Fonality Launches New Asterisk-based IP-PBX

Fonality, based in Culver City, California, officially launched its PBXtra IP-PBX with the promise of helping users cut their PBX costs by up to 80 percent over traditional PBX system costs. Part of the reason for the reduced cost is due to the open source roots of PBXtra which is based on the Asterisk IP-PBX open source project.

PBXtra is configurable via a web-based browser interface that Fonality claims is easy to set up, without the need for specialized phone support. Among the advanced features that Fonality has included are integration with Microsoft Outlook, MP3-based hold music, unlimited voicemail, desktop call notification, CRM integration, and 4 digit dialing. As with other Asterisk based solutions, PBXtra supports hybrid PSTN and VoIP deployments as well as both IP and analog phones.

How Fonality fits into the Asterisk ecosystem
Though the Asterisk project itself is open source, there are a growing number of commercial entities that sell and develop products and services to support and extend it. Asterisk project founder Mark Spencer himself also operates a commercial entity called Digium that is one of the chief sponsors of the Asterisk project.

Fonality CEO Chris Lyman does not see Digium as a competitor to Fonality; rather he sees them as a complementary vendor. “While Mark Spencer did write the original Asterisk code, Digium makes their money selling hardware to companies like Fonality,” Lyman explained. “We think of Asterisk as the OS of the PBX. Fonality is the PBX application layer.”

Others in the Asterisk community, like San Diego-based Switchvox, however, are likely competitors to Fonality. Switchvox CEO, Joshua Stephens told that some of his customers came to Switchvox after first looking at Fonality.

“We see people looking at many options when looking to get into the VoIP arena,” Stephens said. “People often start looking at Asterisk because of its popularity, but it is very difficult to configure for the SMB.”

Even though both Fonality and Switchvox solutions are both based on Asterisk, Stephens feels that Switchvox system has at least one significant competitive differentiator.

“We take pride in being a very full featured, easy to use system that doesn’t rely on any external services to operate,” Stephens explained. “In contrast, Fonality system requires you to use a management portal on their site.”

Stephens suggested that the Fonality remote management portal approach may have some potential drawbacks. “If their site goes down, or if your Internet connection goes down, you’ve got real problems,” Stephens argued. “Additionally, if they roll out a new patch or update to their system, you get the patch, regardless of how well your system is currently operating.”

Not surprisingly, Fonality CEO Chris Lyman disagrees. He sees his firm’s web-based management software approach to be a critical competitive advantage. According to Lyman, the ability to use the software anywhere in the world without having to host a web server inside your office network is a huge advantage. “Besides being hard to do (financially), there is also a substantial security risk to having to host a web server inside your office LAN, “Lyman said.

Going a step further Lyman doesn’t however necessarily regard the Switchvox product as competitor to PBXtra. In Lyman’s view the Switchvox product is a GUI front end for installing and managing Asterisk, not a PBX application like PBXtra. Lyman explained that the Switchvox target customer is an Asterisk consultant who wants a front end to manage Asterisk. On the other hand the PBXtra target customer is a small business customer who wants a PBX for their business phone system.

“PBXtra is web-based software that can be managed from anywhere in the world,” explained Lyman. “Even though Switchvox software is browser-based, it is not web-based, so you need to be inside the firewall or you need in-house IT resources capable of opening up ports in firewalls, and running web servers, to be able to manage it remotely.” In terms of other Asterisk plays, Lyman figures that most are completely “in the cloud”—that is, they are hosted PBX VoIP-only plays. “We don’t believe in the hosted VoIP PBX play (yet) for the SB market, because VoIP-only solutions tend to run poorly on small biz networks,” Lyman said. “Small businesses often use low-cost consumer routers and over-subscribed cable and DSL networks. Neither are VoIP friendly as they don’t provide VoIP packet prioritization and the quality of service is low.”

Newly announced but not newly deployed
Though PBXtra has only just been officially announced, Fonality started serving its first beta customers in July 2004. According to CEO Chris Lyman, Fonality started serving its first official customers in October 2004. Lyman cited two primary reasons for officially launching PBXtra at this time.

The first is that Fonality core focus is reliability and profitability. Until now Fonality has been spending most of its resources on its engineering team not on its PR budget.

The second reason for launching now is due to Lyman’s entrepreneurial style, which is to build companies in stealth mode, gain market momentum, and then go to press.

“Fonality now has hundreds of customers, is deployed in 30-plus states and four countries, has more than 300 resellers, and is rapidly gaining market share,” Lyman said. “Our PBXtra product has now officially served millions of calls.”

“I figured we had something interesting to finally talk about.”

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