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February 2000

 

StarVox Virtual Voice Office

StarVox
2125 Zanker Rd.
San Jose, CA 95131
Ph: 408-452-6700;
Fx: 408-452-6767
Web site: www.starvox.com

Price: $1,200-1,500 per port, turnkey T1 (24-port system is $40,000)

ITEd.gif (2875 bytes)

RATINGS (0–5)
Installation: 4.75
Documentation: 4.25
Features: 4.5
GUI: 4
Overall: A-


Internet telephony comes in many forms, from gateways to gatekeepers, PC phone software to Web call-through, just to list a few. One very hot genre within Internet telephony is remote voice capabilities — the capability to make and receive phone calls virtually from your office phone, but from anywhere in the world where you can get an IP connection.

StarVox develops voice communications software for business-to-business environments that enables access to employees wherever they are. Workers appear as if they are always at their desktop telephone waiting for calls from customers and co-workers, even though they may be at another corporate site, in their home, at a customer site, or in a hotel room.

These remote voice or “virtual voice” communication solutions enable corporations to increase customer loyalty by increasing the chances that a customer can reach you wherever you are immediately, without going to “voice-mail jail.”

StarVox’s solution allows its users to link cell phone, home office, or other numbers to their PBX desktop telephone so that people calling them use only one number — their office number. Forwarding can be controlled based on the importance of the caller, the time of day, day of week, etc.

Another important feature of the StarVox product is that when employees are out of the office, they can “hop-on” to the company’s network and place calls to co-workers, and/or “hop-off” to place outside calls just as if dialing from their regular desktop phone. Besides the obvious convenience, long-distance charges for these calls can be reduced or eliminated. Furthermore, since employees are making calls through the corporate PBX, they do not need to be reimbursed for phone calls made on their own dime. The other benefit is that since all calls are made through the corporate PBX, many of which have sophisticated call accounting systems, reports are more meaningful and centralized.

INSTALLATION
A couple of StarVox representatives came to TMC Labs to install their product that had arrived the day before. When we say the “product arrived,” we don’t think that statement does it justice. StarVox’s product shipment required two large carrying sleds and a hand truck — with boxes stacked on each, to move all the StarVox equipment from the loading dock to TMC Labs!

In any event, StarVox representatives hooked up two separate industrial computers, one called ACMENYC (New York), and the other called ACMESF (San Francisco). We watched as they hooked up everything, which took roughly half an hour. Each computer was assigned a static IP address, and hooked up onto the same LAN segment. All of the software was preinstalled, including Windows NT, SQL Server (for the user database and settings), Microsoft IIS, and the Dialogic drivers. They also had a Novell server, which was used for the TSAPI services to communicate with the Lucent switch that came with the shipment.

Overall, installation was pretty straightforward, and the most complex facet was figuring out and setting the various administration tasks required, such as setting up users, setting the CTI features, dial plans, and other administration tasks. We should point out that the administration is done via a Web browser, which means that system changes can be done remotely.

DOCUMENTATION
The System Administration Guide is pretty beefy, containing more than 15 tab-separated sections, and is at least 3" thick. Fortunately, the lengthy manual is well organized, contains plenty of screenshots, and makes extensive use of bolding and italicizing key points. Also, key points were emphasized via footnotes. We only had two complaints about the index. One was that there was no index for quickly looking something up, and secondly, the 15 tab separators were simply numbers. We would prefer more descriptive tab separators (e.g., The StarCall Client, Setting up StarGate) to make looking a feature up much easier. The user guide was very well organized and included screenshots and explanations detailing each feature. The manual began by explaining how to log on, and then moved on to explain more advanced features. Also, both a table of contents and excellent index were included in this manual. Overall, the client user guide was excellent. The StarCall and StarMobile applications were also very intuitive and included online help. Overall documentation was good, and earned a 4.25 rating.

FEATURES
Workers with desktop PCs or laptops and a browser gain “untethered” virtual voice office capability so they can enjoy the functionality of their desktop telephone regardless of their location. Transferring a customer call from a hotel room to a co-worker is as simple as transferring the call from a regular desktop telephone. In addition, even though employees working at home or in hotel rooms may only have a single telephone line, they can still handle multiple calls at the same time.

Advanced follow-me features allow you to route PBX extension calls to a cell phone, another extension, and of course, a laptop with an IP connection to the corporate office using VoIP. StarVox features the ability to pre-set a schedule by time of day and day of week, to determine whether calls go to a cell phone or to your regular extension. You can also forward calls based on caller ID, which is a nice feature to have when you want important contacts to always be able to reach you.

Other features include:

  • Trunk support for T1 PRI, T1 E&M, E1 E&M, E1 Euro ISDN, and analog;
  • Support for G.711, G.723.1, G.729a, GSM, and T.38 (fax over IP);
  • Make/receive phone calls directly from your PBX extension;
  • Access voice mail with no charge;
  • Real-time voice and fax over IP;
  • Desktop call control application with caller ID display;
  • Call log; and
  • Phone book.

OPERATIONAL TESTING
The StarVox solution consists of three main modules: StarGate Server, StarCall, and StarMobile, each of which we will now discuss.

The StarGate Server application consists of an IP telephony gateway, desktop CTI server, and an IP/PSTN mobility server running on a Windows NT machine, which includes gatekeeper, call routing, and directory services components.

StarCall and StarMobile are Java-based clients that are used by regular employees connected to the enterprise, and by mobile workers/telecommuters that gain access via RAS/VPN connections. These Java applets are activated from within Internet Explorer or Netscape and serve as the primary interface for local and remote users for controlling their voice communications. These applets alert users to incoming calls, and identify callers that reside in corporate phone books and/or personal directories. When the person called is already on the phone, users can set up an automatic callback or even send a chat message advising why their waiting call is important.

The main difference between StarCall and StarMobile is that StarCall still uses a regular phone extension for inbound and outbound phone calls, whereas StarMobile actually utilizes a sound card (and a headset or speakers/microphone plugged into it) combined with “softphone” VoIP technology for voice communications.

We broke down our operational testing into five main test cases:

Test Case #1
Placing an internal call from ACMENYC (using a Lucent phone connected to a Lucent PBX) across the StarGate IP network to ACMESF to test the voice quality and latency.

Results: From the NYC server, we dialed “6” to denote that we wished to dial another StarGate server. Next we dialed “440” which is the location code for the San Francisco server. Finally, we dialed “4102” which is one of the San Francisco extensions. Of course when we dialed, we dialed this as one complete string “6-440-4102.” (We’ve detailed our dialing sequence for explanation purposes only.) In any event, the phone extension 4102 in SF rang, we answered it, and were able to have a conversation, which was transmitted across an IP network connecting the two StarGate servers. The voice quality was excellent, and the latency was minimal at best. Though subjective, we would guess the latency around 200 ms. We wanted to put the Hammer VoIP testing suite to work on this product, but unfortunately deadlines hit before we had a chance to try it.

Test Case #2
Hopping onto the StarGate system by simulating an inbound call using a standard analog phone. Then logging on using our user ID and password, followed by making an outbound call. This test case demonstrates the ability to remotely dial into the system and then receive “second dial tone” to make outbound calls through the Lucent switch.

Results: This was one of the simplest and quickest tests to try. We dialed into the auto attendant from an outside line connected to the Lucent switch. Essentially, we had a Teltone analog simulator providing analog trunks to the Lucent switch, as well as the analog phone. We dialed 555-2000 to call the switch, followed by “770” to access the auto attendant hunt group. Next, we were prompted to enter our user ID and password, which we did. Finally, we were given some options, one of which was to press “1” to place a call. We pressed “1” and then were able to dial a number, connect the call, and hold a conversation. This test case passed flawlessly.

Test Case #3
Logging on to StarCall, using extension 4101 (NYC), and making a call from 3101 (San Francisco) to 4101. This demonstrates the ability to make internal phone calls across two StarGate servers connected via an IP network, as well as tests the screen-pop and caller-ID capabilities of StarCall.

Results: After initiating the call, sure enough the StarCall client popped up and told us that Rich Barry was calling from extension 4101. We were able to click on the “Answer” button within the StarCall application, and the Lucent phone immediately went off-hook in speaker mode, and we were able to talk to the caller. This also demonstrated StarVox’s TSAPI integration with the Lucent switch, since the phone was able to go into speaker mode using a TSAPI call. This is great for call centers that use headsets and hands-free answering, or software-based answering of calls. StarVox also claims TAPI integration and CT Connect integration (for use with CSTA-compatible switches) to switches that support these features. Finally, once the call was answered, we were able to put the call on hold, retrieve from hold, as well as transfer the call using the StarCall application.

Test Case #4
Test the StarCall client in a “busy” state, i.e., person is on the phone already. This demonstrates the ability for the calling StarCall client to receive a screen pop that the person being called is busy, as well as give the option to request a callback (“camp on” feature) or send an instant message to the called party.

Results: From extension 4102 (also logged onto the StarCall application), we dialed 4101 just to ensure that extension 4102 was in a “busy state.” Next, we dialed extension 4102 from another StarCall client. Almost immediately we received a screen pop stating that the person we were trying to reach was busy. The screen pop then gave us some options. One was to send an instant message, and another was to request a callback. First we tested sending an instant message. We typed a quick message, sent it, and then went over to the other PC to see if the message was delivered. Sure enough a screen pop displayed on the screen “I need to speak to you ASAP.” We were then able to type in a reply (“I’ll be off in two minutes”) and send it back. Next, we tested the “Request callback” feature, which in telecom-speak is also known as the “camp on” feature. When we chose this option, once the called party hung up his phone, his extension immediately rang, as did the original calling party’s phone, along with a screen pop on his screen. This test case demonstrated the flexibility of the StarVox system and we were quite impressed with the results.

Test Case #5
Testing the guest office capabilities, i.e., follow-me feature — the ability to reside at another person’s extension and receive phone calls made to your personal extension. The guest office feature is enabled via a menu option within the StarCall software application.

Results: We logged onto StarCall within the NYC office using a San Francisco user ID and password, namely “gandresen.” (This was done to simulate a San Francisco employee working in the NYC office.) We enabled the guest office feature within StarCall and chose which extension we were now residing at (x3102). Next, we made a call to extension 4102, which is “gandresen’s” extension in San Francisco. The call was automatically forwarded across the IP network from the San Francisco office to the NYC office, and a screen pop appeared on the screen. We clicked on “Answer” and were able to take the call.

We were curious what would happen if someone called the “normal” extension which gandresen was sitting at as a guest. How would user “gandresen” know that the call was for him and not the usual person that sits at that extension? Fortunately, StarVox thought of this scenario. If someone does call the extension directly and a guest is located at that desk, a screen pop will not occur. By not displaying a screen pop, this warns the “guest” sitting at that desk/extension that the call is not for him and to let it go to voice mail.

Test Case #6
We tested the StarMobile feature, which allows a person to use an IP connection to log on to the StarGate server and receive/make phone calls anywhere in the world.

Results: This was the coolest and the most fun of all the features we tested. The StarVox representatives left behind a nice expensive laptop pre-configured with the ability to remotely dial into one of their remote access servers (RAS). A dial-up networking icon shortcut was placed on the Windows desktop that contained all the necessary settings, such as phone number, user name, and even the password, which for our convenience was saved so we wouldn’t have to enter it. Thus, all we had to do was double-click on the icon to initiate a remote access session to StarVox’s network. Once we were authenticated into their network, we then double-clicked on the StarMobile icon, entered a “real” user name on StarVox’s corporate network (Bob Beck’s user name) as well as his password. After being authenticated by StarVox’s “live” corporate StarGate server, an application that looked eerily similar to StarCall popped onto our screen. In fact, the two applications (StarCall and StarMobile) are for all intents and purposes identical, except that StarMobile uses the sound card interface for transmitting and receiving voice.

Using a headset for this test, one of our engineers yelled over to another engineer to dial a number for him. (We yell a lot in TMC Labs, about everything from whether flipping a coin is truly 50 percent heads or tails, to the spontaneous “Here, catch!” — to simple requests to dial a number for testing purposes.) In any event, one of the engineers dialed Bob Beck’s direct dial number, which is a number located in California. Since we were logged on using Bob’s user ID and password, in theory, the call and any voice traffic should have been routed across the IP connection (using RAS in this case) to the laptop sitting in TMC Labs, which is located in Connecticut. After dialing the number, a screen pop appeared on the laptop along with the caller ID information. Success! We clicked on “Answer” and with one of the TMC Labs engineers wearing a headset plugged into the laptop’s sound card, he was able to have a conversation with another TMC Labs engineer. The voice quality was very good, and the latency wasn’t too bad either.

We liked this feature so much, we tried again on another day, but we met some technical snags. In one case, only one person was able to hear the other person. We hung up, tried again, and this time neither party could hear each other. We disconnected the RAS connection and reconnected, thinking maybe we had a slow-speed RAS connection, and then tried again. Once again, only one of the two parties was able to hear the other person speak. We weren’t able to resolve this problem in a timely fashion, but we should point out that we know this feature works since it worked flawlessly the first time. However, we thought this deserved mention since we always report what we see, especially when a product fails any one of TMC Labs’ tests.

With our six main test cases done, we performed several other miscellaneous tests. For instance, we examined the call log and found that we could dial directly from the log, which we felt was a nice feature. Also, you can sort by the column headings, which is another minor convenience. We also played around with the Web-based administration screen, and found the interface to be fairly user friendly, although there could have been HTML links to help files to explain various settings.

Finally, we should point out that StarVox has built redundancies into their product. For example, you can cause a phone call to automatically fallback to the PSTN if the packet loss threshold is exceeded. You can also manually fallback to the PSTN by pressing “*1” on the phone. These are important features to have to ensure that phone calls are not dropped due to packet loss.

ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
The first room for improvement item we have is a redial button on the StarCall GUI. Also, the “Phone” dial field should have a drop-down box that lists the most recently dialed numbers, similar to the way Netscape or Internet Explorer shows the most recently visited Web pages. A minor inconvenience was that when setting the guest office feature’s phone number, we couldn’t just hit <Enter> since the focus wasn’t on the “OK” button, which it should be. Another improvement on the StarCall GUI would be a conference button for initiating conference calls.

Since StarVox shares the IP connection for both voice and data, it is possible that if a huge data download occurs, that it will disrupt the voice packets. Thus, data packets could mess up the voice connection. We suggest that StarVox implement some type of QoS. This solution should prioritize the voice packets, or at the very least “interpolate” the voice packets into the regular data packets to prevent voice breakup. We’re familiar with at least one product that does this, so it is technically possible.

Finally, although StarVox includes a corporate and personal phone book, we would like to see a TAPI service provider included in the next release. This would allow dialing contacts from popular contact managers that are TAPI-compliant, such as Outlook, GoldMine, or ACT!

CONCLUSION
Early telecommuting solutions focused on providing data access, and voice traffic was just an afterthought. Executives, traveling sales personnel, and telecommuters are demanding the ability to be able to receive and make business calls from wherever they are located. By implementing a “remote voice” or virtual voice office solution, corporations can attract qualified employees, retain existing employees, and increase productivity. StarVox’s product is a solid choice in this market arena and TMC Labs gives it high marks as well as a well-deserved Internet Telephony Editors’ Choice Award.







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