VoIP Phone Systems for Small Businesses

The more I research on the potential and possibilities of VoIP phone systems, the more companies I see trying to get a piece of the market.

Reminds me of a blog entry I read recently “Everything I Know About Business I Learned From Poker” and more specifically the quote: “If there are too many competitors (some irrational or inexperienced), even if you’re the best it’s a lot harder to win.” which definitely rings true here.

Below is a partial list of VoIP phone systems geared towards small businesses, meaning deployments of less than 50 phones. Although several of these systems can easily scale into the hundreds of phones.

  1. PhoneBochs from Rochbochs, Inc. (Duluth, MN based Rochbochs builds appliances based on Linux ranging from firewalls, asterisk telephony, Zimbra Email Collaboration and Fax over IP.)
  2. GXE502X from Grandstream. (Brookline, MA based Grandstream builds the GXE502x appliance, a powerful all-in-one voice + video + fax + data communication solution for the small to medium sized business)
  3. Jazinga PBX from Jazinga. (Toronto based Jazinga integrates data networking, traditional telephone service and low-cost Voice-over-IP (VoIP) service into one simple solution for small business and homes)
  4. Response Point from Microsoft. (Redmond, WA based Microsoft could not miss the action and introduced their next generation phone system for small businesses.)
  5. Trixbox from Fonality. (Los Angeles, CA based Fonality who acquired Trixbox which itself was re-branded from the open source project Asterisk @Home brings both software and appliance offerings to the table going beyond the small business market.)
  6. Switchvox IP PBX from Digium. (Huntsville, AL based Digium and the cradle of Asterisk brings forth their flagship product Switchvox which is probably one of the most popular offerings out there today.)
  7. TalkSwitch from Centrepoint Technologies. (Canada based Centrepoint, now TalkSwitch provides telecommunications solutions ideal for small and multi-location businesses with up to 32 telephone users per office.)
  8. PIKA WARP by PIKA Technologies. (Ontario, Canada based PIKA builds appliances focused on Asterisk and Linux solutions for small businesses.)
  9. BYOB by yourself. (Locally based, you can “Build Your Own Box” using Sangoma or Digium hardware for POTS landlines and build your own VoIP phone system using any Asterisk distribution, including Trixbox®, Elastix, AsteriskNOW, Elastix, CentPBX, and PBX-in-a-Flash, or FreeSWITCH, or YATE.

Amongst the other options available are the hosted solution where you pay a fixed cost per device, and then there’s the Colo solution where you would have one of the options above hosted by someone else.

There are many variables that need to be taken into account and every business is different.

Small businesses are likely to have some type of broadband connectivity to the Internet, whether cable or DSL and not the more reliable T1 circuit. Although I have not had any problems with my broadband connection for over 3 years, I have seen businesses add redundant cable and/or DSL because they have to stay up when their service gets interrupted occasionally during a storm.

The amount of simultanous calls at any one time and the codec used will also play a role in deciding if the hosted solution is viable, since most broadband providers do not offer symmetrical upload and download speeds but rather assimetrical where the upload is usually much lower than the download speeds.

My rule of thumb for a business with more than 10 phones and 3 lines with heavy phone usage is to stay with the premises PBX and only use VoIP trunks as secondary circuits for savings.


Configuring Microsoft Windows Live Exchange Labs

When it comes to decision making having data to make the right choice is paramount.

Creating a pilot program provides invaluable feedback from users as to the functionalities that a specific product provides and making them part of the selection process improves the success of a project greatly.

Today we will be looking at Microsoft’s e-mail hosted solution, more specifically Exchange Labs which is described in detail in a previous post here.

Once you get an invitation from Microsoft which you have to request, you will go to their administrative console http://domains.live.com. After the domain is created, the game beings and we start playing with DNS records. We will address BIND specific configurations, but these same settings will apply to other DNS servers.

The easiest way to begin is to setup a new zone named live.your-domain.com.

An MX record will need to be created pointing to the exchangelabs.com domain and the specific entry will be provided by the administrator console.

  • DNS Record Type: MX
  • Host: live.your-domain.com
  • MX server: number_provided.mail.exchangelabs.com
  • TTL: 3600 or 1 hour
  • Priority: 0 (or High priority)

Create a CNAME entry to allow Outlook 2007 client to connect to Exchange Labs.

  • DNS Record Type: CNAME
  • Host: autodiscover
  • Value: autodiscover.exchangelabs.com

Configure Sender ID to allowing destination mail servers to trust mail originating from your domain using the Sender Policy Framework (SPF).

  • DNS Record Type: TXT
  • Host: live.your-domain.com
  • Value: v=spf1 include:exchangelabs.com ~all
  • TTL: 3600 or 1 hour (if requested)

Finally if you want to have federated Windows Live Messenger access, you will need to create a SRV record.

  • DNS Record Type: SRV
  • Host: _sipfederationtls._tcp.live.txwes.edu
  • Value: 10 2 5061 federation.messenger.msn.com

Now to test the configuration you can use DNSWatch to test your records to see how the world sees your servers. Keep in mind that it could take hours for your records to propagate throughout the Internet.

Finally there are several options for you to customize the look and feel of your hosted e-mail.

You will be able to reach the site by going to http://autodiscover.live.your-domain.com or you can enter an additional CNAME entry in your DNS which is more significant to you and point it to autodiscover.exchangelabs.com

Apparently creating multiple administrator accounts cannot be done easily on the administrative website, but rather using a tool called PowerShell and promoting existing user accounts. Further limitations include that PowerShell will only run on Vista SP1 and Windows Server 2008.

Instructions on doing this are here and here.


Asterisk Success Story

Just had to pass on what transpired today. I started a Tech Support call to Microsoft Partner Support at 9:05 this morning. The call was initially answered in Redmond by the Partner Group. It was then transferred (via IP) to India for First Level Support – this lasted for two hours, when it was kicked up to another level in tech support, and transferred (Again, via IP) to Montreal, CA. After another half hour, I had to attend a meeting, so the call was transferred (in house) to one of my Techs. He stayed on the line for another 1.5 hours, and then transferred the call back to me.

So at this point, I have had a live call that has been bounced over two continents, and in house over three extensions – this is at the 4-Hour point in the call.

The tech from M$FT then says that he needs a disk placed in the server – I place him on hold and call my contact, who is not there, so I transfer the call to my cel phone, and jump in the car and drive 15 minutes to the customer site. Stick the disk in, and resume troubleshooting on site and on the Cel, which has the call bridged through our Trixbox and out to my cel phone.

Two hours and 48 minutes later, and the M$FT guy is still not done, and my cell phone is going dead. Remote over to my desk at the office, call one of the people at my office and tell them I am giving them the call back, and to transfer it to a desk phone back where I am. I then bring up Flash Operator Panel, and put the call on his desk.

He then does a screened transfer to me, hits the receptionist at the school I am working at, asks for the server room, and when the phone rings and I answer, releases the call back to me!!!

Now, I am back talking to the M$FT guy, with no interruption WHATSOEVER and the call goes on for another 2 hours and 20 minutes!!!! He finally finishes what he was doing, and I sat back and looked at the statistics for the call:

9 Hours, 10 Minutes and 56 Seconds (I looked in the Log)
Three Locations and Two Continents (On the M$FT side)
Three internal Transfers, Two Offsite Transfers, and one Flash Operator Panel Call retrieval from an offsite location!!!!!!

And at no point did the call quality suffer – and all of this on a standard production Trixbox system!

Name me a system you could have done this on this easily!!!!


Source: Trixbox Forums (GSnover)

Outsourcing E-mail

Higher Education and K-12 institutions have always either lead in the IT field with innovative solutions or been way behind in technology to the point of not having any.

Open source has always been an option, although generally for the technically inclined but several years ago the big guys (Google and Microsoft), brought hosted E-mail offerings to the table that would out perform any locally installed solution and without a price tag associated with it.

A new player recently entered the market with their very attractive offering. ZCS from Zimbra.

Zimbra Collaboration Suite (ZCS) is a groupware product created by Zimbra Inc., located in San Mateo, California, USA. The company was purchased by Yahoo! in September 2007.[1]. The software consists of both client and server components. Two versions of Zimbra are available: an open-source version, and a commercially supported version (“Zimbra Network”) with closed-source components. These software versions are available from Zimbra for download and independent use, from Zimbra-authorized partners, and included with service from a Zimbra-authorized hosting provider.

So what are the options?

  1. Outsource
    1. Google Apps for Education
    2. Microsoft’s Live@edu Service
    3. Zimbra’s Hosted Collaboration Suite
  2. Maintain/deploy in-house

Even thought there are legitimate issues with outsourcing, like privacy of e-mails, loosing control over the capability to access logs in case of an incident and ads displayed to the constituents amongst others; the option to provide this same level of service in-house is not economically feasible.

Lets take a look what these services offer:

Features Google Apps Microsoft Live@edu Zimbra
Mailbox size 7.1Gb 10Gb 7Gb
Attachment size 20Mb 20Mb 25Mb
Calendar (Private) Yes Yes Yes
Calendar (Public) Yes Yes No
CalDav compliant calendaring Yes No Yes
Docs Yes Yes Yes
Spreadsheet Yes Yes No
Presentation Yes No No
Forms Yes No No
Messaging/Chat Yes No Yes
Offline Feature Yes No No
Workplace No Yes No
Shared Drive No 5Gb No
SMS Scheduling Yes No No
SMS Notification Yes Yes No
POP3 Yes Yes Yes
IMAP Yes Yes Yes
Access other accounts Yes N/A Yes
Folders No Yes Yes
Labels Yes No No
Threaded conversations Yes No Yes
Rules and filters Yes Yes Yes
Built-In protection (Legal) N/A Yes N/A
Apple Support Yes No No
Spam Rating 10 7 7
Integration Rating 10 7 8
Site Management 9 8 8
Widgets/Web 2.0 Mash-up framework Yes No Planned
Mobile Apps (BB, iPhone, etc.) Yes No No
Data Portability (move you data to another solution) Yes Limited Yes
Backups No Optional Optional
Web Site/Portal Yes Yes No
University Domain Yes Yes Yes

Microsoft and Google are free provided that they can display ads for alumni and Zimbra costs $2 per year per student.


Microsoft Live@edu:

Microsoft Live@edu video
Live@edu with Exchange Labs
Web Collaboration

Google Apps for Education:

Google Apps video


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