TMC Labs Compares Leading IP-PBXs
If you have one IP-PBX manufacturer, itï¿½s a ï¿½bleeding edgeï¿½
innovation. Two IP-PBX manufacturers is cause to take notice. Three IP-PBX
manufacturers constitutes a trend. Four IP-PBX manufacturers is an
industry; and anything more than that is certainly an indicator that
IP-PBXs are going mainstream. TMC Labs is happy to report that today at
least nine vendors manufacture IP-PBX systems, which is certainly a sign
of good things to come for the IP-PBX market. While most phone systems
sold today are still traditional PBXs, multi-billion dollar companies such
as Cisco, Avaya, Siemens, and others have seen the writing on the wall ï¿½
one-wire to the desktop voice and data convergence is not just a passing
fad, but the future of corporate phone systems.
A few years ago, Selsius Systems was the only game in town. Cisco
Systems purchased their technology making it the foundation of Ciscoï¿½s
AVVID product line. Soon after, 3Com followed suit by acquiring NBX, whose
technology underpinned 3Comï¿½s IP PBX offering, the NBX-25. Today, with
so many different IP-PBX manufacturers, TMC Labs feels itï¿½s time to
offer a thorough examination of the leading IP-PBX phone systems.
TMC Labs contacted the leading IP-PBX vendors several months in advance
and invited them to ship us their product for an in-depth comparison. Due
to some inventory and timing issues we were not able to acquire all the
products for this comparison. As such, TMC Labs interviewed product
managers and system engineers to determine the feature-set for each
individual IP-PBX to be included in the IP-PBX Comparison Chart (See pages
36-37). We should point out we did not give any ratings or determine if
the product merited an Editorsï¿½ Choice Award to any product we did not
actually test. We will certainly attempt to test drive those products that
we were not able to acquire in time for this feature.
Before we actually began our IP-PBX comparison, it bears mentioning
that our definition of an IP-PBX may not meet othersï¿½ criteria. We
consider an IP-PBX to be: ï¿½A phone system that utilizes Ethernet phones
for true one-wire to the desktop ï¿½ converging both voice and data across
a single network wire.ï¿½ We should point out that there are many flavors
of IP-PBXs: Traditional PBXs with add-on VoIP cards, PC-PBXs with VoIP
add-on cards, and next-generation routers/switches with embedded VoIP
functionality. We focused most of our attention on this last genre, the
router/switch IP-PBXs, although we did include a couple of PC-PBXs with
Typically these routers/switches were designed with IP in their ï¿½coreï¿½
and then telephony/voice was added on top. On the other hand, traditional
PBXs and PC-PBXs were designed with telephony/voice at their very core and
then IP was added on top. We were tempted to call these VoIP-enabled
traditional PBXs and PC-PBXs ï¿½IP-enabled PC/PBXsï¿½ as opposed to ï¿½IP-PBXsï¿½,
but we felt that this distinction was probably overkill.
For example, several PC-PBXs, such as Altigen and Artisoft, now have
VoIP trunking/gateway functionality via a VoIP telephony board. Both
support using NetMeeting as an H.323 ï¿½soft phoneï¿½ client and even
hardware H.323 phone sets, such as PolyComï¿½s SoundPoint IP. However both
Artisoft and Altigen still were designed with traditional analog phones in
mind and VoIP functionality is more of a ï¿½feature add-on.ï¿½ Still, we
would consider both Artisoft and Altigen true IP-PBXs since they support
both analog and more importantly ï¿½ Ethernet phones to the desktop. Thus,
Artisoft and Altigen can be classified both as a PC-PBX and an IP-PBX, or
a PC-PBX with IP-PBX functionality.
One other type of phone system also exists. These systems that have
some VoIP functionality, but do not support Ethernet phones; we dubbed
them ï¿½pseudo IP-PBXs.ï¿½ For example, Shoreline Communications has a
product that utilizes analog phones, but has an Ethernet interface that
allows ï¿½VoIP trunking/gatewayï¿½ access to branch offices. With a
Shoreline unit on both ends of a WAN interface, a branch office can
connect to headquarters by picking up their analog phone, dialing an
extension, and then have the call routed via VoIP across the WAN link.
However, for customers with one office and just a single Shoreline unit,
no VoIP gateway functionality is needed, and the Shoreline system merely
becomes a regular PBX. To be frank, weï¿½re not exactly sure how to
classify Shorelineï¿½s product, since it does have VoIP capabilities yet
it doesnï¿½t offer Ethernet phone capabilities ï¿½ which is part of our
IP-PBX definition. Shoreline themselves call their product an IP-PBX, but
we are hesitant to define it as such, since again, it doesnï¿½t meet our
criteria of supporting Ethernet IP phones to the desktop.
The IP-PBX products we evaluated include 3Com, Alcatel, Avaya, Cisco,
ESI, Ericcson, Siemens, and NEC. We also included Mitel and Artisoft to
the Comparison Chart as ï¿½last minuteï¿½ entrants. Many, but not all of
them are switches/routers with VoIP embedded functionality. Some are
traditional PBXs with a VoIP add-on card. However all of these solutions
offer ï¿½one-wireï¿½ to the desktop Ethernet phone solutions. One
important note on the Comparison Chart: It was very difficult to get
comparable pricing structures amongst all of the IP-PBXs. Each vendor has
different pricing structures making it very difficult to get comparable
figures. This was largely the case because price adjustments vary
depending upon final IP-PBX configuration. Nevertheless, we decided to
include the figures submitted to us hopefully providing some sense of
cost. But by no means should one use these figures to compare one vendorï¿½s
price tag versus another. With that said, letï¿½s begin our comparison.
Today, customers certainly have more choices when selecting an IP-PBX.
The market has matured to the point that CIOs/CTOs are seriously considering
purchasing IP-PBXs when just a short two years ago they feared the
technology was not ready for prime-time. It is true that many of the IP-PBX
vendors use proprietary VoIP protocols ï¿½ often a flavor of H.323, but not
100 percent H.323-compliant, which means you canï¿½t use third-party VoIP
phones. They claim this is necessary to offer optimal VoIP performance,
which certainly may be true, but we believe the IP-PBX vendors should still
support H.323 and/or the SIP protocols, which will allow customers to choose
ï¿½best of breedï¿½ VoIP Ethernet phones or perhaps the cheapest one if that
is their choice.
Itï¿½s difficult to say which IP-PBX is the ï¿½bestï¿½ when
all of the IP-PBXs we examined each have their own strengths and weaknesses.
Factors to be considered include price, scalability, flexibility,
redundancy, openness, features, ease of use, support for third-party
applications, CTI support, support for legacy phones, and ease of
When committing to a 100 percent VoIP solution, some CTOs
just may not want to jump in with both feet. A more cautious CTO will look
for an IP-PBX that supports a hybrid environment, supporting both
analog/digital phones and VoIP phones. Some IP-PBX vendors do support hybrid
environments, while others such as Siemens have committed themselves to a
100 percent pure IP solution with their HiPath 5000 product line. In fact,
the HiPath 5000 is a virtual softswitch IP-PBX with just an Ethernet port
and no TDM interfaces, thus requiring an external gateway for trunk access.
We liked the various IP-PBXs for various reasons. We liked
the Cisco product since it was based on the first VoIP phone and helped
jumpstart the voice/data convergence market.
In addition, Cisco is a 100 percent pure IP solution and
doesnï¿½t inherit any legacy telephony baggage. In addition, Cisco appears
focused on the large enterprise and has thus far mostly ignored
the small to mid-sized enterprise.
On the other hand, 3Com and ESI are targeting small to
mid-sized business; and we especially liked their ease of use and ease of
installation. Avaya is another company targeting the mid-sized market and
they have many years of telephony experience with their well-known and very
popular Definity PBX, which still exists, but has evolved into their new
IP-PBX portfolio. With many years under their belt, Avaya was able to
leverage their Definity feature set to the IP-PBX product line.
Alcatel was a lab favorite because it is the only true ï¿½openï¿½
system we examined and we were impressed with Alcatelï¿½s multimedia contact
center features. In addition, it is one of just a few IP-PBXs that support
third-party H.323 and SIP phones. Ericsson claims their product works with
H.323 phones as well.
Altigen and Artisoft are two of our favorite PC-based phone
systems that were years ahead of their time by choosing the Windows platform
to base their phone system upon. By doing so, this allowed both Altigen and
Artisoft to quickly and easily add VoIP functionality simply by adding an IP
telephony board. Certainly, if any new technology comes to market, both of
them could easily adapt. Due to an open architecture, Altigen and Artisoft
have been able to easily add more functionality, such as call center
features, to their product lines. Thus, companies need not worry about their
phone system becoming outdated by choosing either one of these platforms.
NEC features a modular architecture that allows corporations
to slowly migrate to VoIP without committing immediately to it 100 percent.
Like the NEC product, the HiPath 3000 supports a hybrid environment to allow
for gradual migration to VoIP.
According to In-Stat/MDR, the LAN telephony market ï¿½
despite being a mere three years old ï¿½ reached approximately one billion
dollars in 2001, more than tripling the sales for the prior year. With
stricter budgets and the need for cost-cutting, IP-PBXs have key advantages
over their traditional PBX siblings, including free intra-network calling to
branch offices and much easier management. One other key advantage not often
mentioned with IP-PBXs is that it saves money when moving, changing, or
adding a phone. For instance, a user can simply move his phone from one
cubicle to another cubicle ï¿½plug and playï¿½ style. This can be done
without requiring the resident telecom guru to reprogram the PBX to let the
PBX know the extension has been moved. The IP-PBXs in this comparison are
all good solutions; itï¿½s just a matter of which IP-PBX best fits your
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