PBX in a Deskset

What happens when you stuff all the intelligence, all the application features that traditionally reside in a company’s PBX system (of whatever kind) into the phones that sit on employee’s desks? Assuming that the hardware and software work according to plan, you get flexible, modular, economical, peer-to-peer phone service.

This is exactly what Toronto-based Aastra Technologies Limited has done. Plug two of the company’s new VentureIP 480i phones into your IP network, and they will discover each other without human intervention and complete their self-configuration, network integration process in about three minutes, according to Aastra’s director of IP product portfolio, Hung Lam. That done, full-featured voice communication is available, without any need for a centralized server, key system, or switch.

Workforce grows? Simply plug in more phones. Need to call outside the enterprise? Plug a VentureIP Gateway into the network, connect it to a phone line, and you’re in touch with the PSTN.

The secret’s in the software
The smarts of the VentureIP system are provided by nimX embedded call processing software from Ottawa-based Nimcat Networks.

How fully featured is the package? According to Nimcat CEO Mahshad Koohgoli, “While it doesn’t contain every PBX feature known to humankind, the initial release sports more than 120, including all the key ones that users expect.”

That would include

  • voice mail
  • intercom
  • paging
  • auto-attendant

“Each VentureIP phone set is set up with 20 to 25 minutes worth of voice mail storage,” said Koohgoli. “But if a particular user’s phone is off-line other phones on the network will accept messages, which will be delivered to the proper phone once it’s back on line.” A feature planned for future releases of nimX will offer the option of having voice mails delivered as e-mail.

Asked about protocol compatibility, Koohgoli said “It’s P2P on a SIP stack, using a standard transport SIP platform.”

Gateway to the old world
As mentioned, connectivity to the PSTN is via the VentureIP Gateway. Each gateway (which, like the phones, is self configuring) supports a maximum of four POTS lines, which Lam says typically supports 10 to 20 users. If all lines are in use, the user gets a busy signal—as he or she would with a PBX.

According to Koohgoli, “System diagnostics software within the gateway track usage, making it pretty easy to know when it’s time to add another gateway.” You add gateways as needed, just like the phones. As an added feature, ports on the gateway allow for the connection of radio or other analog sound source (for on-hold music, etc.).

The company plans to add WAN connectivity to the VentureIP Gateway later this year (currently projected for Q3 2005). This would allow the use of a third-party VoIP supplier, such as Vonage, and make for an end-to-end VoIP system.

Capacity and cost issues
“The VentureIP system was designed to scale up to 200 stations,” says Aastra’s Lam, “but typical installs are more like 2 to 20 users.” The largest installation to date runs some 40 stations, according to Lam.

Pricing for the VentureIP 480i phone is about $380 (USD), while the Gateway goes for about $290. So, how does the cost of setting up a P2P, VoIP system compare to equivalent PBX-based systems?

For starters, Lam points out that, cost of hardware aside, the cost of the installation—often by certified technicians—and licensing for additional software features simply goes away with the Aastra solution. “The cost of a four-station system from [a large, well-known Canadian telecom equipment supplier] would run about $1,500 plus the cost of the install, and any licensing incidentals,” he said.

According to Mahshad Koohgoli, one (un-named) customer company researched costs for a 12-station system. Conventional PSTN PBX solutions ran between $5,000 and $10,000, depending on supplier, again plus installation costs. “The cost of a 12-stationVentureIP solution is about $4,000, with no installation costs,” he said.

Total bottom line numbers aside, many businesses will likely be attracted by the VentureIP system’s modular, add-on architecture. Buy/add only the hardware you need, when you need it. No necessity to plan ahead for capacity needs; no unused capacity in the phone system. No single point of failure. No configuration—ever.

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