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

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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