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It's time for a new phone system at the office- what should one do?  InterWorking Labs faced the dilemma of what to do about our internal phone system.  We ended up selecting a Cisco UC320W system.  This article explores our requirements, explores why we went with an "Asterisk-in-a-box" solution, and considers the features of the Cisco product.

1 August 2013

Time for a new office phone system

InterWorking Labs faced the dilemma of what to do about our internal phone system. The system we had was about thirteen years old and was showing its age; in fact, we were quite sure it would not last another six months!

Our team went through a requirements analysis and concluded that the phone system was not important!

InterWorking Labs receives very few phone calls; our clients prefer email, overwhelmingly. Many of our clients do not speak English well, however, so when they do call, we need very clear voice quality to understand them. Thus, an inexpensive phone system with good quality and low maintenance seemed like the best alternative.

A wild array of competing phone technologies were on the market. From 100% VoIP systems, to hosted PBXes, to conventional PBXes, the choices were amazing.

The best thing about the Cisco UC320 is that it "just works".

Considerations for Asterisk

Given that our company is all about high technology, naturally all of us were quite interested in an Asterisk solution. Asterisk is an open source IP PBX. We looked into Asterisk. We had it running in our lab. We determined it could do everything we wanted and much more. Then, we rejected it! Why? The setup, configuration, and maintenance of Asterisk would be a 40 hour project by a senior engineer. We did not want to use our own technical resources for phone system maintenance. It was not a good investment.

Considerations for a portable VoIP phone solution

We looked into a portable IP phone solution -- very high quality phones that could be plugged into any Ethernet port and would work with a cloud IP/PBX. However, one staffer took one of these phones home to use it for an 8 pm conference call. He plugged it into his home network and the jitter and delay was so bad that he had to abort the conference call. So that was out.

The general assumption with the VoIP phone systems is that a small business is paying $500 - $1000 to the phone company each month, so if a supplier provides a plan that is $250 per month, the small business will be deliriously happy. We were paying less than $220 per month to the phone company, so switching to a $250 plan would cost us more. In our case, there were zero cost savings of a 100% VOIP solution. That was out.

Considerations for the Cisco UC320

Finally, we looked into the Cisco UC320. This was Cisco's low end PBX system. It has Asterisk, more or less, on the inside. We purchased it.

The best thing about the Cisco UC320 is that it "just works". It is simple and reliable. A staff engineer installed it in a couple of hours. It is also very good value for the money.

This system had some drawbacks.

No "follow me"

(1) We wanted to have "follow me", so that an incoming phone call for one individual would ring on all their phones simultaneously -- cell phone, office phone, other phone -- the individual just answers the phone that is most convenient. However, the Cisco UC320 only provided call forwarding. This meant the user would have to go a web interface, input instructions to forward to the cell phone (because, perhaps the user is leaving the office). This required extra effort that would be cumbersome. True "follow me", requires an investment in the next model up, the Cisco 540.

No "dial by name"

(2) The Cisco UC320 did not have "dial by name" with the auto attendant. Our existing, thirteen-year-old phone system had that. What does this mean? When you call an office and do not know the extension, you are often prompted to enter the first few letters of the person's last or first name. If "dial by name" is not available, then typically the phone system is "hard coded" so that you listen to a list of names and extensions and when you hear the one you want, you dial that extension. Neither system is very good, but it is very tedious to listen to the phone extensions for a long list of names. We throw down the challenge to the phone industry product marketing and engineering staffs around the world to figure out something better.

Curiously about this time, we bumped into Matthew Kaufman who had just joined Skype (now Microsoft). Matthew told us that at Skype there is no dial by name, no auto attendant, no listening to a list of names and extensions. Matthew said if someone wanted to call him, they had to know his Skype phone handle. Matthew said there were no frustrated customers or problems.

After considering Matthew's input, we came up with a compromise: a caller to InterWorking Labs hears three options -- the extensions for sales, technical support, and operator. That has worked out just fine.

Handsets are suboptimal for the slightly hard-of-hearing

(3) The Cisco IP Phone 303 handsets are very nice in every way, except for our two staff members who are a little hard of hearing. They are unable to adjust the phone's volume to a loud enough setting to consistently hear the caller. Cisco does not offer any upgrades or other options to the phones to accomodate those with hearing difficulties. If the caller is a clear speaker with good enunciation, it is not a problem. That is not always the case. Surprisingly, these two staffers find that they can hear better on their cell phones!

Simple changes can disrupt service

For making routing changes, like resetting a voice mail password, the user interface is very good and very easy for the low tech and non-tech admins to use. However, you have to be very very careful to click on the "Apply Later" button when you make these changes. Otherwise, if someone is using the phone, you can terminate their call! Perhaps the default should be that all changes get applied after midnight!

Positive Notes

Although there were some drawbacks, the phone system "just works". There have been zero reliability problems. In the final analysis, that is the most important criterion for InterWorking Labs.

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