Many small companies that lack technology skills may be blithely unaware that a revolution is underway in the world of business telephone systems.
Why should you care particularly? Because new IP PBXs or voice over IP (VoIP) systems give even small companies the ability to acquire enterprise-class telephone services and features at affordable prices. And they let larger companies inexpensively provide branch offices and remote users with the same services headquarters staff already have.
A new product from Zultys Technologies, the MX250 "enterprise media exchange," which can support from 5 to 250 users, makes acquiring an IP telephone system with advanced features even easier, the company says.
Because the MX250 offers a broad range of software-based features in a single, compact and self-contained hardware unit, it is easier to install, configure and manage than either conventional or first-generation IP phone systems, Zultys says.
Features include Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) gateways, voice mail, automated attendants, Automatic Call Distribution (ACD) groups, firewall and support for Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) for secure communications over the Internet.
The Internet? Yep, the telephone systems revolution we're talking about is Internet related but isn't everything nowadays?
What's happening is a shift from conventional analog and digital telephone systems that require their own dedicated wiring in the office, to IP telephone systems that use the same wiring as your Ethernet local area network (LAN).
Previous digital telephone systems which largely replaced even older analog systems use proprietary technologies for digitizing audio and transmitting it over telephone wires. VoIP systems use standard Internet protocol (IP) technology the same scheme used to move Internet data around.
This means that IP phone systems can not only route calls over internal Ethernet wiring (usually Cat-5 or category 5 wiring), they can also send them over the public Internet or a managed long-haul IP network.
This opens up the possibility of savings through long distance toll bypass i.e. sending calls in IP format over the Internet or a private network link to a branch office, or even through a gateway at the branch office and out onto the public switched telephone network to an external phone. Since no long distance telephone company carries the call you pay no long distance charges.
Perceptions of VoIP
Why isn't everybody using IP phone systems? Most analysts and even big phone system vendors such as Lucent and Nortel agree IP telephony will eventually become the norm, but big systems vendors have an enormous vested interest in hanging on to the market for their proprietary systems.
Most have been marketing hybrid systems that can function both as conventional digital Private Branch eXchanges (PBXs) or as IP PBXs and thus provide an upgrade path. But hybrid systems, even when used as IP PBXs, don't offer many of the benefits IP can deliver, says Zultys president Iain Milnes.
"There is a perception that VoIP is new and unreliable or unpredictable," Milnes says. "That perception is perpetuated by vendors of legacy equipment. In fact, IP systems like ours are actually very feature-rich and reliable, whereas theirs are often neither feature-rich nor reliable."
This means companies like Zultys that are totally committed to IP telephony sometimes have to do more customer education to overcome resistance than should really be necessary. This is frustrating, Milnes says, because Zultys would prefer not to be seen as just a vendor of IP systems.
"We're not really trying to sell VoIP as such," he says. "We're trying to sell a solution. What we're selling is something very compact, easy to manage and easy to set up. We would stand this product up against any other phone system solution on cost and features."
An MX250-based phone system would not be the least expensive to purchase, but Zultys claims it would provide the best value competitively priced with superior functionality and also very low cost of ownership.
Capital costs start with $5,000 for the MX250 unit itself, plus software licenses which are sold per user or block of users another $5,000 for 25 users, for example.
A PSTN gateway card that supports eight outside phone circuits adds another $800. If you're using the system to link remote users over the Internet, you'll need a VPN appliance or VPN software at a minimum of $125 per location.
Then you have to add $140 or $400 per IP phone set. Some businesses do use the simple $140 Zip 2 IP telephone, but the $400 Zip 4X4 has more business features. Other vendors' IP phones will also work on the Zultys system.
A system for 25 users in a single office, including phones, would cost between $15,000 and $22,000.
Few if any systems at that price offer anything approaching the feature set, though, Zultys claims. To get the same functionality even in products from other all-IP competitors such as Cisco and Pingtel, you would need to purchase a phone system plus separate voice mail/automated attendant, ACD and other servers with the additional hardware costs this entails, and the additional long-term management and maintenance costs.
ACD systems let you automatically distribute calls to a group of incoming or outgoing call center agents according to a set of programmed parameters. An automated attendant answers the phone with a recorded voice and automatically routes incoming calls according to the buttons the caller pushes.
The MX250 also lets users do video conference calls internally or long distance over the Internet or a managed IP network link. It also provides an internal Internet-style chat function. The presence management feature lets an operator or receptionist see which employees are logged in or out, or are on the phone, allowing them to route callers more efficiently and professionally.
The real strength of the Zultys equipment, though, is its ability to link remote offices and users, says Zultys dealer Greg Still, managing partner of Xiologix, a Portland, Ore.-based systems integrator. "Very few of our customers [that are doing or interested in doing IP telephony] do not have a remote location," Still says.