Digium Switchvox is surging ahead

The Asterisk open source phone system has always been a favorite of mine. I used it to help me out of a SIP jam a few years back, and for many years I have wanted to be able to put together a good system for customers using Asterisk, but have not been able to create something sufficiently compelling.

Although I primarily work with Cisco Unified Communications, and think it is the best overall UC system in the market, I had become frustrated when trying to come up with designs for less than 100 phones that were competitive from a standpoint of features and price.

For example, there was one company just down the street from us that we would talk to every year, trying to come up with new and better designs at a better price. They were consistently not interested.

Finally, a few months back we made the strategic decision to start selling a phone system optimized for less than 200 users, which offers a huge feature set at a very attractive price. After going through all the training, certifications, putting the distributor relationships in place, tuning up our demo system, etc., we went back to visit this recalcitrant customer.

It had been about a year since we last talked. I pulled out the old design, updated it for the new product, and we priced it out. It looked good. As we walked in the door, I looked over to the reception area to reacquaint myself with the type of phone system they currently had. I pointed it out to the sales rep that was with me, then I did a double-take.

Ironically, it was a Polycom phone, and furthermore on the display it said Digium Switchvox. All of a sudden we realized we were not there on a sales call; we were there to get told to take a hike.

See, there are only a few decent choices these days when looking for a new phone system. Setting a baseline that it has to be an IP based Unified Communications system, and has to be from a manufacturer who will provide the support a customer requires, leads to a few options. Ranked by typical price of a system, high to low, the choices are:

1. Avaya (formerly Lucent, formerly ATT). Good company, decent product. There are more Avaya Definity PBX’s installed than you can shake a stick at. Low end IP Office has a tough time making a go of it, but the higher end product set of G series media gateway and S8000 series servers are good products. They can be difficult to manage, and Avaya IP phones are not SIP based, but overall a strong offering.

2. Nortel. Huge TDM market presence. There are a lot of Norstar and Option 11’s installed out there. The BCM product is ok, and the communication manager based products are good. It is just a big risk to decide on a company’s products when that company is currently in bankruptcy.

3. Cisco. Although I am admittedly biased in this regard (see my company link to the right), Cisco is an excellent choice for multi-site and more than 150 handsets. Anything less and the pricing starts to creep up or the feature set slims down. As Cisco adds features, additional appliances are required; which is fine for larger installations but not for smaller ones.

4. Mitel. Has good products, but since the acquisition of Intertel they seem to have a number of overlapping product sets. We have seen customers buy the lower end products first, then have to replace them later as they grow in size and have different needs.

5. Shoretel. Good at the lower end of phone counts. Many people like their features and ease of use. Constant Windows server updates to the base operating system can be frustrating.

6. Asterisk, which is the most widespread open-source PBX in existence. A good Asterisk install has a better combination of reliability, features, and price than anything else out there. The problem with Asterisk is that the best management is done at the command line by someone very familiar with it, and sometimes it is hard for businesses to buy a phone system from a consultant.

There are also other players that are either coming or going:

1. Microsoft. Making a good entry into the market with OCS 2007. I have a hard time understanding the current marketing campaign of continuing to pay for the legacy PBX and adding Microsoft OCS as an additional cost. I think the system would work better with a full IP conversion using SIP phones.

2. Siemens, Alcatel, 3com, Altigen, and various hosted systems. These are not serious players at this point for business communications systems for more than a few phones.

One that does not fit either category is Digium. This is the company founded by the inventor of Asterisk. Most of their business was creating interface cards for Asterisk installations. The Switchvox product is an appliance based on Digium’s business edition Asterisk, and is only managed by a GUI. The GUI is comprehensive and the product feature rich. I expect Digium to grow rapidly with the Switchvox product line.

It works with any SIP based phone, and will provision Polycom and Snom SIP phones centrally. It has an inexpensive price, and in one box has all the features one could want, including:

Call recording
Presence and desktop control of phone.
Central management and provisioning of handsets.
PRI, analog, and SIP trunk connectivity.
Conferencing, whisper, handset paging.
Multiple codec’s.
Unified communications.
SIP softphone support.
XML based call control decisions and database interactions.
Digium just announced Switchvox SMB version 4, which adds a chat server, video calls, fax server, windows client, and wideband audio support.

I have been in the Unified Communications business now for 10 years. Furthermore, that entire time has been on the front lines of the business, working with customers every day to design successful systems that they could cost-justify and purchase, then putting the systems in place and supporting them. Almost all of it has been with Cisco IP phone systems.

Because of all that experience, when I dug into the details of the Digium Switchvox phone system, I was very excited. I knew the years of continuous improvements to Asterisk provided a stable foundation for the platform. After testing it out, I found a few flaws in version 3.5, all of which had workarounds, and all of which have been addressed in the 4.0 version product upgrades. The best feature, though, is the amazing GUI. It is comprehensive, easy-to-use, and visually slick.

Going forward, we are going to be talking about the Digium Switchvox Unified Communications system to our customers when it is the right mix of features and price. I expect that to be definitely for