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Small office phone systems - Part 2

The story so far: A small law firm needed to change its phone system. A hardware PBX system was out of the question as too cumbersome and too costly; the home-office solutions were too small and insufficiently featured; and a virtual PBX solution had the drawback of creating an ongoing expense.

But the research into a virtual PBX solution revealed a potential open-source PBX software and hardware solution. Open-source PBX software meant that acquisition and ongoing expenses would potentially be nil. In particular, Asterisk telephony software, the leading open-source solution, was of high interest.

 As Linux-based product, Asterisk can be installed on a re-purposed desktop computer. To ease the roll-your-own aspect of things, we researched various installation and operation tutorials at sites such as Nerd Vittles and solution providers such as PBX in a Flash.

Asterisk certainly provided the features we were after in a phone system. But difficulties arose on the hardware side, specifically the need (or wish) to interface the PBX box with our telco land lines. Without getting into the technical details, the main solution would have required buying interface cards, such as those offered by Digium, which can be inserted into a desktop computer case like any other hardware interface card.

Another solution, which on a cost-benefit basis, is reasonably priced, is the Warp appliance, from Pika Technologies, an Ontario-based company. Their Warp appliance consists of a special purpose computer that runs Asterisk software and comes with various options for telco interface cards.

In theory, with software PBX you wouldn't need a telco interface card; it did seem to be possible in theory to run a completely network-based solution, using VOIP lines instead of telco land lines and plugging in the handsets to the network (or even giving up handsets as such; and deciding to run things through a software phone, such as X-Lite, on your computer). Unfortunately, cutting the cord to a true land line just wasn't a worthwhile technical option. At least in our experience, VOIP simply isn't ready for prime time -- or at least to the exclusion of giving up telco land lines.

In the end, we decided that we didn't want to spend the rest of our days installing and running a phone system. An all-in-one solution was what we really needed.

In the end, that solution turned out to be Microsoft's Response Point phone system. They did the software and partnered with three hardware providers.

We managed to find a supplier, who directed us to the particular hardware solution we chose: an all-in-one box running the Response Point software and with an interface card large enough to handle the telco land lines that we decided to stick with.

Installation was quite straightforward once the boxes arrived; it took about a day.

Sad to say, of course, no sooner was the thing installed than Microsoft discontinued the project.

So we slipped in under the wire. So far, we're pleased with Response Point as a solution. Some of our small business clients have noticed the change to our phone system, and asked us about it. Which tells us there is something to it.

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