Critical Links: A small business IP PBX player to watch

Critical Links with its edgeBOX line of all-in-one VoIP appliances has clearly caught a toe-hold in the small business telephony market—and the company and product line have continued to evolve since we last wrote about them some 14 months ago.

Critical Links now has a global installed base of 3,000 customers with 150,000 users, says vice president of worldwide marketing and business development Abdul Kasim.

“With the economic downturn, the very low initial investment for the product and the fact they can spread the cost across a period of time has made it very attractive and is helping small businesses mitigate the impact [of the downturn],” Kasim says.

edgeBOX competes well on price with rival products from major players such as Cisco and Avaya, and from other small business IP telephony specialists such as Sutus, Shoretel, and Allworx, he says.

But its principal differentiator is that it bundles several functions—Wi-Fi router, network storage, firewall, and VPN—in one device.

“We have the broadest range of features out in the marketplace,” Kasim says. “We’re way ahead of anyone else. Some of them [competitors] have some of those things available, but no one else has all of them.”

Last spring, Critical Links introduced a $2,000 SOHO version of the product aimed at companies and offices with up to 10 users. Kasim says the company hopes to whittle the price down even further in future.

Its higher-end edgeBOX Office product, for up to 40 users, sells for about $4,900. Critical Links also has versions for larger businesses and offices. The company’s sweet spot is offices and firms with 20 to 100 employees, Kasim says.

The new SOHO product is perfect for very small business customers such as Validation Partners Inc., a six-person health care industry computer consultancy in Ronkonkoma NY that was one of the Critical Links’ first customers two years ago.

Validation Partners technical director Adam Molny says his company paid about $3,500 for a first-generation edgeBOX, a Power over Ethernet (PoE) router and IP phones. This was a special price because the firm agreed to beta test the product and serve as a reference customer, Molny adds.

The new system replaced an obsolete Panasonic analog system that was no longer going to be supported by the manufacturer.

Quite aside from providing advanced functionality and features that the company didn’t have before—including voicemail delivered as audio attachments to e-mails and the ability for employees to work at home using a softphone and appear to callers as if they were in the office—Validation Partners also saved significantly on telephony costs by switching to an all-IP solution.

With the Panasonic system, it was paying for four analog lines at about $125 each. With the edgeBOX solution, it pays just $40 a month for one VoIP trunk from a regional SIP provider which includes up to 2,000 minutes of free North American calling a month.

At that rate of savings, the edgeBOX system would have paid for itself in less than a year.

edgeBOX let Molny set up an automated attendant that distributes calls to extensions equipped with IP phones on the local network. The integrated VPN system allows users to log in to the system over the Internet from home or wherever they are and use a softphone or IP phone.

Validation Partners, which has two full-time and four part-time employees and does about $300,000 in sales a year, did look at other solutions, including hosted PBX service from cable company Cablevision (Optimum Lightpath Internet Voice) and VoIP services from Vonage and others.

But those solutions were really geared to transitioning companies from a traditional phone system to IP, Molny says. They also didn’t provide the level of control of features and functions he wanted and they didn’t allow trunking—the company would have to pay for separate lines and numbers for each employee.

“We also liked the fact that edgeBOX integrates all the other network functions—VPN, firewall and wireless router—in a single device.”

The system has been “generally reliable,” Molny says. It was a beta unit, however, and there were initially some problems with it shutting down unexpectedly and rebooting. A software update fixed that problem. Since the first six months, the system has been stable, he says.

The only major disappointment is that the Wi-Fi router functionality has never worked satisfactorily, so Validation Partners doesn’t use it. Critical Links fixed the problem in later generations of the product, Molny says.

The company installed the system with the help of a Critical Links sales person and engineer, and Molny maintains the edgeBOX himself.

“Once I got the hang of it, it was no problem. And one good feature is that it’s very easy to make changes to the configuration—if you need to add a new employee, for example. With the old Panasonic system, it was very difficult and confusing.”

He is a software engineer, however, and generally knowledgeable about IT and networks, Molny points out.

Companies that don’t have in-house IT resources can easily outsource management and maintenance to a consultant or value added reseller because the system allows a network manager to access the system remotely, he notes.

Kasim says that making the edgeBOX system as easy as possible to use so small businesses without IT resources can manage it themselves is a top priority. The company continually improves the graphical user interface and adds and enhances wizard software that helps simplify key tasks.

Critical Links has also introduced significant new software functionality in recent months, including edgeMANAGER Client and edgeDESKTOP.

edgeMANAGER Client is a Java-based administration console for customers with multiple units in different locations. It gives a network manager a remote view of and access to all their edgeBOXes.

edgeDESKTOP, included with release 5.0 of the edgeBOX software, runs on an end-user’s desktop PC and allows the person to manage all telephony features from the computer. Critical Links says the application “significantly improves employee productivity through enhanced communication and collaboration.”

edgeDESKTOP shows users pop-up windows with caller information, and allows them to make, receive, forward, transfer, and record calls and conferences with a mouse click and access visual voicemail and call history. It also enables Microsoft Outlook integration.

Most recently, the company launched a bundled offering specially designed for small hotels.

Critical Links is a long way from being a tier one player in the IP PBX market, but it appears to have made a dent on the market—and not just in North America.

The company is also selling in Asia and in Europe, where it was recently chosen by a division of the incumbent telco in Portugal as the supplier of choice for its small business clients.

A company to watch.

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