When we started in 1997 and then opened our first real office in 1998, the first phone Summersault ever owned was a small, gray two-line office model with, I believe, five separate voice-mailboxes. It cost us around $200, after we spent a long time researching and discussing just the right one to get. It sat quietly on my desk, and when the occasional call did come in (it could even do a conference call!), everything worked just fine – we never had to open it up, reprogram it, reboot it, back it up, or monitor it. It’s not hard to long for those days, as Summersault’s growth has meant some costly and time consuming expansion in our phone infrastructure over the years. But our recent experience installing and configuring the Asterisk open source PBX phone system has given me some hope that we’re returning to an era where the phone is once again a useful tool that saves people time and makes communication more efficient, instead of less so. This article touts some of the benefits of this kind of phone system, and has some notes and tips on how it might help your business or organization – large or small – have enterprise-level phone system features on the cheap.
A little more on the history of our phone setup: when the little gray phone on my desk started to be a sub-optimal solution for the volume of calls we were getting (and when Mark wanted to make calls too), we had to look elsewhere. The ISP we were co-located with at the time was about to buy a new Windows NT-based solution that did everything except talk for you, and though the bells and whistles were attractive (oh my gosh, it would send your voicemail messages to you via e-mail!!), the price was too steep for us to go in on with them. And there was the Windows thing. So we inherited their old setup for a few hundred dollars, a Nortel key system that took up half a wall of the office for all its equipment and wiring. But it was a leap into the future for us – call transferring, hold, do not disturb, per-user message waiting indicators….waaa-hoo! It followed us to our current office location, and served us well for several years.
At some point we decided we needed to upgrade – partly it was the appeal of some more advanced features, and partly it was our fear that the weird clicking noises the Nortel’s voicemail disk drive was making was the sign of the end to come. We *almost* bought the Windows NT solution we’d passed up years earlier, until another local ISP (see a theme here) told us about the BizFon system, which provided the features we wanted at the lowest price we’d seen yet – around $2,300 for the whole package. Even better, they had one in stock and the phones to go with it that they could sell us as an authorized dealer, and we were off to the races.
Skip four mostly-problem-free years ahead to a few months ago, when the BizFon company told us, during a maintenance session where they had “logged in” to our phone remotely to do things we couldn’t do our selves (kind of weird), that the unit we had appeared to be corrupted beyond repair, and would probably start failing to function. “I’m surprised you can even make calls now,” said the technician. They said we could either send it in for a refurbished replacement for $500, or get a new replacement for about $1,000. YIKES. This was not happy news, and the thought of spending that kind of money (not to mention time and hassle for setting everything up again) just to get back to where we were already at was not appealing. (That system, despite its potential for failure, is available for sale at a deep discount if you’re interested.)
So we looked for other options, and we found Asterisk. Our friends and colleagues down the street at Ray Ontko & Co. had recently adopted its use, and we know that if they do something with a particular piece of technology, it usually means it’s either A) ready for primetime, or B) about to be ready for primetime, and using it means being really cool and cutting edge. So we looked harder. We saw that Asterisk is free and open source, but supported and funded by a an established for-profit entity called Digium. We saw that Asterisk runs on operating systems we’re familiar with and already running, like FreeBSD and Linux. We saw that it had extensive user community and support that would make configuring and extending it even easier. And the features…oh the features.
As you might be able to tell, I don’t consider myself someone who drools over phone technology beyond the occasional cell phone gadget or cool proof of concept, but this stuff is really amazing. Some examples to illustrate: we now have a web-based operator panel where you can watch calls coming in, see who is busy, and actually transfer and connect calls using pointing and clicking. We can now dial phone numbers by just clicking on them in the software addressbooks on our screens. All of our call records are stored in a PostgreSQL database so we can display recent call history along with customer records, or make pretty graphs showing our call loads and call routing. Our phones are plugged into our office LAN using regular Ethernet cables – no need for special phone wiring or patch panels. When a new fax transmission comes in, it doesn’t go to paper, it gets e-mailed to us. Perhaps least consequential and most fun, we can choose our own ringtones, and so now my phone emits the familiar sounds of the phones in CTU on the popular television show “24″.
It goes on, and that’s just the beginning. With Asterisk’s support for Voice Over IP, we’ll be able to make and receive calls over the Internet, forward calls to “soft phones” – software phones running on our computers instead of hardware phones sitting on our desks. We can program the system to do pretty much anything you’d ever want a phone system to do, and then some.
So what’s it take to get something like this up and running? It’s surprisingly easy. I say that even having gone the do-it-yourself route. There are plenty of vendors (including Inter7, Fonality, and others) who will sell you out-of-the box Asterisk systems that are all ready to go. I definitely recommend this for anyone who isn’t familiar with building and configuring software from source, or even anyone who just doesn’t want to have to mess with the details but wants all these powerful features available.
For us, it meant a couple of purchases:
- A 3 GHz server from our local hardware vendor: $500
- A Digium 4-phoneline interface PCI card from the folks at VOIPSupply.com: $400
- 5 PolyCom SoundPoint IP 301 phones from VOIPSupply.com: $135 each
- 1 Analog adapter so we could hook up our old fax machine to the system: $50
All in all (not including our time), about $1600 invested to get going. And the time part is certainly not trivial – between reading about how to setup and install Asterisk, actually doing it, refining it, and then doing some of it over because we had to switch operating systems, there was a healthy chunk of staff time in this project. But as we’ve started to take advantage of its features, we’re finding it to be a sound investment, and one that we think will save us money in the future (through reduced phone infrastructure costs, savings in local and long distance plans, and improved office efficiencies). And of course it feels good to be cutting edge.
As you might be able to tell from the existence and tone of this weblog entry, we don’t intend on keeping this setup a secret. We’d be happy to give you a tour of our Asterisk system and how it works, and if your organization is interested in deploying an enterprise-quality phone system, we’re excited to help out and do some consulting for you. Between the folks at Ray Ontko & Co., Summersault and others in town who we know are looking at these technologies, we hope to help the area realize the benefits of open source and VOIP telephony.