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Soft, hard, lightly hosted? Make the right call when you choose a PBX system

Cloudy phone systems get down to business

All businesses need a PBX phone system to organise calls and direct them round the organisation.

PBX systems have evolved over the last couple of decades. While some companies may still be using expensive physical switchboards, they can now also choose a hosted PBX system, either with hardware provided by a hosting company or a software-based system running on a mainstream operating system.

No company using a traditional proprietary PBX would realistically consider replacing it with the same. Technology that belongs to the last century won’t offer smooth progress towards a unified communications solution and all the productivity benefits that go with it.

Hosted and software-based systems each have their advantages and aligning the solution will depend on factors such as the company’s size, its degree of expertise and its level of commitment.

With one voice

The market for cloud or hosted PBX systems has grown hugely in the last few years. A report released last October by Infonetics Research noted that hosted PBX/unified communications was the VoIP service that had grown the most in the first half of 2013, particularly among larger enterprises.

Infonetics also found that demand for unified communications is increasing in all regions as businesses seek to boost employee productivity and flexibility.

Nick Galea, CEO of 3CX, developer of the VoIP PBX 3CX Phone System for Windows, sees the demand for cloud-based PBXs growing.

A cloud-based PBX moves all the equipment you need for a phone system to the ether to be controlled by an expert company. This can be an attractive option for several reasons.

There are no upfront investment, maintenance or upgrade costs and the solution should be flexible enough to cope with changes as the business grows. It also gives a company with little or next-to-no expertise a clear path to the productivity benefits that come with unified communications.

But Galea sounds a warning note. “A virtual PBX is attractive to smaller customers but it comes with a price,” he says.

“Virtual PBXs have basic feature sets and the companies providing them take control of your customers. They make you dependent on their quality control and support procedures. This could be a disaster for customers and resellers.”

3CX’s offering, he says, is somewhat different. 3CX Cloud Server is designed to host the company’s award-winning 3CX Phone System but allows resellers full control of data and quality.

It offers enterprise PBX features, unified communications and broad client support and doesn’t compromise on functionality, Galea says.

Join the mainstream

Larger businesses may have in-house resources available or may not feel comfortable ceding control of their communications system to an external supplier.

Even for these companies the PBX should be just another server application, run on the same servers and with the same network management tools used for other applications in the business: no new skills and no new black boxes needed.

For these companies it may make more sense to move away from proprietary solutions and appliances, based on custom distributions of Linux, and go straight to a software-based solution that runs on a mainstream, commercially supported operating system.

Galea founded 3CX nearly 10 years ago because he believed there was a need for an open standard PBX that would be affordable, easy to use, innovative and software based.

“The PBX industry desperately needs to innovate and software solutions can make this happen”

“I believe the PBX industry desperately needs to innovate and software solutions can make this happen,” he says.

“The choice of operating system is important, though. If the IT department relies on Windows and knows Windows, choose a Windows-based solution. If you use Linux, then a Linux solution will suit you best.

“Do not let the PBX features or price override your choice of operating system.”

Galea thinks the choice of operating system is important because of the many routine tasks involved in running a PBX. Operating system patches will need to be applied regularly, so better to use one that administrators are already familiar with.

Upgrading to a new version of the PBX is simpler if administrators already know the underlying operating system.

Similarly the PBX is monitored through controls for services, logging and so on that may be published in different ways depending on the operating system, so it is better to use a monitoring solution that administrators already know.

Galea gives the example of Launceston College, one of Cornwall’s oldest secondary schools, which was looking to replace its nearly 20-year-old Panasonic PBX. This had become impossible to scale and was incurring expensive management and consultant fees.

Listen and learn

The school chose 3CX Phone System for Windows and 3CX partner Tri-Lan IT installed more than 100 IP phones at the school in less than 10 days. The school saw immediate gains to productivity as direct dial-in now allows staff members to be contacted directly, rather than going through the switchboard.

The mobility features provided in the 3CXPhone clients also allow the staff to use their Android phones and iPhones as PBX endpoints, so they can make and receive calls when away from their desks. Moreover the school saw a drop of 40 per cent in its telecommunications costs.

In summary, a business looking to ditch its outdated PBX and replace it with something that is both future proof and cost effective has a couple of choices.

A cloud-based hosted PBX is one potential route – favoured by smaller companies – provided the business chooses the hosting company wisely.

A software-based PBX, provided it runs on an operating system the business already knows, should be both easy to install and manage, and it allows companies to leverage their existing server hardware.

Such a solution is fault tolerant as it makes for easy backup and restoration, and it can also be easily integrated with existing business applications. ®

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