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October 1999

NBX 100 Commnications System

3Com Corporation
100 Brickstone Square
Andover, MA 01810
Ph: 978-749-0000
Fx: 978-749-0050
Web site: www.nbxcorp.com

Price: About $15,000

Installation: 5
Documentation: 4.75
Features: 4.5
GUI: 5
Overall: A

As the gap dividing voice and data networks disappears, developers are releasing products to take advantage of this convergence. 3Com’s NBX 100 Communications System gives users the ability to consolidate telephony with their data network. This scalable voice/data switch (IP-PBX) is appropriate for small- and mid-sized organizations, or for larger organizations when additional ports are installed. It provides major telephony functions, such as voice mail, auto attendant, and caller ID, among others. It also provides next-generation features, like the ability to transform a Windows NT system into an H.323-compatible gateway.

The NBX 100 Communications System consists of several parts: A milk crate-sized black-box chassis, individual IP phones, and the receptionist’s switch (called the adjunct). Administrators must provide a Windows NT computer for the IP gateway software to run on. The system did include all the necessary wires and cables, but the heavy-duty road case that it arrived in looked like it would be a better fit backstage at a Metallica concert.

The system is as close to “plug and play” as you can get, which is remarkable for such a telephone system, since these products tend to be very complicated. The box is rackmountable, and the appropriate mounting equipment was provided. We hooked up the NBX 100 to a high-end PC running Windows 98, via a COM port. There is one cable connecting the CPU to the front of the chassis (all the cables, the power supply, and the removable cards connect to the front), as well as the removable cards. The systems include built-in analog line cards and 10Base-T hubs.

When we plugged in the Ethernet telephones, we were expecting a setup task as well. So, it was a pleasant surprise when each phone automatically downloaded setup data from the NBX 100 unit, including extension numbers. Each successive phone picked the next available extension in the pool. Within minutes we had dial tones and were able to make extension-to-extension voice-over-IP calls. Considering that many traditional and PC-based PBXs require hours of configuration before a dial tone is even achieved, the NBX 100 setup was very impressive. Each phone’s LCD screen shows the status of the phone, and when they are ready, further programming is accomplished through a Web interface. (This interface mostly involves the “Tab To It” feature, which is a master-control GUI that is basically dozens of folder tabs to submenus.) Here, we learned how to make a backup of the current configuration, which allows us to transfer the database to a new chassis in the event of a problem with the unit.

Configuring the individual telephones and voice-mail boxes was extremely easy. Each phone has a central message button which, when pressed for the first time, automatically begins its setup task. Adding trunk lines, additional line pools, etc. is just as simple, mostly because of the intuitive nature of the “Tab To It” feature and the rest of the administrator’s interface. We also configured Windows 98 and NT client PCs with 3Com’s pcXset softphone. This installation used a typical wizard. The only difficulty we encountered was failing to properly install the packet driver in NT, and selecting the wrong MAC address, but both of these issues were oversights on our part.

We next installed the ConneXtions gateway software on NT. The gateway installation failed to show itself among the system’s line cards, which caused us concern, but a 3Com engineer helped us solve the problem: The ConneXtions software and the pcXset each require a dedicated MAC address (and thus a dedicated network card), but the computer we installed them on had only one network card. Rather than wrestling with installing two NICs on one PC, we just installed the ConneXtions gateway on a different computer. However, the gateway functionality was still in its beta form when we tested it, so some pieces were not completely supported. For example, we were successfully able to call from the 3Com phones and from the pcXset softphones to a NetMeeting 3.x client on another network segment, but we were unable to complete calls in the opposite direction. We expect this feature to improve as more bug fixes are released, and we’re told by a 3Com representative to expect full functionality and improved H.323 compliance later this year or early next year.

Finally, we configured a basic auto attendant. What impressed us most about this process was that it’s very similar to configuring an auto attendant on just about any other phone system we’ve ever used. Some of the more tedious topics include button mappings, configuring the adjunct, planning different greetings and actions for different times, etc. A basic setup took us less than an hour, but for a more complicated real-world setup, allow at least a full day.

There are two sources of documentation for the NBX 100: The Installation and Configuration Guide, which has more than 200 pages of administration information, and the User’s Guide, geared toward the end user. Both are excellent, addressing the setup and configuration of the unit in a logical order.

The Installation and Configuration Guide gives an overview of the system, a step-by-step guide through installing and setting up the computer and chassis, and very useful information about the technology concepts and problems that the product aims to solve. The manual divides each section into easily understood instructions, which even the non-technical user can cope with. There are ample illustrations, and the text is not loaded with technical jargon.

The User’s Guide is much smaller, and a bit less technically oriented. It deals mostly with the features of the phone, and the configuration of the phone itself, including voice mail, greetings, and call forwarding. It covers the general and more common features early in the manual, and the optional, more complicated processes (including configuring personal speed-dial entries) later in the book.

The other manual we received was the beta version of the ConneXtions Installation Guide. This manual deserves very high accolades for placing a thorough discussion of H.323 issues early in the book, before it covers the actual installation. There is also a helpful glossary at the end, along with a well-organized index.

Overall, all three manuals are much better than average, and there is little, if any, room for improvement needed for them. Our main criticisms are the lack of a quick-start guide, which would be helpful to MIS staffs who may not be experienced in the CTI field, and the almost pathetic lack of useful information or support at 3Com’s NBX Web site (as of late August). This surprised us, considering the very effective telephone support we received.

The NBX 100 integrates seamlessly into an existing network and is a self-contained unit, requiring a connection to a separate CPU for administration purposes. The unit requires no proprietary cards or cables, as the connection is made through the computer’s COM port. Furthermore, the NBX 100 is administered using a browser — either Microsoft Explorer or Netscape Communicator — avoiding any proprietary software. This also helps with administration, and the network can be set up to configure the unit from a remote location, as long as the administrator knows the IP address. The NBX 100 supports any combination of telephones and trunks, totaling up to 148. Of course, the NBX 100 also includes the gamut of standard features found in most office phone systems, including:

  • Auto-Attendant;
  • CTI/TAPI customization;
  • Integrated voice mail and messaging features;
  • Integration with standard network devices;
  • Standard business phone features;
  • Follow-me feature on the phones; and
  • Call reports.

The phones themselves are sleek-looking and well designed. They are flat, with a stand that gives them the option of sitting at a low or high profile, or wall mounted. They have multi-line capability, and include several programmable buttons as well as the standard business phone buttons. They have speaker-phone functionality, an LCD panel for caller ID and status purposes, and redial, transfer, conference, mute, and message buttons. The buttons are large, and the hold and message buttons are color-coded red and purple, respectively. Users are able to forward mail, program speed-dial (using the GUI), and initiate conference calls with specific buttons. The phones are available in black and off-white.

Several other features are part of the NBX system. It is an extremely stable unit, running VX, a UNIX-based OS. The NBX 100 does not depend on PC services or clients to operate: Even if every PC on the network stops functioning, the NBX 100 continues to provide full-functioning PSTN telephone communications. (The ConneXtions software does use some NT-based services.) There is also the ability to back up the database in the NBX 100 to the connected PC, in case of unit failure. The database file can be placed on a new chassis, and the system will save the settings from the previous unit, which avoids downtime in the event of a total system failure.

Another important feature is the telephone auto discovery and auto relocation feature. A user who moves into a new location within the building (or the WAN) can plug their phone into the network, and the NBX 100 will retain the phone number and personal settings. The telecom administrator does not have to change any settings on the system — a truly plug-and-play experience! Also, the actual telephones have an RJ-45 pass-through — essentially a built-in one-port hub — to provide a true “single wire to the desktop” experience.

We were looking forward to testing the NBX 100 because its class of product is very new, and we had some experience testing similar products from Cisco (Selsius) and Ericsson (Touchwave). We were very prepared for a frustrating, lengthy installation, but as we mentioned earlier, the 3Com unit was extremely easy to set up, which led us to assume that the rest of the configuration would be as easy. Fortunately, we were correct in this case.

Beyond the initial installation, things we tested included configuring the phones, setting up voice mail and greetings, and features like forwarding voice mail, transferring calls, etc. All of these functions worked flawlessly, and the quality of the system was also excellent. There was no distortion, latency, echo, or jitter in any of the inter-extension calls, mostly because these calls are all on the same controlled LAN segment. In the real world, as voice-over-IP calls traverse segments on a WAN and traverse the WAN onto the PSTN and back, the call quality will suffer. All our transfers went through, and all the telephone features we tested (speaker, redial, and transfer) worked well. We were quite impressed with the system. We also tested calls between the network and a simulated PSTN network, which sounded just as good. Finally, we repeated all of these tests using a network degradation tool called “The Cloud” from Shunra Software (see our review of The Cloud in the August 1999 issue). Overall, we found that even under standard network congestion in a WAN environment, the issues of latency, jitter, and echo were acceptable, and in the ideal LAN environment, they were excellent. Even for the cases where the audio quality was only marginal, the extensive feature list proves that an IP-enabled phone switch is worthwhile.

We also were pleased with the level of difficulty for configuring the phones, and for teaching end users how to take advantage of their features. The administration tools were also not difficult to learn, although we would like to see improvements to the context-sensitivity level of the online help — too often, the help offered was not all that helpful, and dealt with concepts rather than how-to methods.

One thing that disappointed us about the current NBX 100 version is that its IP phones are not 100Base-T compliant. This is a problem, as the user’s PC is networked directly through the telephone, and it would slow the network if the PC had a 10/100 network adapter. 3Com engineers told us that they are working on this problem, and a 10/100 compatible phone is in production.

Any other problems are minor. The time/date display in the GUI (which was Internet Explorer, in our case) doesn’t refresh, but this is an HTML issue, not necessarily a 3Com issue. An opportunity to use third-party phones, or a perhaps the option to have a “slim-line” model that takes up less desk space, is another improvement that could be made. As we discussed above, the H.323 compatibility still needs a lot of tweaking, and we’d like to see a bigger selection of vocoders to choose from within the ConneXtions gateway.

Overall, there are very few features or functions that we felt could be improved. We’re also told that an analog telephony adapter is being developed, which will let you attach standard analog devices (like a regular telephone or fax machine) to the master unit, and a T1 card is also coming soon.

3Com’s NBX division has designed a solid unit, and almost everything worked functionally perfect the first time. Their engineers should be proud. We had seen previous beta versions of the NBX 100 Communications System at various trade shows, so we knew ahead of time that it was a powerful system, but its shockingly simple setup in our lab was very impressive. It is an excellent choice for a highly functional telephone system. Well-designed and requiring minimum maintenance, the NBX 100 gives users an advanced telephone system with all the necessary features required in today’s business world, and is much easier-than-average to administrate than most similar products. We’re hoping to see some third-party developers write TAPI applications to make the NBX 100 even more practical. In the meantime, we award the NBX 100 our Editors’ Choice kudos.

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