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.

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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!!!!

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Source: Trixbox Forums (GSnover)

Trixbox 2.6 and Sangoma Hardware

Trixbox (formerly Asterisk At Home – A@H) has definitely come a long since its beginnings in November 2004 and since I started playing around with Asterisk 2 months earlier. The convenience of being able to download an ISO and have a functional PBX in less than an hour was and is amazing.

An excellent resource is Ward Mundy’s blog Nerd Vittles, which I have also followed since early 2005 and has worked on some very cool and interesting projects augmenting Asterisk functionality. Most recently in November 2007, they released PBX In A Flash (PIAF) and have also announced a under $500 appliance with PIAF running on it.

What is Asterisk?

Asterisk is a software implementation of a telephone private branch exchange (PBX) originally created in 1999 by Mark Spencer of Digium. Like any PBX, it allows attached telephones to make calls to one another, and to connect to other telephone services including the public switched telephone network (PSTN) and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services. Its name comes from the asterisk symbol, “*”.

What is Trixbox?

Trixbox is a turnkey business class PBX voice communication system based on the Open Source Asterisk project. It’s no longer necessary to pay thousands and thousands of dollars for a proprietary phone system. By simply downloading software and installing it on a low end system you can have a powerful, open, and robust pbx system. From small systems with only a couple analog phone lines and extensions to large installs with multiple T1/E1 connections and hundreds of extensions, you can easily use Trixbox to meet your telephony needs.

I believe Trixbox to be the most complete distribution of Asterisk out there, although many of its features might not be used in many cases. On the other side I have heard complaints on the lack of collaboration in adding new features and fixing bugs by the guys at Fonality, which makes it less open as it were.

Parts List:

  • Dell GX-150 with 512MB and 80Gb
  • Sangoma A200 card with 4 FXO ports

Todo List:

  • Upgrade the RAM to 512Mb and the hard drive to 80Gb
  • Install the Sangoma PCI A200 card
  • Insert CD into CD drive and boot from disk
  • Go through wizard and install Trixbox
  • Login to the computer, update Cent OS and download and install the drivers
    • yum update
    • yum upgrade
    • cd /opt
    • wget ftp://ftp.sangoma.com/linux/RPMS/2.6.1.13/wanpipe-util-3.2.7.1-0.i686.rpm
    • wget ftp://ftp.sangoma.com/linux/RPMS/2.6.1.13/wanpipe-modules-2.6.18-53.1.4.el5-3.2.7.1-0.i686.rpm
    • wanrouter hwprobe
    • wanrouter hwprobe verbose
    • setup-sangoma
      • When asked which codec will be used, select MULAW – North America
      • When configuration of the analog card completes, select 1 to continue
      • When configuration of Zaptel and Wanpipe completes, select 1 to save and restart deamons
      • When asked to start wanrouter at boot time, select 1 for yes
    • ztcfg -vv (to display the analog card installed and its modules.)
  • Install DynDNS client:
  • Create DynDNS account
  • Configuration ddclient: (Add to the end of the /etc/ddclient/ddclient.conf file)
    • use=web, web=checkip.dyndns.com/, web-skip=’IP Address’
    • server=members.dyndns.org,     
    • protocol=dyndns2,      
    • login=your-login,       
    • password=your-password       
    • pbx.dnsalias.com

Trixbox links to several good quick install guides here and a comprehensive list of documentation here.

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