Fonality PBXtra: Hybrid Hosted IP PBX

Fonality's unique architecture gives small businesses a perfect mix between running their own hardware and outsourcing their phone system.

 By Jeff Goldman
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Fonality has pioneered a hybrid hosted architecture for its PBXtra phone system, combining the benefits of a hardware PBX with the affordability and ease of use of a hosted offering.

And the message is getting out. The solution was launched in late 2004 and now serves 3,000 companies in 90 countries, with a focus on businesses with between 10 and 100 employees. According to company CEO Chris Lyman, 49 percent of businesses in the U.S. have between 5 and 100 employees—so it's a pretty big market.

Smaller businesses, Lyman says, are crippled by the fact that they have to pay for a truck roll to install or modify a PBX system, no matter how small that system may be. "The entire small business market is held hostage by the channel, by the guys that roll the trucks," he says.

And so Lyman says Fonality's aim is to disintermediate the PBX industry—to get rid of the channel—much as Dell did with computer sales.

In order to do this, PBXtra is designed to allow a small business to handle all of the installation itself. To see how easy (or difficult) that would be to do, I visited Fonality's headquarters in Culver City, California, where Lyman walked me through the process of setting up a phone system using PBXtra.

Initial setup
PBXtra is delivered in two boxes: One box contains the server, and the other contains phones—however many and of whatever type the client needs for their particular installation. The initial setup is very straightforward: You attach a monitor and keyboard to the server, plug it in, and connect it to your office network via Ethernet. If you're using analog lines or a PRI, you plug those lines into the server as well. When you power up the server, it walks you through a series of prompts on the display to assign it a static IP address—at which point you're done with the server's monitor and keyboard. Everything from then on is handled through a Web interface.

You can then plug the phones into Ethernet ports anywhere on the network, and they're instantly provisioned with an extension number. Pick up a handset and dial 0, and you hear the default auto-attendant greeting. As soon as a phone is plugged into a router, it works seamlessly—I did this with the first of the phones in the box, and it was immediately set up as extension 7012.

This auto provisioning also makes it very easy to enable remote workers. Set up one of the phones anywhere with Internet access, and it instantly becomes an extension: It can reached via a four-digit extension number, and it can access all of the functionality of the PBX. The same is also true on a temporary basis: Take your desk phone home for the night, and you can operate it with all of the same functionality you'd have if you were at work.

Once the PBXtra server and the phones are plugged into the network, the next step is to access the system's Web-based control panel at cp.fonality.com.

Web-based control panel
The control panel (see Figure 1) is a straightforward Web interface with a series of tabs across the top. The first tab, AutoAnswer, allows you to create and manage your call sequence graphically, adding everything from music on hold to new voice prompts or keypress options simply by checking and un-checking boxes. You can also schedule different call sequences depending on the time of day.

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Figure 1 - PBXtra Admin. Screen
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The Extensions tab gives you a list of all extensions, along with their current status. Since I'd only plugged in extension 7012, there was a red status icon next to six of the extensions, but a green status icon next to 7012. And the information on each extension is incredibly detailed—run your cursor over the green status icon, and you get the following data: phone status, latency, SIP address, IP address, and port.

The A.C.D. (automatic call distributor) tab lets you manage queues and view them in real time. You can create a queue, along with detailed voice prompts and a sequence of possible agents in the queue, simply by selecting options from pull-down menus. Within the same tab, you can quickly create reports or record calls from a given queue.

The Reporting tab gives you a color-coded view of current and recent calls, and allows you to run a report quickly based on a selection of about a dozen different parameters. Similarly, theStatus tab shows real-time server and network activity, as well as activity on individual lines. And the Options tab lets you manage everything from your mailing address to your VoIP accounts.

Heads-up display
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the offering is the heads-up display (HUD), which Fonality added in December of 2005. The software, which runs on Windows, Mac, and Linux, crams an incredible amount of data into a very small space (see Figure 2).

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Figure 2 - HUD Screen
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Information about your own extension is shown at the top of the display, with individual views of every other extension in the office below it. Depending on permissions, you can view the status of all callers and/or listen in on their calls with a single click. Below each extension are links for chat, mobile, e-mail, voicemail, and more—just click on a given link to use that contact method for that extension.

As a tool for unifying all your communications in one place, it's pretty great. The idea, according to Lyman, is that HUD becomes your focus whenever you need to communicate in any way—your physical phone handset or your e-mail client become secondary tools. A version of HUD for smartphones and PDAs would be a great addition to the system, but Lyman says that's not in the works. Yet.

Keeping it cheap
Pricing for PBXtra and HUD is simple enough. For $1,000 plus the cost of the phones, you get the server box with unlimited licenses. The Call Center Edition of PBXtra adds call queuing and reporting for $3,000. And HUD costs an additional $1,000, plus $1,000 more if you want call center functionality like the ability to view queues, monitor calls, and record calls on the fly.

Key to Fonality's business model—and its aim of disintermediation—is the hybrid hosted architecture, which gives the customer ownership of the hardware, but at the same time keeps Fonality in the loop to host the Web-based aspects of the service and to monitor and optimize call quality and system performance in real time.

It's a great mix—and the functionality that it enables, from plug-and-play setup for remote workers to the consolidated information in HUD, is very impressive. But according to Lyman, the basis for it all was the simple idea of building a phone system that followed Dell's business model. "If you can make it cheaper and make it work, you will win this game," he says. Which, so far at least, he seems to be doing.

This article was originally published on Jan 16, 2008
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