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June 13, 2008

'Auto-configure' and 'Plug-and-Play' Features Ease Management of VoIP Phone Systems

By Mae Kowalke, TMCnet Senior Editor

One of the biggest potential advantages of technology is to speed up tasks and processes by partially or completely automating them. Almost inevitably, though, technology breeds complexity, requiring another level of automation to manage that inherent complexity itself.
One example of this is the installation and maintenance of phone systems in a business environment. It takes time to install all the hardware and software needed, and more time to keep everything updated. Moves, adds, changes and deletes, as these maintenance tasks are known in the industry, can eat up an awful lot of the IT department’s time and/or cost a lot of money in fees paid to technicians.
It needn’t be that way, of course. Technology is available to manage the complexity of technology itself. For example, “auto-configuration” and “plug-and-play” features are being introduced by many Voice over IP (VoIP) phone system vendors.
To find out exactly what “auto-figure” and “plug-and-play” means in relation to VoIP phone systems, TMCnet caught up with Warren Sonnen, Director of Product Management at Epygi (News - Alert) (a vendor of IP PBXs, gateways and conference servers).
TMCnet: The term “plug-and-play” is used in a variety of contexts for a variety of different technologies. How would you define this term when referring to a business phone system?
WS: Terms like “plug-and-play” and “turn-key” describe simplicity of deployment and use. Large installations can be very time consuming, and the deployment and configuration of IP phones is by far one of the longest tasks. This is why Epygi and other manufactures have spent time integrating with leading IP phone manufacturers. Fonality, for example, recently announced “plug-and-play” support.
TMCnet: Even more specifically, how does “auto-configuration” work in the real world with IP PBXs and phones?
WS: Optimally designed auto-configuration setup allows an IP PBX to store the configuration files for the associated IP phone. When a new IP phone is added to the network, the IP PBX (News - Alert) will supply the configuration file. The configuration file contains parameters that a new IP phone requires to operate. This is different from plug-and-play since PnP includes auto-configuration and a few other steps to facilitate a completely automatic setup.
TMCnet: Recently, some vendors have begun to market “auto-configuration” and “plug-and-play” as a key feature of their IP phone systems. What’s the big deal about this feature?
WS: The push for plug-and-play has to do with streamlining the setup of these IP PBX systems. Many resellers industry spend a large portion of their time setting up one of these solutions. Many manufactures have squeezed margins all they can to offer their resellers a greater profit. Now they have taken a different direction to increase profit for their resellers. By speeding up the installation time, the manufacturers have increased the output of their channels, thus increasing overall revenue. Epygi Technologies realized the pitfalls with complex setups, so we partnered with leading IP phone manufactures two years ago to achieve plug-and-play early. Some of the vendors include Aastra, Snom and more recently Polycom (News - Alert).
TMCnet: How new is the availability of true “Plug-and-Play” for VoIP phone systems?
WS: This really depends on the IP PBX manufacturer. One example is Allworx (News - Alert), which decided to develop its own IP phone in order to bypass integration with other vendors. I believe they have been offering varying degrees of plug-and-play for some time. Even with this level of support, some customers found a single IP phone selection rather limiting. Fonality very recently announced its support of plug-and-play, which I am sure is a very welcome upgrade.
Epygi decided early on that designing an IP phone would limit the potential of its  solution. This is primarily because the Epygi products are sold globally and a single IP phone design could limit market reach into some regions. Roughly two years ago, Epygi decided to pull in a few leading IP phone vendors in the global market and achieve auto-configuration and plug-and-play support. Another feature of true plug-and-play is firmware control, since different IP phone versions could cause conflicts. This is also managed by the Epygi IP PBX solutions.
TMCnet: So, just to clarify, plug-and-play and auto-configure capabilities are built into all the VoIP phone system products Epygi sells?
WS: This is true for our key IP phone vendor partners such as Aastra, Snom, Grandstream and Polycom. Keeping in mind that auto-configuration is a subset of full plug-and-play, we are able to offer lower levels of support for other IP phones. As I mentioned above, plug-and-play is supported on the listed vendors. Epygi also supports only auto-configuration for Cisco (News - Alert), Berkshire, Thompson, and SwissVoice. Third level support is available for all remaining SIP RFC compliant IP phones.
TMCnet: Epygi’s most recently launched product is the Quadro6L. Can you provide a summary of this products features and explain how it fits into the Epygi universe of plug-and-play phone systems?
WS: The introduction of the Quadro6L fills the need for Key System solutions using SIP technology. Most standard features found on legacy Key System telephone systems are available with the Quadro6L. Plug-and-play was a very important requirement for this solution to fit into the targeted market.
A standard Key System solution is rather basic, but this means it can be set up in a very short period of time. Using the plug-and-play capabilities, the Quadro6L can be set up with 10 IP phones in just a few minutes. This includes making and receiving phone calls. Today this can be achieved using the Aastra IP Phones and soon to be included is Snom. Support for a quick setup such as this is very demanding on the IP phone vendors, but they understand the need and are very supportive of potential permanent modifications in their software for plug-and-play support.
TMCnet: The advantage of auto-provisioning for VoIP phone systems can be viewed from several angles. Take value-added resellers (VARs), for example. What are some of the advantages of plug-and-play for VARs?
WS: Most of the product enhancements we see these (from Asterisk, for example), are intended to streamline setup and configuration. This allows the VARs to quickly turn around a working and stable solution. Epygi Technologies completed some broad research a few years back to determine some of the major pain points for VARs and end-users. Installation times were one of the top issues on the priority list. Plug-and-play was a huge step in resolving this problem as well as GUI enhancements. Another area that was identified was overall profitability of IP PBX products and plugn-and-play assisted with this concern. Epygi also rebuilt the support structure to quickly respond to the needs of VARs and end-users and thus increase their profit margins.
TMCnet: What advantages do plug-and-play VoIP phone systems offer to small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs)? How about vendors themselves?
WS: Many end-users today like to support their own systems if at all possible. By providing features such as plug-and-play and simplified GUIs, this desire becomes more of a reality. Even if the owner wishes to make minor changes, having the ability or option to handle these tasks on his/her own, is a selling advantage. Tedious or cumbersome solutions are usually avoided even if the end-user is not administering the system. With this piece of mind, solutions sold today are primarily in this area with features like plug-and-play. Any success like this is the key goal for all manufacturers.
TMCnet: If plug-and-play and auto-configure are such nifty features, why weren’t they more widely available before 2000?
WS: The initial introduction of VoIP solutions still left some areas out in the open. Standards were not fully embraced, thus causing some incompatibilities. As key manufactures emerged, vital relationships were formed and allowed for higher levels of compatibility. Once these relationships were fused, features such as plug-and-play emerged which benefited all parties involved.
The true benefit of VoIP is constantly maturing and the ability to combined disparate networks and products into a single entity is our main goal. The more tools we can bring into our voice network, the more efficient you can operate. Appearing larger than you are is one of Epygi’s primary focuses and from the beginning of our first product introduction in 2000, we have been working hard to deliver such a solution. VoIP is very mature and as time progresses we will see more and more of the streamlining benefits this technology can provide.
TMCnet: What else should people know about Plug-and-Play VoIP phone systems in general and Epygi’s products in particular?
WS: To comment more generically about SIP solutions and buyer tips, I would say the following: Do your homework. Not all SIP products are created equal. Ask for live demos, trials, and training to better understand the products. Epygi offers all customers a live preview of our solutions and we make sure you are choosing the right solution for your needs.
Look for partners to assist you with planning, pre-staging, and deployment. VoIP solutions are intended to grow with you and provide the tools of tomorrow to help you succeed. Make sure you are buying into a portfolio that can offer you this. Epygi Technologies has spent many hours working with end-users to build the features and products required. This is why we manufacture IP PBXs, gateways and conference servers. To bring the complete solutions we also choose our partners very carefully and offer multiple levels of training and support.
Mae Kowalke is senior editor for TMCnet, covering VoIP, CRM, call center and wireless technologies. To read more of Mae’s articles, please visit her columnist page. She also blogs for TMCnet here.

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