Lately, we have been playing with a Windows based solution offered by 3CX. We remember the "UnPBX" products of the late 90's early 2000! There were a few companies that tried to build PBX systems on Microsoft Platforms like Windows NT. Popular gateway cards were produced by companies like Dialogic and inserted on the back plane buss of a Microsoft engine. Unfortunately rebooting your phone system everyday was not received well and these products fell to the wayside. Our personal experience with COM2001, Alexis and Xantel were part of our learning curve! We approached the 3CX product with some trepidation because of these early experiences, but we were pleasantly surprised at how far this product had come. In the SIP world, it is not necessary to put gateway cards for analog or PRI connectivity in the Microsoft engine. You can use an external gateway of your choice or do a complete deployment using only SIP trunks.
The 3CX is a fully featured phone system with all the bells and whistles for a Unified Communications platform. It runs on the most current version of Microsoft Desktop or Server OS. For a small installation you can bring it up under Windows 7 using a small PC hardware platform. As the demand for redundancy, scale, backup and memory expand the Microsoft 2008 Server makes more sense. What impacted us the most was how easy the initial installation and system bring up were. With all our product evaluations we use these basic criteria:
- Ease of Installation (qualitative judgement)
- Administration Process (GUI or Command Line)
- Phone Provisioning (automated or manual)
- Feature Set and Licensing options
- Automated Attendant and IVR functionality
- Integration with popular CRM
- Mobility Options (find me follow me)
- Multiple Site and Remote User Connectivity
- Call Center Options
With this list in mind, we would rate 3CX very high! The installation was flawless. We downloaded a free copy from there Webiste and later obtained a license key that opened up the full feature set. Within 30 minutes we had operational telephone extensions defined and working. We create SIP trunks to our provider and had outside dial tone connectivity as fast as we could complete the SIP trunk definition. We provisioned the first few phones manually, but later setup the appropriate profiles for auto provisioning. The 3CX was following the best practice of the big boys like CISCO and ShoreTel. Using DHCP options, we could stuff a new phone with its extension and feature set. We also brought up the 3CX soft phone application on an apple iPhone! Again, this was very straight forward and registration with the mothership and connectivity with the other phones was as straight forward as the implementation of an onsite wired phone.
The feature set covered the minimum daily adult requirement for phone usage. The advanced feature set was impressive. Call Queuing, recording and message notification options were all available to the individual users through a web based application. Each user had the option of bringing up a browser and having a visual call control application for their individual extensions. This was impressive, but the integration with Microsoft Outlook Salesforce and Exchange was equally available and effective. We noted a HTTP api that seems to enable integration with any application that supported web based CRM.
The Automated Attendant was robust, but our real focus was on tenant services. Many small business have multiple identities under one roof. If the client wants to be able to have one phone number answered by an Automated Attendant with a script for Company A; and another for Company B this simple requirement sometimes knocks out a contender. The 3CX handled this brilliantly and we were able to direct a caller to different Automated Attendants or Digital Receptionists based on the number dialed. You would think all phone systems can do this, but you would be surprised to find that many can not. We love the CISCO 320w, but if tenant services was a requirement, we would not be able to meet that expectation.
Mobility options enabled a caller to an extension set up with a "find me follow me" option to reach a cell phone. Again, this is a feature that is becoming an absolute standard for a VoIP deployment! 3CX was able to do this quite easily and also enable the individual user to manipulate these options without the need for the System Administrator. The last couple of steps we are just playing with and will report more as we explore the Call Center and Site options. Technically, we see no reason that we can not have remote users. The key issue is, can we plant a 4960 type PRI gateway at a remote location over a WAN and operate a remote trunk group. More on this later, but we are eminently impressed with the 3CX product and would recommend it for a small business deployment, or as a remote site for a large ShoreTel or CISCO deployment.
Interestingly the system is licensed not by features, but by simultaneous calls. A very interesting approach! You can set up a system with a 100 extensions, the issue is how many calls will the system allow. Do you license the system for a 100 calls? Not likely, but you would have to make a determination as to how many of your 100 extensions can be making use of the system at the same time. Generally, we like that licensing strategy. Other systems might be licensed based on the number of extensions. In a ShoreTel deployment, for instance, you would be paying some $20,000 dollar in license fees to bring up this 100 user deployment. Licensing based on simultaneous calls is an interesting approach and it is being adopted by most of the systems that are sold and supported by other than the freeware community.
At the end of the day , your Dad was correct when he said "you get what you pay for". Yes you can download a free phone system from the internet. We should all thank Mark Spenser for the creation and contribution that Asterisk has made to the telecommunications universe. The derivations of this contribution are global! More an more new products are based on the core contribution that Mark has made. Unless you are a true phone geek and you want to play with Linux and Asterisk code all day, you are not going to create a scalable, supportable telecommunications platform without an organization to stand behind it. Yes community support is available, but at the end of the day, you want a 1-877-DrVoIP1 number available that is answered by a support organization that can be there when you need assistance. ( We have arranged some exciting packaged solutions with our partner VoipLink so see our DrVoIP Recommends section or click here for a sample http://www.voiplink.com/product_p/3cx-cisco.htm ).
We will continue to review the products we support! Our current list of supported products has now grown from ShoreTel and CISCO to include Digium, Elastix, Astrisk in general and 3CX when it comes to a Windows solution. If you are planning a VoIP deployment of less than 100 handsets, 3CX offers a fully feature Unified Communications solution at a price that is compelling!