Selecting a Mass-Notification Solution

Nov. 1, 2008
A solid understanding of mass-notification systems can help you evaluate which system will best meet your organization's needs

Whether you're a building owner or a facilities manager, the requirement to protect building occupants has never been greater. No longer are fire alarms and fire drills sufficient. At a minimum, you need to be aware of the tools available to provide mass notification to potentially thousands of people.

The need for these tools has grown. Large-scale disasters, like Hurricane Katrina, have accelerated the adoption of mass-notification technology by large and small organizations. The tragedy at Virginia Tech also emphasized the need for large-scale and rapid-notification capabilities. Additionally, the institutionalization of the business-continuity function has led to an increased awareness at the executive level of the importance of proper emergency planning and having the necessary tools to communicate during crises.

The number of choices, vendors, and types of solutions, however, can be daunting. With more than 50 different vendors and solutions available, it can be difficult to select a mass-notification system. Large numbers of alternatives are normally an advantage to the buyer, but a number this large can be confusing. This information will help you understand the different considerations an organization should evaluate when selecting a mass-notification solution. While the "one-size-does-not-fit-all" adage is true, there are several universal factors that should be evaluated when making a vendor selection.

The objective of most mass-notification systems is universally consistent: to notify a large number of individuals in the shortest amount of time possible. Despite this commonality, the solutions differ in how they accomplish the feat. While there are single-channel communication vendors in the mass-notification market, this article concentrates on multi-channel notification systems, which are most commonly used in the industry.

The term "mass notification" may be limiting in many respects: It implies a one-way blast and software system focused on notification. It's important to note that many solutions are designed as comprehensive-event and/or emergency-management solutions that include notification capabilities and the ability to track and report data customized for the viewer. The goal is to give administrators a view of all situational requirements, audiences by group, messages sent, responses received, and awareness of the problems that need to be addressed. As a result, the system provides much more than mass notification, and becomes a powerful tool for emergency management and administrators; furthermore, this broader use can help justify the purchase and increase the likelihood of management buy-in and funding.

Key criteria in evaluating mass-notification systems include:

  1. Ease of use.
  2. Performance and reliability.
  3. Scalability.
  4. Total cost of ownership.
  5. Features and functionality.
  6. Customers.

Examining the Fundamentals
The first step in evaluating mass-notification solutions is to understand how they work. Most mass-notification systems allow the user to:

  1. Select a group of individuals or organizations to receive a message.
  2. Create the message.
  3. Launch a notification broadcast across the various channels of communications to these individuals.

How the many vendors approach this process may differ vastly, but the objectives are the same.

The front-end application for most mass-notification systems provides a wealth of different features that enable an organization to communicate with its tenants, employees, customers, etc. Some of these notification types are emergency-only notifications vs. routine notifications. Additional differentiators include enhanced polling-type notifications that allow users to respond to the notification by selecting answers to multiple-choice questions, quota-based notifications that terminate a broadcast once a specified number of positive responses has been received, express-calling notifications that allow users to add and send messages to large groups of message recipients on the fly, and more.

While you could spend a lot of time and detail reviewing each feature and function that a notification vendor offers, it's best to focus on the features and functions that are most important to your organization; this will help guide your decision. As with any software solution (independent of the features and functionality that each notification vendor provides), the most important thing to look for when evaluating the application component of a mass-notification system is ease of use. Ease of use affects the person who will be sending notifications for your organization, and how quickly and easily this can be done. Mass-notification applications that require extensive classroom training or come with thick training manuals should raise a red flag.

During the initial demonstration portion of the selection process, ask each vendor to provide you with control of the application and test a notification launch on the fly with each vendor's tool. When sending this test notification, send one that goes outside of the parameters the vendor set up for your scheduled demonstration. This will help you understand how flexible the application will be if you need to use it during a real crisis.

If the vendor won't allow you to send your own broadcast during the initial demo, then ask to be provided with a test account so you can do your own evaluation without the constraints imposed by a demo. If the vendor won't allow this for business or security reasons, then you should factor that into your vendor evaluation.

Notification Quality
The second half of a notification-vendor review should focus on the quality of notifications that a vendor provides (i.e. how it delivers messages to notification recipients). Factors for consideration include the number and types of communication channels, infrastructure delivery model, back-end database infrastructure, and more.

One of the major differences in looking at a mass-notification system vs. a typical desktop software application, such as Microsoft® Word or Excel, is that the back-end infrastructure is equally - if not more - important than the front-end application. If Microsoft Word crashes while you're doing something routine, like writing this article, the system will automatically try to save the document at the point of failure. Then, you have to reboot your PC and try to recover whatever work you had done up to that point in time. If your mass-notification solution crashes while you're in the process of launching a broadcast, or if the vendor's infrastructure fails to deliver the message, lives can be lost. While this analogy takes the situation to an extreme conclusion, you can't overemphasize the importance of ensuring that the notification vendor you select has the right infrastructure to deliver when you need them to.

In the recent history of mass-notification systems, there have been three phases of technological innovation (see Three Generations of Notification Technology) . The first incarnations of mass-notification solutions included a PC that a vendor provided to a customer. On this PC was the notification application, and the customer would normally be responsible for securing telecommunications and Internet connectivity, as well as service, maintenance, and support for the notification tool. These Generation I solutions were susceptible to location-based vulnerabilities that made them single points of failure during a crisis. Additionally, the high upfront costs of these systems made them less appealing to any but the largest of organizations; furthermore, most facilities managers don't have an information technology (IT) staff to support this technology.

With the growth of the Internet in the 1990s, and the distributed computing model, the second generation of notification technology emerged: the ASP (application service provider). The ASP-notification model took the Generation I boxes and moved them into data centers. This eliminated the single geographic point of failure created by locating the notification system on the customer's premises. What the ASP model didn't do, however, was create a way to easily or cost-effectively scale the capacity for sending notifications. Because the ASP model requires that each customer be dedicated to a specific data center, customers of the ASP model are required to purchase a specific capacity that is usually cost constrained.

As the limitations of the ASP model became apparent, vendors responded with a third generation of notification technology, which is based on the SaaS (software as a service) model. The SaaS delivery model allowed notification vendors to dynamically share capacity and resources across all data-center resources, providing a much higher level of capacity and scalability than available from Generation I on-premises or Generation II ASP delivery models. The chart on page 63 highlights the different strengths and weaknesses of each notification-delivery model.

The delivery model is the single most important factor in determining the quality of notifications that each vendor will provide. Within each generation of notification technology, there are numerous differences across the vendors. In the Generation III delivery model, certain vendors are able to provide enhanced redundancy. In the ASP market, vendors are able to differentiate based upon their use of Microsoft SQL as a database engine vs. Oracle for enhanced reliability and feature robustness.

The Selection Process
Many vendors have thoughtfully addressed one of two important selection principles - the ease of use of the application front end or the quality of notifications - but not both. It's important that you don't subscribe to any mass-notification solution if you're not confident it can do both well.

In addition to assessing vendors based upon these two critical factors, organizations should also evaluate a vendor's experience in providing mass-notification solutions. Make sure you get references.

Investigate how the vendor will help you get up and running quickly. There are often delays with technical projects, so the more you know about how the vendor can help you navigate the deployment process, the less potential there is for dissatisfaction after you sign an agreement. This is especially important if your facility has a small (or no) IT staff.

There are many other criteria and issues that you can investigate as part of your notification vendor selection process. In your final evaluation, make sure you select a vendor who offers the features you require and the easiest-to-use notification application, and who works for the way your organization operates. And, make sure you ask about the quality of the notification services that the vendor is going to deliver so you feel comfortable relying on them for your next crisis.

Edward (Ted) Brown III is president and CEO at KETCHConsulting (, an international business continuity-consulting firm headquartered in Waverly, PA.

Three Generations of Notification Technology


Generation III SaaS

Generation II ASP

Generation I On-Premises


Vendor shares costs across entire customer base, allowing the greatest economies of scale.

Intermediate economies. Vendor can share costs across a server in one data center. Customer can add capacity by paying for additional ports using a "price-per-port" approach.

Highest costs. Zero economies of scale for the vendor or the customer. To add capacity, customer must bear the entire infrastructure expense. Model has high customer costs for management and maintenance.


Global multi-tenant architecture allows customers to dynamically scale across all resources.

Local tenant architecture shares resources across a single server or data center in a linear model. Scalability is constrained by specific server, specific data center, etc.

Single-tenant scalability limited to the purchase of additional hardware, software, telco, and service personnel.


Customer can utilize all communication resources across all vendor data centers, providing the fastest throughput.

Customer can share communication resources in a single data center for medium throughput. Customer can pay for additional ports of capacity.

Customer throughput is determined by the amount of communication resources he/she is willing to pay for. The linear relationship does not scale. This model has the lowest throughput model.

Upgrades & Maintenance

Limited resource requirement to upgrade application lends itself to monthly or weekly upgrade cycles.

Intermediate resource requirement to upgrade each data center separately allows for intermediate upgrade cycles quarterly, semi-annually, or annually.

Multiple single-instance deployments necessitate the longest upgrade cycle as it occurs on a customer-by-customer basis (annually or longer).

Pricing Model

Annual subscription price for access to all resources.

Annual subscription price for a pre-sale determined number of communication ports in a single data-center location.

High upfront price and ongoing maintenance costs. Perpetual software license upfront costs plus 20-percent annual maintenance. Ongoing costs to purchase and maintain telco and Internet connectivity, as well as for service and support of hardware, software, and telco.


Lowest risk. Customer has access to all resources across all data centers all the time; capable of "Active-Active" topology to eliminate single data center point of failure.

Medium risk. Customers are assigned to a shared server in a single data center. Availability tied to a single data center as a point of failure, with failover to a back-up data center recovery.

Highest risk. Single point of failure that is geographically susceptible. Unless dedicated resources are purchased separately for other solutions, this may have an advantage in a regional disaster.


Customer data protected through single-vendor relationship. Customer data resides on vendor-owned equipment.

Customer data resides on third-party leased equipment in data center.

Hardware is on the customer's premises, with the highest degree of control of data security if the customer data center has quality security.

Personnel Costs

Minimal. Initial training or "train the trainer."

Minimal. Initial training or "train the trainer."

Intensive. Heavy initial training, as well as ongoing user support.

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