VoIPowering Your Office: Driving the Big Green trixbox, part 2

Fonality's Heads-Up Display is a VoIP management interface for the ages—and is an integral part of the appliance package.

By Carla Schroder | Posted Jun 19, 2008
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Last week we (literally) dissected the trixbox Pro appliance and learned about its capacity and hybrid-hosting structure. Today we're going to dig into its administration interfaces, and see if it lives up to the promises of easy plug-and-play provisioning.

HUD

The crown jewel of trixbox Pro is HUD, the Heads-Up Display user's administration client. Designing a graphical interface for a complex application is a difficult task, and I think the HUD team have done a good job of putting together a well-organized, logical interface. (Take a look here.) This comparison matrix shows you what you get with the different editions. HUD has a lot of one-click features, such as click to call, click to voicemail, click to e-mail, and is easy enough for even the most techno-phobic user.

One feature that Fonality touts a lot is presence management. This means that HUD can be configured to follow users wherever they want it to. Check out the interactive demo to get a taste of what it can do. It has a slick little bit of artificial intelligence that determines if your are sitting at your PC, or have wandered away, and routes your calls according to however you have set them up—straight to voicemail, cell phone, instant messaging, a different extension, a rude noise and a hangup—whatever you like. It can boomerang calls forwarded to your cell phone back to your desk or wherever you want, and you can even record your cell phone calls. This is very configurable and it's easy, so you shouldn't have to spend a lot of time coaching your users.

Presence management plus the server administration and monitoring tools translates into some powerful Big Brother features, because you can monitor everything that passes through your server. This may sound creepy, but it all depends on how you use it. The system administrator or any user with sufficient permissions can eavesdrop, spam masses of staff via voicemail, and ad-hoc conference via intercom on supported phones. (Have some fun—announce yourself with a klaxon and a deep voice saying "NOW HEAR THIS".) Call detail records (CDR) are goldmines of information that can help managers document problem behavior. One example is a manager having problems with an unproductive salesman. The salesman claimed he was putting in his time making calls, but the CDRs showed that he wasn't making any. A rather common problem that I've encountered is bosses spending their work days porn surfing or yakking on phone sex chatlines. (How do people get these jobs that let them goof off so much?) It's easy to track Web site usage, and now it's easy to track what numbers people are calling, and how long they're spending on each call.

Of course a conscientious, ethical admin or manager wouldn't dream of snooping just for the sake of snooping, and will have appropriate policies and warnings in place.

One downside of HUD is there is not a Linux client. Or rather there is one, sort of, but it is not supported. HUD is fully supported on Windows and Mac.

Hardware health monitoring

The trixbox Pro server administration panel includes a number of configurable health monitors, such as disk space, CPU and RAM, bandwidth, network interface cards, and server activity such as trunks, conferencing, and recordings. You can see live real-time activity, or view snapshots going back in time. Configuring alerts is as easy as falling asleep.

Link servers

If you have multiple trixbox Pro servers, you can link them with a single click. This is the fastest and easiest way to link branch offices and give everyone in a distributed organization four-digit dialing. If you're using the call center edition this also links your call centers.

Plug-and-Play provisioning

There is not much to say about this, because it just works. Fonality sent me the Aastra 57i and 480i hard phones to test. These are nice phones—they have large, readable displays, and a good set of buttons that are all supported by trixbox without drama or sweat. The 480i requires power over ethernet, and believe me once you try PoE you'll never go back to riding herd on masses of wall warts. Both phones include Ethernet pass-through, so you can use a single wall jack for both phone and computer. A number of Aastra and Polycom phones are certified for trixbox Pro; if you use others, you'll be stuck with manual configuration. It seems that hardware vendors would want their phones to be easy and desirable, but in the real world it takes a considerable amount of effort to get any kind of cooperation. (This is true for everything in tech, not just IP telephony.)

Tiered support

The eternal conflict between users and tech support has been resolved rather ingeniously by Fonality's tiered support that is based on hardware. If you use certified hardware you pay less for support. If you prefer to use something else you still get support, you just pay more for it. Though there are still some limitations—you can't use any old junk rescued from the basement; it has to meet some minimum requirements.

Not much Asterisk

While trixbox Pro is based on Asterisk, there isn't much actual Asterisk left in it, as it has been heavily modified and extended. The result is a server that is more scalable and handles bigger loads, and the call center edition is as fully featured and reliable as you could want.

Pithy conclusion

I pummeled the green box as thoroughly as I could, configurating all manner of both POTS and VoIP trunks, and connecting various hard and soft phones and users, and I am left with two meager gripes: no Linux HUD client, and the server's Web control panel was often slow, taking as long as 30 seconds to load a new page. I don't know if the Fonality datacenter was feeling sleepy, or if the Internets were delaying my packets. The short story is this is a nice product that works well, is ridiculously easy to set up and administer.

And, in our humble opinion, it is priced right: base unit $1,099, base enterprise unit $1,749, connection interfaces $400 to $700—give or take.

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