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3CX PBX for Windows: Everything you ever wanted from a phone system

People-friendly VoIP

System requirements

The 3CX will sit happily on WS2008, WS2008 R2, SBS 2008 or WS2012, as well as Windows 7 or Windows 8 (though if you are running a real-life phone system, run it on a proper server operating system).

On any phone system the memory and processing power tend to be the components that constrain the encoder/compressor engine.

3CX screenshot

Hence the system requirements are dictated by the number of concurrent calls you expect to handle – from a puny 1GB RAM for up to four concurrent calls up to 16GB RAM and a pair of decent CPUs if you want 1,000-plus calls at once.

Before you install, make sure you have read up on the setup process. The installer is straightforward but it does give you a lot of information about system requirements and, particularly, the TCP and UDP ports it will be using.

It is essential to know and deal with this if you have a firewall between your box and any part of the world it needs to talk to.

Once the installer has been completed the User Settings wizard springs to life. Once again it is important to come prepared because it will ask you to make some key decisions such as how many digits you want in your extension numbers.

Before you can do anything exciting you will need a couple of extensions. Setting them up is a case of giving them a name and number and some login credentials (for SIP authentication), and enabling features such as voicemail if desired.

Connecting to the world

Once you have some extensions you are ready to deal with your interface to the outside world. If you have native SIP provision then great, you are sorted, particularly if you have picked one that is specifically supported by the software.

If you don't have SIP then you will have bought a VoIP/PSTN gateway box – again, make sure you use a supported one (3CX supports seven brands of gateway).

Rather cunningly, the 3CX config application will walk you through a wizard and then generate a config file which you can import into the gateway device – a neat trick.

Work methodically through things like number mapping: how to map a call arriving from outside onto an extension and how to route and DDI-stamp an outbound call. Happily, you can use wildcards and templates to generate lots of similar mappings and then tweak as required.

When you have extensions talking properly over trunks, you move on to groups (called Ring Groups in 3CX). As you would expect you can drop extensions into a group and have them ring one by one or all at once.

You can also define what happens if nothing is answered, for example send the call to the operator, drop into a specified mailbox or forward to an interactive voice response (IVR) system.

Pick a handset

You can of course connect any SIP-capable phone handset to 3CX. Many proprietary-looking handsets are actually just SIP devices with a fancy label.

Vendors such as Cisco and Mitel often provide dual-mode phones which can flip between proprietary and standards-based – and in fact 3CX specifically lists support for the Cisco 79xx that I have used extensively.

In addition, though, you can use a softphone on a PC or smartphone – either one of the many third-party ones out there or 3CX's own. This is freely available for Windows, iPhone and Android, and there is an Alpha version of a Mac client too.

It is loaded with pretty much all the features you would find in a high-end system

Much to my dismay I am the only member of my household not equipped with an iPhone; as I write this I have the other three talking to each other happily via my 3CX PBX.

Incoming call UI, as shown on Mac

Apart from the fundamentals and the bits that everyone uses all the time, the system is also loaded with pretty much all the features you would find in a traditional high-end system. So if you want to bridge remote 3CX Phone Systems together via VoIP to avoid call charges, you can do so via the simple Add Bridge wizard.

There is a simple in-built IVR system that lets you forward calls to a voice-based response system, and which I found spookily like Mitel's built-in one.

And remember we mentioned electronic fax solutions earlier? Lo and behold, there is a fax server built into the 3CX which you can use to address the need to support legacy analogue fax services.

How good is it?

I will be honest: when I started with 3CX I was sceptical. I am a huge Mitel fan, and in the software-based space I have used Asterisk extensively. Can a Windows-based phone app really be that good?

Yes, actually, it can. It is simply bloody marvellous because the developers have done everything I would want them to.

They have acknowledged that VoIP is really just a bunch of pretty easy protocols and not made a big deal of it except to make sure that it logs profusely and that you can easily monitor that everything is up.

They have acknowledged that every PBX – both hardware and software – on the market is not easy to manage and have filled the GUI with really nice stuff such as people-friendly wizards. It is a pleasure to have something built by humans who care about GUIs instead of by engineers who don't.

More than that they have actually thought about what people want in a phone system. For example, it is very tricky in many systems to specify the voicemail box that a call should go to if a hunt group delivery fails. Here, it is just sitting there as a pull-down in the list.

There is support for loads of real-life phones and VoIP/PSTN gateways, as well as native support for VoIP providers worldwide. Updating the configs and provider lists is a simple two-click “Update” function.

There is also a function that will go and probe your firewall ports and tell you if you have got the settings right.

Wherever you look, things just feel that much easier than in a traditional PBX. Oh, and if you are worried about support and maintenance: don't be, they are available with the package.

This is the first phone system I have used that is made for people without a degree in rocket telephony. Nor is it just an SME package – you could genuinely use it in a multi-country setup like the ones I have run in the past.

It will be interesting to see how – or even if – the Mitels, the Avayas and the Ciscos respond to the threat that 3CX inevitably represents.

Cost: Pricing is based on the number of concurrent calls and includes one year's maintenance. It starts at four concurrent calls for €395 and scales to 1,024 concurrent calls at €34,995.

Various integration modules (Salesforce, Microsoft Dynamics and so on) and a hotel module are available separately.

The Pro version adds call-centre functionality, Exchange integration, cross-office presence and more reporting.

More info from: 3CX. ®

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