over Email did not get much adoption, most likely because it didn’t mesh very well with Voice over IP.  The computer-based fax solutions that ran on Local Area Networks continued to have healthy growth in the first decade of the 2000s in large part due to the continued validity of fax as a legal document, perceived security compared to use of email over the Internet, a slow rampup in the use of digital signatures on other electronic documents and regulations such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) which meshed well with receiving fax documents in electronic form (rather than on a paper tray).

During the same period, email use continued to grow, but rising issues such as lack of security and massive amounts of spam made the use of email outside of corporate subject to a number of hassles. As noted above, electronic signatures started to become available as a legal alternative to fax signatures, but didn’t gain widespread use until the past few years. As a result, enterprises tended to standardize on a particular commercial email package and communicate whenever possible over secured private IP networks and by making use of security tools such as Virtual Private Networks (VPNs).

Now, in 2018, the messaging world is highly fragmented. Large enterprises have tended to choose unified communications eco-systems from large players like Microsoft, Cisco and Avaya, but even these solutions are rapidly evolving as the momentum is shifting toward pushing enterprise communications into the Cloud.  Hence, Microsoft is shifting its emphasis from Lync to Skype for Business and now onto Teams and other vendors such as Cisco are doing much the same.  Upstarts such as Slack have started by offering cloud-based team communications and have forced reactions from the traditional Unified Communications players.  As messaging has evolved, voice is now becoming less important and fax is now more of a niche play.  One thing I don’t see too much of is the use of business communications that can effectively cross the boundaries between organizations. In theory, Cloud-based communications could get us there, but the vision of the late Nineties of being able to communicate documents and other types of media effectively across the entire Internet has been hobbled by security, privacy and spam issues. We’ll have to see if the Cloud and better cross-network security mechanisms could form the foundation for approaches that will be superior to today’s highly balkanized communications landscape.

If you or your company have participated in the massive changes to the communications eco-system since the 1990s, feel free to weigh in with comments. If you’d like to explore strategies on how to evolve your application solutions or other communications products and services to better address the rapidly changing business environment, you can reach me on LinkedIn or on our web site.

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On the Road Again – SIPNOC 2014

I’ll be speaking next week at the SIPNOC conference in Herndon, Virginia.  SIPNOC is sponsored by the SIP Forum and covers a wide variety of topics related to SIP — the Session Initiation Protocol — with a particular focus on the needs of service providers.   It runs from June 9 – 12.

WebRTC continues to be a hot topic in the telecom industry and I’ll be on a panel with several other participants to discuss the relationship between SIP and WebRTC.   SIP has been the primary protocol for Voice over IP and is widely deployed.  WebRTC is much newer, but offers an interesting mix of audio, video and data capabilities and it can be accessed via popular browsers from Google and Mozilla.  WebRTC also has a rapidly growing eco-system.  Are SIP and WebRTC complementary standards which work well together or going in totally different directions?  Come to the panel and find out!

I am also delivering a presentation on a very exciting development in IP fax communications over SIP.  The presentation is entitled: Securing IP Fax – A New Standard Approach.  It’s been a long time coming, but there will soon be a new security standard for implementors of IP Fax over SIP networks.  In particular, the Internet Engineering Task Force is working on using an existing security standard known as DTLS and adding this as a security layer for T.38 fax.    I’ll be talking about the pending standard, why it’s needed and what kind of benefits can be expected for the many users of T.38 IP fax once the new standard is deployed.

I’ve attended SIPNOC as a speaker since its beginning four years ago.  It’s an excellent conference and offers an in-depth perspective on the latest news in SIP as delivered by an all star cast of speakers.  I hope you’ll be able to join us.

Securing Fax over IP for Business Communications

The recent controversy regarding NSA tracking of phone conversations has elevated concerns about security and privacy for business communications. Enterprises generally want to keep their communications private. Use of techniques such as private networks, firewalls and secured tunnels can help to protect internal communication from eavesdroppers, but there are also many exchanges which entail communication with third parties over public networks.

Facsimile is best known as a method of communicating images of printed pages over the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) and many fax companies touted the PSTN as being much more secure than the public Internet, hence reducing the need for formal security approaches. But the circuit-switched network is rapidly being replaced by hybrid and all-IP networks, and a portion of business fax traffic is now sent over the Internet.

During the Nineties, the fax standards experts in the International Telecommunications Union (ITU-T) added annexes to the Group 3 fax T.30 protocol to protect against a variety of security threats. However, there was lack of consensus on how to proceed, so two different approaches were standardized. As attention turned to standardizing fax over higher speed V.34 links and over IP networks, the initial efforts to implement fax security using the new standard approaches fizzled out and never got traction in the marketplace.

Fast forward to 2013. Security and privacy now have a much higher profile. The NSA exposé and other security glitches like the Wikileaks exposures of government and corporate documents have increased awareness of the down side of unsecured documents and communication. In the meantime, as the phone network is being replaced by IP technology, most new sales of fax to the enterprise are for Fax over IP and the T.38 standard from the ITU is frequently used. Most applications of T.38 use a transport protocol called UDPTL (User Datagram Protocol Transport Layer) which is currently an unsecured protocol.

The conventional wisdom might have a “who cares?” attitude, since there’s a common perception that nobody uses fax anymore. However, fax still is used a great deal for a wide variety of business applications which include healthcare, financial and legal organizations, plus fax is integrated into a variety of business processes. Fax is also used for transmission of many normally confidential documents such as insurance claims, real estate transactions and legal notices, plus there are regulations such a HIPAA in the health care domain which require protection of documents from third parties.

For all of these reasons, the need for better security solutions for IP-based facsimile is becoming clear. In another realm of standardization, WebRTC is attracting a lot of attention as a next generation method for performing a wide variety of real time communications such as video and voice over web protocols. The original applications of the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) were often implemented with little attention paid to security, so the WebRTC standards activities have examined the best approaches for addressing matters such as security and are recommending use of a relatively new security protocol known as Datagram Transport Layer Security (DTLS) to secure real time communications of media within WebRTC.

One advantage of DTLS is that it is relatively protocol agnostic and can be applied as a security layer for various different protocols. So this is a good time to consider how protocols planned for use in WebRTC might also have other applications. The Third Generation Partnership Program (3GPP) has recognized that IP fax is still an important application and wants to have a standard approach to secure faxes which are being transported over IP networks. As a result, there is now an Internet Draft being circulated for comments within the MMUSIC (Multiparty Multimedia Session Control) working group of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) which proposes that DTLS be established as a transport layer that can be used to secure sessions of T.38 IP fax when running over the SIP protocol.

I’m personally enthusiastic about this direction and have made comments on the current draft. I find it ironic that the IETF is looking at adding security layer support to an ITU protocol, but in the world of standards, it’s useful for the work to be done by the experts who have the right domain expertise. In this case, the IETF created DTLS and there is interest in the combination of UDPTL and T.38 from the Fax over IP task group of the SIP Forum, so there is probably enough participation by the Internet and fax communities to produce a useful standard. At this writing, MMUSIC is considering adoption of this draft as an official working group item.

Stay tuned on this one. WebRTC is training a generation of engineers to use a new toolkit of various protocols, so the potential adoption of DTLS by the IP fax community may be a harbinger of a trend to re-purpose various components of the WebRTC initiative in innovative and surprising ways.