Innovative VoIP Gear for Small Businesses

While large IP PBX vendors continue to build on server-based platforms, some international firms are taking different approaches to small-business VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) telephone systems.

Among the distinctive small-business VoIP products emerging is an embedded IP PBX appliance for small offices that fits in a briefcase. For customers not interested in any extra hardware, another VoIP system uses peer-to-peer technology in IP phones, eliminating the need for an IP PBX. Users of these types of products say the gear is more focused on the needs of small-office phone systems and provides a good cost-saving alternative to expensive server-based IP PBXs from larger vendors.

One company, German VoIP vendor Snom Technology, has crunched down an IP PBX into a device smaller than a home answering machine. The Snom Box is an IP PBX for companies with 50 or fewer users. The device runs Snom's 4S IP PBX and voice-mail system software on top of an embedded Linux operating system. (Snom offers this software on a server-based IP PBX for larger businesses and for carriers offering IP Centrex services.) Conferencing and auto-attendant features also are supported.

The Snom Box is tiny: 3.5 inches tall by 3 inches wide and 1.5 inches deep. This is smaller than the IP phones the system supports. The IP PBX software uses Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) for transport, so it is compatible with any standard SIP phone.

"It was important for us to use SIP. This gives small businesses more options in choosing handsets; we're not looking to tie anyone" into proprietary VoIP protocols or phone hardware, says Oliver Wittig, Snom's global sales manager.

No Moving Parts

The Snom Box has dual 10/100 mbps (megabits per second) ethernet ports for redundant network links, a USB port, and a flash memory card slot. Snom says the device is reliable because it has no moving parts: The operating system software is loaded from flash memory, which is also used for voice-mail storage. Voice mail also can be backed up to a separate server over the LAN.

A Web-based interface is used to configure and administer the device. It will be sold through retail channels internationally and works with SIP-compatible public switched telephone network (PSTN) gateways and open-source VoIP gateways, such as Asterisk and Vovida. The Snom Box will be sold in Europe through carriers; the carriers will offer services that let a Snom Box connect to a carrier network via VoIP, and link to the public phone network through a carrier's infrastructure.

The Snom Box is scheduled to be available next month starting at US$1400.

Peer to Peer

Another VoIP system for small businesses--from Canadian firm Aastra Technologies--does not use an IP PBX. Rather, the IP phones communicate using an IP-based peer-to-peer call setup scheme.

The VentureIP 480i phones are set up by entering an end user's name, extension number, and IP addresses into the device. The phones have programmable feature buttons, speakerphones, and an eight-line LCD display. Individual voice-mail boxes are included in each phone. Users can also point a Web browser at the IP phones to view calling records and other management statistics.

The US$380 phones are connected via ethernet switch ports and discover each other over a LAN using a proprietary discovery protocol developed by Nimcat Software, which also makes the call control and operating system for the devices. A VentureIP Gateway ($280) is used to connect the LAN-based phones to an outside PSTN trunk. Up to 200 VentureIP phones can operate on a LAN.

The VentureIP phones and gateway are deployed in the 10-person office of MoneyVest Financial, an Ottawa brokerage firm.

"I always had a dilemma with small-business phone systems," says Ben Fard, managing director at MoneyVest. "Most phone systems require a lot of money up front for equipment. Then they hit you again (with upgrade costs) if you want to expand." He says with the VentureIP system, "you don't have to invest in a lot of back-room infrastructure."

Fard says he looked at a Nortel small-office PBX system, which started at about US$10,000 for just the phone switch; phones and licenses were extra. At US$380 per phone, Fard says that, compared with a switch or server-based PBX or IP PBX, the VentureIP system is providing equal performance and features at a lower price.

"If we grow, I'll just add phones," he says. "If we don't grow, I haven't paid a lot of money up front for (voice) capacity and hardware we don't use."

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