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March 11, 2009

Alternatives for the Enterprise: Premises-Based IP PBXs

By Richard Grigonis, Executive Editor, IP Communications Group

This article originally appeared in the March issue of Internet Telephony magazine.
The IP PBX (News - Alert) was originally the “UnPBX” a PC on a LAN (and connecting to a WAN), functioning as a general communications server. “UnPBX” was a term invented in the 1990s by Ed Margulies, who came up with the criteria used to define them. All communications servers supported switching, whether circuit or packet-based, done by a card that plugged into the PC or some other extension unit. Even back then, applications for performing auto-attendant, email, voicemail, fax, Internet access and other multimedia applications could be added to the communications server, thus obviating the need for separate servers for each application.
One of the early great names in what became known as the IP PBX field was Interactive Intelligence of Indianapolis, which produced the Enterprise Interaction Center (EIC), at the time the most famous Windows NT/Pentium CPU-based “all-in-one” communications server for enterprises and call centers. EIC could tie together multiple locations with its facilities for remote administration, network management, supervision, and reporting. Its software-based unified messaging system even then allowed users to retrieve email messages, voicemail messages and faxes from desktop email applications, over the Internet, or from any touchtone phone.
Today, the descendant of Interactive Intelligence’s original EIC is still going strong, now one of the world’s most advanced IP communications systems. EIC now takes the form of a pre-integrated IP PBX application suite and phone system built to provide VoIP and SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) functionality to mid-sized businesses (100 to about 1,500 users) right out of the box. It quickly integrates with Microsoft solutions including Exchange Server and Outlook, Dynamics CRM and GP, and products from the Windows Server System and Windows Mobile portfolio.
The EIC platform has been given so many multi-channel communications capabilities favorable to contact centers that you can either use it for smaller “casual” contact centers, or you can step up to their higher-end VoIP-based Customer Interaction Center (CIC) for midsize to large organizations staffed with up to 15,000+ users. CIC also some features that the EIC doesn’t, such as an “Interaction Designer” tool for full customizability, blended dialing, knowledge management and workforce management.
Not Too Big, Not Too Small
In recent years, many vendors have sought out what’s thought to be the most accessible and “juiciest” segment of the market: Small and Medium-sized Businesses (SMBs). Every vendor has anxiously staked a claim here, and there have been a few more than the usual number of duel-to-the-death matches between Cisco (News - Alert) and Avaya in their respective wooing of this segment. The trick here is to bring big-box functionality to smaller companies, and even bring mobile users into the fold. That’s why Avaya brought forth its IP Office IP phone system for home offices, standalone businesses, and networked branch and head offices for SMBs. Furthermore, IP Office software brings unified communications to small and midsize businesses. It’s Avaya one-X™ Mobile Client for Small Business and Mobile Call Control can give road warriors the same sophisticated communications capabilities available in the office.
Even more impressively, has spent $100 million in an initiative starting in 2008 whereby, among other things, Cisco has created the Cisco Small Business Technology Group (SBTG) to develop technologies focused on six areas identified as top priorities by small businesses for enabling business growth: connectivity, security, remote access, productivity, customer interaction and customer support. Cisco’s Small Business portfolio will focus on businesses with fewer than 100 employees, and the SBTG will develop strategy and facilitate collaboration across Cisco's existing business units to create solutions for businesses with 100 to 250 employees
Another company leading the way in terms of functionality and cost effectiveness in the SMB market is Allworx and its IP PBX system. Allworx has managed to develop and squeeze an advanced communication environment into a little box to serve organizations having 1 to 150 or so users. Allworx integrates a sophisticated 6x, 10x or 24x phone system, a full-bodied data network, and software tools. Allworx has scads of features such as call/contact center applications, multi-branch office support, plug-and-play remote IP phones, and unified communications functions such as a “follow-me-anywhere” capability and the ability to route calls to multiple phones or external and mobile phones. Allworx can function and give you the “look and feel” of a key system or PBX, and a generous feature set to match.
Of course, the least expensive approach to setting up a quick phone system is to take an open source telephony software route. And in the world of open source phone system software, all roads lead to (or from) Digium and its famous Asterisk (News - Alert) software. You can either download the software and “roll your own” system with a PC and some Digium I/O cards, or you can make a small investment in Digium's Switchvox family of VoIP phone systems for medium, small and very small (SOHO) businesses.
SIP Trunking Sizzles
Now that SIP is becoming the call control standard for IP PBXs and VoIP phones, IP PBX systems can now better live up to their reputation of saving money via “SIP trunking” services offered by an ITSP (Internet Telephony Service Provider). SIP trunking enables direct VoIP calls through the Internet and across the country (or across the world) between IP PBXs, thus avoiding any call paths that lead to gateways into the old and more expensive circuit-switched PSTN.
Paul Marra is VP of Business Development of Megapath, a provider of managed IP communications services in North America, including broadband connectivity, Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), VoIP and security technologies. Over 22,000 businesses of all sizes securely communicate between their headquarters, branch offices, retail locations, mobile workers, and business partners using MegaPath’s managed IP data, voice and security services.
“We often connect IP PBXs together via SIP trunking,” says Marra. “It’s different than our traditional trunking in the SIP trunking space, mainly because we have to work on compatibility and we’ve worked with 15 manufacturers to achieve interoperability with all of the equipment. Because we’re in the SIP trunking space instead of the hosted space, obviously all of the opportunities that we see out there right now are going to be tailor-fitted to the products we sell.”
Interestingly, we’ve seen a big uptick in SIP trunking right now,” says Marra. “It’s been a bit of a learning curve for the IP staff of many of these companies, but the costs have come down. We’ve work with Grandstream and for a small, remote location they offer a turnkey PBX in the $500 price range. Now that IP PBXs have become so cost-effective, we’re definitely a huge jump in SIP trunking between them. It’s literally our fastest growing service. Everything we do is over our private network, which is a little different than what some providers do.”
SIP Phones for SIP IP PBXs
snom technology AG (News - Alert) develops and makes VoIP telephones and related equipment based on the ubiquitous SIP (Session Initiation Protocol), the world’s most popular call control protocol for IP Communications. Imbued with plug and play integration capability and universal compatibility with any SIP-based telephony platform, smom’s high-quality, customizable phones are software-centric, so users can easily download updates and new features. They distribute their devices through a network of authorized reseller partners in Europe, South America, Asia-Pac, Africa and Australia.
Mike Storella, Director of Business Development at snom, says, “We are a worldwide brand of VoIP phones. We’ve very much independent as to what VoIP server a company uses for their phone system. We work with many IP PBX partners, and we do a lot of interoperability testing with the open source telephony software community. At the same time, we also work with Epygi Technologies, Objectworld and SIP. We get many calls from, for example, people who are Avaya dealers and who want to hook up our phones. In one instance ShoreTel (News - Alert) was testing our DECT phones for use with their system. We’re very strong in the premises-based market and we’ve been doing a great deal of VAR recruitment. We’re into good education and training of the VAR community, because as much as VoIP has gone ‘mainstream’, there still needs to be some understanding of how it works.”
“Lately, some distributors are actually bundling our snom phones with an Epygi solution and even a SIP trunk service,” says Storella. “If you remember the old telephony business, the local or ‘feet on the street’ VAR never got involved in the actual telephony lines, so to speak. So I believe this is a very new and different kind of situation. It’s almost like a combination of having the ITSPs get into a partnership with the local VAR and the distributor is actually helping that along. And at the very high end, anybody who does any type of VoIP in this market is saving a ton of money. The estimates are 30 to 70 percent.”
Premises-Based IP PBXs Still Have a Future
Many companies prefer the total control they can achieve by having an IP PBX on the premises and under their purview. Some companies fear to have voice or data transmission placed under the care of those outside of the corporate boundaries, as occurs in hosted services scenarios. Whatever the case, IP PBXs will be a denizen of many offices well into the next decade.
Richard Grigonis is Executive Editor of TMC’s IP Communications Group. To read more of Richard’s articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Greg Galitzine

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