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Product Reviews
April 2001


�Ensemble! A+

VIVE Synergies Inc.
150 West Beaver Creek Rd.
Richmond Hill, ON, Canada L4B 1B4
Ph: 905-882-6107; Fx: 905-882-6238

Price: $ List price is US$3,450.
Reseller discounts from 25 percent to 40 percent based on quantity.

Editor's Choice Award

Installation: 4.75
Documentation: 4
Features: 4.75
GUI: 4.5
Overall: B+

The e-commerce market isn't what it was a year ago. We're beginning to realize that just putting a business online won't guarantee a profit. Last year's dotcom meltdown is proof of that. The mad rush to "get your face on the Web" and wrangle for position, joust for highly sought after static IP hostnames, and outdo your competitors with a broadband multimedia site--is over. The public has choices, a lot of choices. And after Darwinism caught up with the e-commerce world last year, many of the surviving dot-com companies may have realized that in order to tighten their belts, they too must subscribe to traditional "brick and mortar" business practices and philosophies.

A cool Flash Web site is no longer grounds to type in your credit-card digits and purchase some CDs or clothes. E-commerce business owners have even discovered new buzz phrases like "Web collaboration" and "shopping cart abandonment." Customers want their needs addressed, just as they always have -- only now e-businesses are beginning to pay attention. The ability to achieve success in the marketplace resides not only in customer service, but also in the ability to turn a profit. This may mean cutting costs to reduce overhead. With growing H.323 compatibility many businesses are also turning to VoIP as a means of cutting costs. VIVE Synergies has recognized these "Web requirements" and has emerged with its answer: Ensemble A+.

Ensemble A+ supports Web-based customer service, is a premise PBX and an IP telephony gateway that supports H.323 protocol voice and real-time fax while providing up to eight IP channels, enabling Web customers to "click and talk" to a business representative from a multimedia PC.

The actual hardware connection is simple. The Ethernet jack can be used for a LAN, cable modem, or DSL connection depending on what type of access is available at the installation facility. We connected our unit to the LAN via the closest hub, and plugged in the AC and the provided RS 232 cable. Minimum systems requirements weren't included in the documentation, and some facets of Ensemble's personality don't require any PC interaction at all, but if you're planning on using the Show-n-Tell Web collaboration feature to enhance the "e-customer experience" you'll need a Windows 2000, or Windows NT Web server at your disposal to load the .dll and other associated files into the server's wwwroot folder. (Accessing the software via the Internet also requires a computer with TCP/IP and Internet Explorer 4.0 or higher.) The other end of the RS 232 was connected to the serial port on our Mitac industrial PC, running IIS, which acted as our Web server for this test. A 56K modem can also be utilized through the serial connection to access the Internet. There are a variety of different methods that can be used to configure Ensemble A+, including remote and direct phone access using the "Dial to Set" instructions. We chose to utilize the serial port connection and launched Hyperterminal to assign an IP address. Aside from Hyperterminal's quirky behavior (we had to repeat the same procedure several times), assigning an IP address and accessing the software via the Internet proved not to be a problem.

A 70-plus-page programming and installation guide was provided in the form of a Microsoft Word document. A printed-out, stapled, Quick Start guide (the first few pages of the Word document and a detailed example) was shipped with our unit. We would have preferred bound and covered documentation simply because of its durability and staying power. The amount of times the Quick Start guide was referenced alone -- just for testing purposes -- left it in shambles. Our contact at VIVE Synergies assured us that the out-of-box product is accompanied by a bound programming manual, a Quick Start guide, and a full-color operation guide. We also had a bit of a time with the rest of the documentation. Some of the examples were difficult to interpret, and we especially had trouble with the Show-n-Tell portion of the documentation. We just couldn't seem to conclude how the feature would work with the code provided for our unit. After careful scrutiny of the written instructions, we couldn't seem to find anything to help us substantiate or deny our feeling. Placing a call to VIVE's technical people helped to clear things up. Apparently there's a plug-in, which was still under development at the time of our tests, to enable the Show-n-Tell feature. As a consequence, we were unable to test the Show-n-Tell functionality. It should also be noted that the documentation we received was indexed, which helped us to expedite searches and more efficiently navigate the pages. A complete list of function calls and their definitions was also provided. The online help seemed to be made up of sections of the programming and installation manual.

VIVE's Ensemble A+ bills itself as an "all-in-one communications system," providing a host of functionality for companies seeking to improve customer relations while reducing telephone charges. Ensemble A+ provides businesses the capability of integrating real-time customer service with their Web site, and routing VoIP to another Ensemble unit, or another accessible gateway employing the H.323 protocol. The Net2Phone gateway network can also be utilized for the price of their membership fee. Auto attendant, voice messaging, and audiotext are also standard features.

Other features include:

  • Click to talk functionality enables Web-based customer service via VIVE's ClicknTalk applet;
  • H.323 IP telephony gateway;
  • An eight-port PBX -- call forwarding, hold, transfer, external line, do not disturb, hunt group, message waiting, and music on hold (with external device) functionality;
    Least cost routing capability;
  • Remote setup and configuration;
  • DSL modem, router, and cable modem compatibility via PPPoE protocol;
  • Disk-on-Chip firmware technology;
  • Call detail records (CDR);
  • Optional billing software available; and
  • Optional gatekeeper software available to accommodate worldwide deployment.

VIVE's little black box does provide quite a bit of functionality, as a consequence we had a lot of work to do. The product's Web-based GUI was easy to use -- very simple and uncomplicated. We chose to focus on the core functionality of the product: PBX functions including automated attendant and voice mail, gateway use, and Web customer service capability (ClicknTalk).

ClicknTalk provides prospective Web shoppers with the opportunity to consult a business representative via VoIP. Ensemble allows slightly better VoIP voice quality by transferring IP calls to regular telephones connected directly to the Ensemble unit or Ensemble can be integrated with a PBX switch and still reach regular telephone extensions connected to the PBX. This is opposed to running an IP-to-IP call via NetMeeting, which typically adds 200ms of latency on each end of NetMeeting, resulting in almost a half second of delay.

As mentioned earlier, an IP address is required at time of installation to configure the "on-board" software of the Ensemble unit. We of course couldn't spend the time to build a Web site exclusively to test VIVE's product, so we used the sample .htm pages provided with the test product. The principle is this: A customer clicks on the "click to talk" button in this case (or Tech Support, Sales, etc...), NetMeeting launches on the client's side and hails Ensemble's IP address and (depending upon the company's business model) the call is answered by the auto attendant and a menu is played. The caller selects a menu option, or phone extension by typing it into the NetMeeting keypad, and the call is switched to the next available agent establishing a conduit between the customer and a business representative. Ensemble is easily configured to allow specific types of calls (technical questions, customer service, sales) to be routed directly to the agent best suited to answer them. And soon, VIVE says, the agents will have their own client to replace and enhance the NetMeeting functionality.

Should all extensions be off hook because agents are fielding other inquires at the time the VoIP call is initiated, Ensemble is also fitted with both an auto attendant and voice mail to aid in collecting a caller's queries. The auto attendant is fully customizable, allowing the default greeting to be customized, and, when necessary, re-recorded. Routing behavior is programmable. To record a proper greeting such as the initial company greeting, the administration menu must be accessed. The administration menu is only accessible however, from an internal extension, that is, one connected directly to an Ensemble port. The user menu function is accessible remotely or from an internal extension. After dialing in and entering a user ID and password, the menu allows users to check messages, record a greeting, forward calls, engage message notification (rings extension and prompts user to listen to new messages), set busy forward, and other such features. The extensions corresponding to the menu items may also be changed from the PBX Settings page via a browser. Setting the unit's internal clock essentially gives it the ability to differentiate the times a business is open or closed, depending upon preferences set by the administrator. "Business hour" and "after hour" greetings can then be recorded allowing Ensemble to relay the pertinent greeting when a call is received. If a call is received after business hours a general mailbox is available to take messages.

The robustness of this product resides in the scripting architecture. We developed many theoretical scenarios by simply looking at the different function calls, however, we tested a few simple ones. Ensemble A+ is programmable allowing savvy users to customize the product's routing behavior or configure the system in such a way to leverage its PBX and dual-function ports with add-ons such as billing software and downloadable CDR records. With support for account numbers and PINs within the scripting language, we even entertained the possibility of "renting" ports if the hardware were in close proximity to several small businesses. The system employs intercepts built on match criteria, which in turn employs sequences, comprised of a series of function calls. The functions are finite, meaning the architecture isn't open enough to create new ones; instead they're designed to have their criteria set. Function calls route incoming information to its ultimate destination, effectively becoming the programming core. We changed some criteria in several of the function calls to see how the system would react. Be advised that in addition to compiling the scripts after changing and parameters, a soft reboot is also necessary, and is accomplished by entering the word "reset" in one of the Maintenance and Control fields. Though we didn't go through the trouble of assigning sound files to get the "polished effect" of our reprogramming, the unit did recognize the changes.

Provided the unit is being used in a SOHO environment, it functions effectively as a PBX. The unit allows internal calls from extension to extension by simply dialing the desired digits, that is, if you want to contact extension 113, from extension number 111, simply dial 113 and you'll connect directly. Dialing outside the system is standard, just dial 9 and the phone number; one of the two PSTN enabled ports must be connected to an active PSTN line. Ensemble also functions effectively as a gateway for VoIP traffic, switching VoIP calls to outgoing PSTN lines. We set up a direct dial number here at the lab, and assigned the Ensemble IP address to the "gateway" field within NetMeeting. Simply enter any phone number into NetMeeting's Address bar and click the Place Call button to initiate a PC-to-Phone conversation. We tested this feature frequently and never experienced a problem. Overall, the voice quality of the VoIP call was excellent.

It should also be noted that as with many gateways in a SOHO environment, security could be an issue. As discussed earlier in this article, the scripts are key to programming and customization of Ensemble. It should be noted that the sequence in any script could be altered to provide additional security measures. Transferring and forwarding to external numbers can be restricted to certain area codes, or blocked all together by scripting function calls to reject international, and national prefixes.

The documentation we received could have used a little revamping. Screen shots and additional illustrations could have contributed, and helped to make clear some of the many examples. Though the examples did provide some insight, and there are quite a few of them, additional graphical accompaniment would have helped. We'd also like to mention again that the Show-n-Tell portion of the documentation never mentions the required plug-in. We were in the lab late one night trying to get this feature up and running. It took a Tech Support call to inform us that a plug-in is necessary to initiate the agent to client page pushing.

It would have been convenient if the Ensemble unit was plug and play. That is, a LAN connection would provide it with an IP address via a DHCP server as opposed to having to assign one via Hyperterminal, for example.

The product seems to be in the late stages of final development. We see a lot of potential for small businesses or remote, smaller offices. It appears to be a matter of fine-tuning the product to give it a more polished appeal and finalize functionality. We did receive a firmware update after our testing was complete, however because of time constraints were unable to install and test the upgrade. According to VIVE's Tech Support, the Show-n-Tell plug-in was not included in our firmware upgrade. The PBX, gateway, and ClicknTalk features were superb, functioning without flaw. VIVE Synergies' Ensemble A+ provides a host of functionality making their product a viable solution for small business Web collaboration as well as other communication resolutions. Not only does it function to provide Web customer service, it also acts as a gateway and PBX. These major product functions are designed and implemented into this unit to generate additional revenue for small businesses through customer communication, and respectively save on or eliminate telephone charges via VoIP and gateway-to-gateway functionality.

The product as a whole did most of the things it promised exceptionally well. It seemed to us that the documentation could have used a little restructuring to make it more intuitive, and the aforementioned complications with the Show-n-Tell feature also presented a small obstacle for TMC Labs. Overall, Ensemble is a quality product, with a surprising amount of functionality that, because of its newness seems to have a few kinks to iron out. Ultimately though, the little black box provides a robust SOHO communications alternative because of its programming flexibility, broad applications, VoIP, and H.323 gateway integration, which used to its premium could significantly reduce overhead and increase revenue. The product's "all in one" billing does have merit, and its diversity did make it worthy (in our opinion) of an Editors' Choice Award. 

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