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VOIP Systems for small businesses

Posted on 2006-11-01
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I'm in the computer business supporting small businesses. I have never used, installed, or maintained any kind of VOIP system. I'm familiar with the basic concepts but I do have several questions. If you can only answer one question or give some small suggestion, please do it. I don't expect anyone to write a 40 page "answer" to my questions. Some links to other sites would be OK too.

I'm considering VOIP for some of my clients, first, because they are asking about it, and second, because I assume VOIP can give us all the features of a PBX system (if not more) and it will be more affordable.

Are there any good affordable solutions for businesses that have 2 to 10 employees? Something in the $1000 to $4000US range?

I'm willing to piece stuff together if needed. It doesn't have to be a complete system, although that would be nice.

I suppose I will need some kind of service provider, some software and/or VOIP routers, and some kind of hardware/phone setup. Any recommendations on these?

How can I know if the clients current Internet connection provides enough bandwidth?

Here are a few of the features we'd like to gain by using VOIP:
Auto Attendant
Voice mail boxes
Conferencing
Call forwarding options
Intercom
Call Recording
Call Logging
Ability to extract CallerID from incoming calls (for use in our MS Access Database)
Cordless long-range handsets
Pre-recorded informative messages for callers who want general information
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Question by:HKComputer
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by:Lee W, MVP
ID: 17849123
From what I've seen this is a very diverse field... with services from many companies, each with varying degrees of reliability.  about 8 months ago I became a certified SpeakEasy VoIP partner - and in the process learned much about their offerings.  You may be able to find better (priced) services, but from what I understand of their product line and methods of doing things, you probably won't find a better quality of service.  However, to provide such a QoS, they basically require a T1 line provided by them which can be used for internet as well.  Their T1s are cheap, but still no where near the cost of DSL or cable.

Check them out at
http://www.speakeasy.net/partner/
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by:HKComputer
ID: 17849141
I'm hoping to stay away from a T1. For 8 or 10 users, I'd consider. But for 2 - 8 (with only 2 or three of them on the phone at once), I'd like to stay away from a T1.  But thanks for the suggestion.
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by:Lee W, MVP
ID: 17849184
Part of the reason is reliability.  T1s are much more reliable than DSL and cable are (in most cases).  SpeakEasy also uses technology that allows for extension dialing even when the internet goes out.  Further, VoIP is NOT ready for Faxing reliably and should NOT be used for alarm systems and such - they recommend you keep POTS lines for those services.  Also, VoIP is NOT nearly as reliable as a POTS phone system (not PBX, but the basic POTS lines).  And though speakeasy's service is one of the best QUALITY of call wise, VoIP is still not going to match a clean POTS line for quality.  These are drawbacks to VoIP, but they are not typically show stoppers for most people (but maybe for some).  

I would still suggest you look into becoming a partner - they can provide a good commission structure, especially if you have many clients.
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kode99 earned 425 total points
ID: 17850175
Check out Asterisk.
  http://www.asterisk.org/about

or scan the wiki for a ton of information
http://www.voip-info.org/wiki-Asterisk

Also highly recommend this book for not only asterisk info but general voip info that is easy to understand,  you can buy it or just download the PDF
http://www.voip-info.org/wiki/view/Asterisk%3A+The+Future+of+Telephony

There are quite a few turnkey solutions based on Asterisk if you want something that is ready to go. Here's a couple of examples,

http://www.fonality.com/pbxtra_features.html

http://www.trixbox.org/index.php

Asterisk also has multiple vendor support for hardware to work with both digital lines or old analog.  So you can simply hook up to existing analog lines AND also connect to most voip providers.  Kind of the best of both worlds.

Asterisk for a small setup is not demanding so you would be looking at using any current PC plus line interface/station interface hardware.  Right now its around $100 per analog port - so each line and if you re-use analog handsets.  New voip stype digital phones do not require any hardware ports though they do cost more than a analog set.

Grandstream make a pretty decent digital business phone,
http://www.grandstream.com/y-gxp2000.htm  

The biggest thing going for Asterisk is there is not much it cannot do.  It scales right down to single line home phone setup and right up to a large call center with multiple PRI trunks.  Also works with pretty much any voip phone/service out there.

Don't let the setup scare you either.  Though there are a ton of features and settings but you probably won't ever need to use more than a fraction of them for a basic office setup.  The pay turnkey style setups are mostly all gui driven so even easier for somebody to setup/modify the system.

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by:HKComputer
ID: 17850811
I've been checking out fonality already and I've very impressed. They are friendly, knowledgable, and very helpful. It could hardly be called affordable for a 2 person, 2-line, small business. But it would fit a 6 - 10 person business very well.

It looks like Asterisk is the way to go. Not sure that I want to get involved in the setup and installation myself, since I'm not a Linux guru. Yet.
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by:tim1731
tim1731 earned 25 total points
ID: 17851389
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by:kode99
kode99 earned 425 total points
ID: 17854995
I would not sweat the linux side of things.  Current linux distro's are pretty easy and clean installs and the installation and compiling of Asterisk really is a snap.  It will take more time to configure the telephone side of things than setup the linux box.

Also for such a small PBX any old P4 will have enough power to do the job.  So minimal cost for the computer.  Probably another $150 to $ 500 depending on the exact hardware choice.

About the lowest cost scenario for phone interfacing would be to buy a couple of ATA adapters that support FXO and FXS ports.
http://www.voipsupply.com/index.php?cPath=96_287

These have the added bonus of allowing the phones lines to directly connect to analog ports by just pulling the plug.  So it is a real quick and easy out if there is any problem with the phone server.  

Also as compared to a 4 port Digium card with 2 FXO/2FXS ports the ATA adapters are about half the cost.  A multiport card like this is pretty clean to install though, just plug in phones and go.

http://www.voipsupply.com/product_info.php?products_id=298

Obviously there is some mix and match that can be done by mixing up analog phones,  IP phones and software phones.  As for wireless,  any cordless phone can be used with a FXS port just like a analog handset.  There are also wifi network phones and some dual cell/wifi units.

There are also software phones which some people like,  these come in both freeware and payware varieties.  Here's a couple examples,

http://www.xten.com/index.php?menu=Products&smenu=eyeBeam

http://www.sokol-associates.com/?q=node/29

Fonality is probably a bit much for a two horse show and really to configure a system so small is quite easy even without the aid of a GUI interface.  To get the kind of features in your list there is simply nothing else comparable that has even half the features.  Not to mention the total flexibility and expandability.

It all really depends on what it brings to the business,  it is likely that a single advanced feature may warrant the expense and the other features are just a real nice bonus.  

Oh yea,  I use CentOS 4.4 which has pretty wide hardware support and will compile and run the latest Asterisk 1.2 with no problems.  Don't mess with 1.4 Asterisk till it's out of beta.
http://www.centos.org/



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by:HKComputer
ID: 17855082
kode99: "Fonality is probably a bit much for a two horse show and really to configure a system so small is quite easy even without the aid of a GUI interface.  To get the kind of features in your list there is simply nothing else comparable that has even half the features.  Not to mention the total flexibility and expandability."

In your second sentence, did you mean that Fonality is a good option or that all the features can be had without Fonality? One feature we really need is call recording.  And if we use call recording, we need auto-attendant to warn the callers that their call "may" be recorded.  I'm not sure how we'll get all that without using Fonality. It is a little overkill, but it will give this company the ability to expand if and when necessary. And they are OK with the price.
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by:jfrady
jfrady earned 50 total points
ID: 17857473
The 3Com V3000 would fit very well with what you are looking for.  Very easy to manage, feature rich solution.  List price for system expandable to 1500 devices is only $1995USD.  You can expect discounts of up to 20% or so without being a reseller.  If you sign up and attend training you can get deeper discounts.  You could easily fit a 8 person office with 4 analog lines in under the price range you mentioned.  
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by:HKComputer
ID: 17857827
This seems to be discontinued:
http://www.3com.com/products/en_US/detail.jsp?pathtype=purchase&tab=features&sku=3C10600A

Is this what you are recommending?
http://www.3com.com/products/en_US/detail.jsp?tab=features&pathtype=purchase&sku=3C10600B

I'm having a little trouble understanding their features. Can't figure out what software features are truly available.

One of the primary requirements of this system is a little strange. We need callers to be greeted immediately by our Auto Attendant and warned that their call will be recorded. Then, without the caller pressing any buttons, we need the call forwarded to the receptionist. Or simply to all extensions on the phone system. Many Auto Attendant systems require the caller to press 0 or something to get out of the Auto Attendant system.
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by:jfrady
jfrady earned 50 total points
ID: 17858024
The 3C10600B is a newer platform.  The color changed to match the newer style.

Features included at no charge - multiple multi-level auto attendants, 4 port 400 hour voice mail, hunt groups, calling groups, ACD groups, TAPI integration, IMAP4 server, web administration, bridged extensions, plus many, many more.  Essentially all standard telephone features plus a lot more.

Call recording is not included.  There are a number of add on applications that can do this.  Monitor and barge-in are included.  To add call recording on a small scale the 3Com Executive Assistant package is a good choice.  It can record all calls or on demand.  The immediate greeting and then transfer to an attendant or hunt groups is easy and would be included.  Call recording of all calls is atypical and generally not included in any phone system by default.

If you go back to the page you linked to and click printable product details you will get an easier to understand explanation of what is included.  You can also download the product datasheet near the top of the page.  Let me know if that isn't enough and I will post a list of the features.
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by:kode99
kode99 earned 425 total points
ID: 17864646
Heh, that call recording warning is a real pain,  not that strange either as it is a legal requirement in a number of places.  Huge problem for people with older hardware systems.  With Asterisk it is a single command,  basically just put a play message line between the system picking up the call and before it connects to the autoattendent or extension.

Let me try to clairify my statement.  I meant both things,  Fonality is a good option AND >almost< all the features  are available even with just plain Asterisk.  Both have more features than what you get from the usual PBX companies.

Either way the cost to the customer is probably similar.  Pre-Configured Fonality system price tag vs. your parts plus labour price to setup Asterisk.  BUT if the system is quite simple the setup labour is going to be very low - if you know what you are doing - possibly less than a pre-configured setup.  

There are a few features that Fonality provides that you do not get with base Asterisk.  Like Outlook integration or the HUD display add on and the graphical management parts.  Are these necessary?  Depends on the customers needs,  a nice easy to use interface does have value though.

Also if you take a look at the Asterisk feature list you will see that a Fonality base system does not include everything on this list.
http://www.asterisk.org/features

I do not know if you can tweak a Fonaity system to add a feature that is missing from your pre-configured package.    If so it would be quite nice,  I do think it could be complicated as you would need to understand the Fonality setup to be sure not to break anything.  Probably want to check with them about that sort of thing.

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by:HKComputer
ID: 17865831
Thanks kode99. I've been advised by another professional that configuring your own Asterisk box or trixbox requires a pretty good working knowledge of Linux and VoIP, something I really don't have yet. Some phones today, like Polycom, require that you get firmware for them from your vendor. So if you're pieceing together your own system with Polycom phones, you may need to find "graymarket" firmware?

Currently, Fonality charges $999 for HUD. The HUD is a great option but unnecessary since this is not a call center.

My customer is slightly tech. savvy and will want to be able to make some configuration changes to the system himself. This will require Fonality or some other GUI control center.

Fonality will allow you to "tweak" their system. But they warn you that it may void your support. Your custom configuration will likely be ruined anytime you get an update. Fonality does free updates/upgrades and I think they may be configured to happen automatically in the background. Not sure.

It seems obvious to me that we could go with trixbox, but only if someone more Linux savvy than myself were to help with the installation and configuration.

There's two things that aren't clear to me. I'd like to have the possibility of pre-recorded company information playing after hours. Perhaps with a fairly elaborate menu. Hours, Directions, Who We Are, What We Sell, etc. Do I need to use IVR to get this? I think not but can some one tell me?

If I do want to do IVR, it seems that an Asterisk solution is not yet IVR friendly. All my searching has turned up little information about doing IVR with Asterisk. Is there any good site on this?

As far as the 3Com idea, I've had a hard time deciding. It seems I'm having a little trouble comparing a solution such as the 3Com 3C10600B or the Adtran 7100 to a solution such as Fonality. I guess I'm still too uninformed about VoIP to see the pros and cons of each. Any help here would be appreciated. I see Fonality/trixbox/Asterisk as the most flexible and expandable option, without locking me in to specific vendors, equipment, contracts, etc. I think this is great but will it be worth it in the long run?

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by:kode99
kode99 earned 425 total points
ID: 17871884
I think the 'good working knowledge' part is pretty subjective.  Current linux distro's have gotten pretty easy to setup,  almost parallel to a windows setup.  Obviously if you are going to support it you will have to invest the time in learning it well enough.  I think if you download and give something like CentOS,  Fedora or any other popular distro a shot you will find it is not so hard to deal with.  

As for Asterisk,  it is kind of like a PBX OS unto itself.  Again not too hard to install but the configuration does require a good grasp on some concepts specific to Asterisk and possibly SIP setup as well.  There is a lot of information on the net to help but it will also require a time investment.  It does get complicated if you need to do integration with other applications,  as a stand alone PBX it is fairly simple.

I think that most computer professionals could pick up the skills needed fairly quickly.  Something like Fonality lowers the learning curve a lot and may be a good way to get your feet wet.  It would keep your time investment low and allow you to operate with a support safety net.

If this customer is somebody who wants to play with it,  Fonality (or the likes of it) also looks like a good choice.  For a customer to directly mess with config files could be dangerous i.e. totally screw it up.  Same reason why fonality would advise against messing with thier setup.

Not so sure about the 'grey market' firmware.  I think that as with many devices you will need the right,  possibly the most current firmware version.  The problem with SIP is there are a pile of settings,  most probably not needed but some not tested for every platform.  A complicated phone set may require tweaking to get all the special features to work,  and some may not be supported or not work as expected.  This is partly a platform problem as manufacturers try to make products that work with a bunch of different peoples hardware.  This is still a fairly new market.

Aserisk does do IVR, here's the wiki which might help,
http://www.voip-info.org/wiki-Asterisk+tips+ivr+menu

Basically the control/programming of the phone system is centered around the 'DialPlan' which is a bit like a batch file or BASIC program.  All the tools are there to build a very complicated IVR system, it just may not be simple to create the script.

Here's a neat video clip of a guy setting up and explaining a bit about a basic Asterisk setup.
http://revision3.com/systm/asterisk
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by:HKComputer
ID: 17873405
I sure appreciate all the feedback, opinions, etc. I'll probably close this question before I actually get to implement a solution. But I have probed and ask questions (and continue to do so) so that I better understand the concepts of call routing, VoIP, PBX, et. I'm also hoping this thread can be useful to others in the future.

In my original question I assumed that VoIP was the only way to get the features I was looking for. After more research, and reading some of your answers, it appears that an Asterisk or trixbox server can serve as a PBX and allow you to keep both traditional PSTN phones and PSTN phone service coming in to the building. In this specific application, we do not need to connect seperate offices and it doesn't appear that we'll need to anytime soon. Neither do we need cheap international calling, as nearly all calls will be within the U. S. and most of them within a couple hundred miles.

So will we save anything by using VoIP? Will there be more headaches making it work?

Concerning IVR. IVR is just the ability to have menus and submenus with recordings to be played back. True or false? The use of speech recognition and text-to-speech is popular in IVR systems. But an IVR system doesn't need to use either of these technologies to be IVR?

It looks to me like IVR isn't real difficult with Asterisk. But text-to-speech and speech recognition might be quite difficult to implement.

Some users have indicated that pulling data out of an Access or SQL database from Asterisk/Linux (for use in an IVR) is quite difficult. Does anyone have any comments on that?

My CRM application (developed in Access, don't laugh) is designed so that information for existing customers can popup (on properly configured computers) so that receptionists and sales people have instant access to that information. This requires the use of the MSComm control and accesses the modem through a com port. In a total VoIP solution, the CallerID data will hit the Asterisk server, and will then be passed to the correct extension. But if I'm using a VoIP phone, that information is sent only to that phone through SIP, so how can I extract it at that particular workstation without using a softphone or Heads Up Display (HUD)? Do I have to setup some kind of rule that passes that phone call to two IP addresses on the network at the same time, and then write a program that "retrieves" the incoming SIP packets and extracts the CallerID data?
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by:kode99
kode99 earned 425 total points
ID: 17875670
Yes you are right.  IVR includes just 'Press 1 for this Press 2 for this etc.'  It is interactive on pressing numbers and the 'voice' is what it plays back.  Full blown voice recognition is the next step up.  There is some text to speech for Asterisk now through a program called Festival.  I have not looked into any voice recognition myself though there may be some linux project for it.

Festival link,
http://www.cstr.ed.ac.uk/projects/festival/

Oh,  the freePBX project is a GUI layer for Asterisk,  this is what tribox is based on I believe.
http://www.freepbx.org/

When you start adding the advanced features to Asterisk is when you will need to have a better handle on linux.  This will involve the installation and configuration of extra pakages and likely knowledge of programming with python, perl, even C.

Essentially a Asterisk based setup is like becoming your own little mini-voip provider.  Except it has a more fixed cost and you can control the features.

Something like the virtual PBX setup leew pointed to is a viable solution for a small outfit.  The cost of higher capacity data service combined with all the virtual PBX features could also end up being fairly expensive and the monthly cost never goes down.  The idea of needing a T1 to accomodate inter office communication makes little sense to me.

I am also somewhat uncomfortable with relying solely on a voip provider and data lines.  I think voip has come a long way and has a big future.  Right now I know that I have network downtime,  I cannot remeber the last phone service downtime I experienced.  I think voip services are a good add on especially to do things that would otherwise be far too expensive an option.

Here's an example dialplan that demonstrates working with a MySQL database,
http://www.voip-info.org/wiki/view/Asterisk+cmd+MYSQL
I've not used this feature,  its not simple but does look fairly painless.  Certainly pulling data from an Access database would be a problem but not impossible.  Probably importing or linking the Access information to MySQL then using the Asterisk MySQL links might work out.

Check out MySQL/Access info,
http://www.washington.edu/computing/web/publishing/mysql-access-3.5.html

As for call pop for the CRM there are a few possibilities.  If you cannot change the CRM application you could just use what you have.  So when a call is going through the Asterisk box to the extension you could have Asterisk iniate a call to the modem with the appropriate caller ID information at the same time.  This way your existing setup would get what it needs with no fuss.  You would need a station port for each modem (FXS port) to do this.

Another alternative would be to use the Asterisk Manager Interface.  This is what something like the HUD uses.  The interface is a simple TCP port which will send out call information as well as allow you to send commands to the PBX. So not only can you get the caller information you could also place calls from the computer as well.

Some info on the manager capabilities,
http://www.voip-info.org/wiki-Asterisk+manager+API

It is also possible to have Asterisk initiate programs/commands to other software on the linux system.  This has pretty much unlimited possibilities but again would require more linux knowledge to work with.

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by:HKComputer
ID: 18277245
We are currently working on this. Here's a few preliminary details. I plan to report back with more details and then divide up the points.

We have chose to use trixbox. We currently have trixbox 2.0, released only a few days ago, installed on our machine (Pentium 4 3Ghz, 512 RAM, 160 GB Hard Disk Drive). We are using a wireless internet connection from Amigo.Net running at about 1.5Mbs, with a static IP address and a DynDNS static IP address DNS hosting service.  We are also using a Linksys WRV200 router that provides us with VPN and QoS.

We are waiting on our VoIP provider, ViaTalk to get us set up. The system has been lightly tested in-house and we have extensions working. We also tested it briefly using a friends account and found that we could dial out and talk just fine. The quality of the incoming voice wasn't the best and we are currently exploring why. The network design at the time of testing was far from optimal, using a wireless connection shared out on a notebook computer with no QoS. We have made some drastic changes to the network design and expect to see an improvement in quality.

My superior has made some decisions to cut costs that may cause some trouble in the future. I'm not going to deny this fact. It appears that ViaTalk is not really a business VoIP provider. Using a wireless internet connection is not the best idea either but there is nothing else available at this location. The trixbox machine is an eMachines T5048 and since it is not really a business class machine, we may experience some reliability issues there. But what can I say?
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by:jfrady
ID: 18277291
Well, when trouble arises you can say "I told you so"!!!  
Good luck with it all.  Hope it goes well for you.
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by:HKComputer
ID: 18404090
This project has went fairly well.

We have had some trouble that I think is related to our eMachines "server" that we have trixbox installed on. Seems that our voicemail menus and our recordings play back strangely, kind of slow with a fast stutter.

Thanks for all the help. HK
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