Brents IT Blog

Random thoughts by an IT GOAT


VoIP Phone Systems

So about two years ago i began to play with asterix and its various distributions.  What i found was that i liked the idea of being able to manage phones over a network, customize features without any special software and use multiple types/brands of phones for the same system.  I also liked the scalable foundations, flexible interfaces, and variety of supported hardware the technology was built on.  What i didn't like was the fact that some of the technology was unproven, some had known issues or caveats and others had some propriety-ness built in. 

Either way, the idea of using VoIP stuck in my head and over the last few months i have be speaking with different vendors about what was possible.  Well lets just say that recently things heated up, i was told to get my ducks lined up and quacking if I wanted to make VoIP a reality for the company.  This was completely out of the blue and something I didn't think i would be able to deploy on a large scale.  Apparently, the little nuggets i had been dropping in different peoples heads paid off.  They really wanted a call center and they wanted unified communications!  They were also going to be able to pay for it this year with a grant, assuming they got the grant.  So it was off to the suppliers.  Little side note: i use the term suppliers because, my mother, the purchasing guru( she worked for many pharmaceutical firms as a purchasing VP ), hates the term "Vendor".  She says the term "Vendor" reminds her of a carnival guy with a monkey on his shoulder(what do you think?).

First things first, where do i start looking for a useful phone system that meets our requirements?  Now normally, i look around the web for features which usually results in a product list, but in the past few months i was paying more attention to what other companies we interact with were using and news articles related to VoIP.  I also decided not to use any of our current vendors, i wanted a clean start.  Yes, sometimes working with people you know is easier, but when choosing a system that will affect everyone in the company as well as revenues, i had to start on level ground.  So after a some serious web searches, blog and forum posts as well as feature lists, i decided to narrow down my list of vendors.  Voldavi was out for sure.  We had been using them at two separate centers and while their phone systems worked, every change order and feature required large sums of money.  Lets also not forget that when you are depending on another company to complete your work orders, sometimes they send out the C team.  The C team usually wastes your time and money while they fix a problem that should take 20 minutes to fix, in 9 hours.  Maintenance costs, features and VAR availability were huge deciding factors.

So now its time to meet the line up. 


A Shoretel phone system was in use by our bank, I am buddy buddy with the finance guy there and he was showing me the features of his system.  While he didn't have the top of the line model, he was happy to show me the software and features his stuff had.  He also showed me their conference room setup, which included a saucer like phone and camera(the saucer was the Shoretel conference phone).  I liked the look of the Shoretel phones, they seems sturdy and stylish as well as functional and easy to figure out.  While i know its generally easier for tech guys to figure stuff out, if i can figure out a phone by just looking at it, most users will be able to use it after little training.  Yes, this is how i judge most products and i have never regretted a decision going by this methodology.  

Anyhow, after submitting a form online and waiting a few days(huh?), an area sales rep called me back, then told me a local VAR would contact me soon.  Now I don't know about most people, but being told a local VAR will call me without being given a choice of local VARs, seems odd.  I personally think it allows favoritism and a god complex to occur at the regional sales level, this could lead to a bad outcome.  I however went along with the whole thing in the next week had a demo at my office of the phones and system as well as a company history.  What i found is that i truly did like the phones and the system as well as the methodology they use to maintain their systems stability.  While they haven't been around for a super long time, as many other would soon tout, their technology spoke volumes as too their knowledge.  Please keep in mind that good tech is a mix of new methodology/equipment and old fashioned know-how.  Either way, the sales team seemed knowledgeable about their product and were able to answer most of the questions.

Review of Shoretel:  website

Cons ->  Newer company, private company, unproven history of solid technology, medium distribution, somewhat expensive(everything is negotiable right?), had to buy wall mounts separately and some phones didn't support wall mounting.

Pros -> Seemingly solid phones, recognizable user base, few hardcore online complaints(Yes, i searched for reviews and forum posts regarding problems), huge feature set, reliability, flexibility of design, redundancy(biggie for us given a healthcare user base), integrated software with point and click call mobility, flexible network technology requirements, web based management.



We have many NEC systems around the company.  We are not wowed by them nor are we ecstatic about the maintenance costs for custom programming or feature enhancement costs.  I can say their digital PBX's are pretty solid unless they are hit by lightening(is any?), but that's another story.  We have them deployed to three different locations of varying sizes.  While they are not the same model systems, they are in the same line.  I was also not impressed by their ability to perform adequate reporting, but that again is another story.  Lets talk about their VoIP systems instead.

I was interested to see how they would meet my redundancy requirements.  My three page requirements sheet was sent to all prospective suppliers and it seemed that everyone could fill the bill.  I also figured that if they could meet those requirements, dealing with the funky setups we tend to ask for would not be an issue.  As with any known brand, the basics were there and indisputably crafted to perfection.  Apparently NEC has been around since dirt, so they pretty much felt like they knew what everyone wanted.  This could not have been farther from the truth.  Little tip for those old hats out there, just because everyone knows your name, doesn't mean they are instantly wowed by what you show them.  I felt like i was talking to mis(or mister) perfect, nothing done in the past could have been wrong and i must have been mistaken(or my var was mistaken) if something i wanted done could not be done with any of their systems... because they are perfect.  Now this may have just been the presenter, so i will cut them some slack.  Their feature sets with the VoIP systems were there, but i found they relied heavily on servers.  While they also supported digital and analog connections for mixed environments, this was more of a turn off.   Their redundancy model was almost laughable too.  I know we are partially government funded, but seriously, i am not going to pay for two mirrored server cabinet setups to ensure that there was a little redundancy.

Review of NEC: website

Cons -> Support of older tech seemed to interfere with VoIP features, Large PBX's ( 4U boxes ) required for each site(yay a card system too, not), laughable redundancy methodology, somewhat expensive(negotiable though). Company has a large set of product focuses.

Pros -> Proven track record, solid handsets, large feature set, web based management, decent maintenance costs, many local VAR's( we only met with one though ).



Let me start off this one with, i like Cisco, i like the fact that they participate and help Non-profits with both pricing and expertise.  I could not help the fact that we were out of the non-profit range and i did not hold that against them.  Anytime anyone is willing to offer non-profit pricing to non-profits, i have to give kudos to that company.

Obviously everyone in networking knows Cisco; They have proven technology, a history of good outcomes and presence.  What they don't have is a long term history in VoIP or phone systems for that matter.  I had to put them side by side with Shoretel, just because of this fact.  They also made faces when i said i was looking at Shoretel, then touted their supremeness over Shoretel.  I can say that i am unmoved by companies who say they are better than other companies, especially in a sales environment. 

We did talk at length regarding our network and what they could do for us.  I have actually used their phones on an asterisk system i built and tested with a few years back(see above).  Their phone quality is solid, but the phones themselves are not completely intuitive, but i was able to fumble my way through the initial setup.  Their sales staff had no issues with my requirements paper, though they had to tweak a few requirements to understand and deliver what we were looking for.  The VAR and engineer were both nice and presented well.  I don't think i left with a single question unanswered. 

Review of Cisco: website

Cons -> Smartnet(maintenance) costs, cost in general( though government pricing was helping alot ), newer player in the phone field, complexity of device management( can you say certified to use/setup ? ), although they didn't say to me directly they would not support our existing network, many many many websites and friends seemed to point to the fact that they blame other networking technology the minute you have VoIP problems( one person even told me they were told to replace all their networking gear with Cisco).  I had also read some online horror stories about companies forklifting their systems into a dumpster.  While i take forums with a grain of salt, i also give more credit to certain forums, users and amount of posts regarding their tech.

Pros -> Solid handsets, proven technology, redundancy ( it was not 100% what i was looking for but pretty close ), available support, mobility of phone system.



Ok, let me first say, i did not actively seek out Avaya, someone dropped them at my door step.  I was not originally going to consider Avaya based on the numerous forum posts and blogs i found that complained about the service and technology.  With this bias in mind, i still allowed their sales guys to come out and show me their products.  I also was not impressed with their sales tactics.  Let me give you sales guys a piece of advice, do not go above or around the guy you are meeting with.  When my boss asks me a question about a system i have not presented to them yet, you can believe i will make sure you never step foot in our offices again.  They put me in charge of looking for a system because they either didn't have the time or the knowledge to pick one themselves and they trust me to determine what would most likely be the best for the company.  Wasting their time, will not win you points.

Their systems seemed just as functional as the other systems i looked at.  I was not impressed when the sales guy told me that the system coming out in a few months would have all of my requirements.  This tells me they haven't had time to fully test the features i want in the wild.  Their handsets were pretty standard and their feature sets were somewhat comparable.  I was not impressed by the fact that you had to use software to manage their phones and phone system. 

Review of Avaya: website

Cons -> Lack of features, redundancy not available, software based systems management, owned by a private equity firm, sooo many online complaints( too numerous to ignore ), annual maintenance costs were astronomical, sales tactics(does that count?).  ( I actually had a friend say their company had an Avaya system installed and replaced it with a Cisco system a few months after installing the Avaya system.  While he was not a phone guy, he also noticed the phone issues with their systems, though this could have been the VAR. ).

Pros -> Solid handsets, super low price ( my BS meter was on high though, after looking at maintenance costs, i figured they would get us on the back end, something a non-profit cannot afford to worry about.).



Yet another company that contacted me at the last minute.  Granted i did not give them much of my time and they seemed to have lacked the knowledge we needed to get the job done, but i actually genuinely liked these guys.  I can also say their phone systems have a proven track record at two of our centers and the last job i was at(which still has the Toshiba in use). 

The systems themselves were not bad, i wouldn't say Toshiba has really focused on VoIP that hard.  Toshiba seems to have done what they needed to ensure they were not left out of the market and their systems seem more geared toward small companies.  I wouldn't say they were the best fit for us given their lack of features, but i was willing to entertain the idea given their track record.

I can say the consulting company seemed to be split on how they handle things.  They were not that local to us and they seemed to depend heavily on a few guys to make sure what was needed got done.  This made me worry about a large scale deployment scenario and their capabilities in an emergency.  Overall, they gave me everything i asked for and answered everything i asked them truthfully, even if they didn't know.  The systems they presented to me were as large as our existing units and based on the same type of technology infrastructure.  They really didn't have the ability to handle redundancy well, nor did the phone systems seem to support a large feature set out of the box.

Review of Toshiba: website

Cons -> Large PBX units with card systems, redundancy was somewhat non-existent and there were too many questions, the VAR didn't seem capable of handling our needs, lack of features.  Company has a large set of product focuses.

Pros -> Very solid handsets( i really liked them, can you tell? ), proven technology, proven track record, likable VAR(does this truly count?).  I have also been a fan of Toshiba technology, i tend to buy their other products alot.



After all was said and done, we ended up choosing Shoretel.  Shoretel was not the cheapest, while my company did not like that fact and its generally a very tough battle when it comes to price if there are cheaper systems, they did fit into the price range and i really pushed their feature set. 

I really liked their redundancy model; While each system is separate, each system is aware of the company setup and if a system were to fail, all the phones would automatically move the next available box no matter what site that box was at.  If a network link were to fail, we can restrict who can call and point to local lines for temporary purposes.  Their PBX equipment was half a 1U box which you could swap out or add another box depending on need.  Like most systems they used PoE switches instead of power bricks( though they were available ).  This VAR allowed me to dictate the use of HP PoE switches to match our existing HP switch infrastructure and management tools.  I was also deeply impressed by the web tools.  Everything at the click of a button, you could even configure hardware devices through the interface once you gave them an IP via console(amazing). 

Lets talk about the handsets.  These were probably the most intuitive units i saw besides the Toshiba's.  The options on the units and even button enabled configuration just complete me( hehe ).  The speaker phone quality was astounding and somewhat scary( One of my tech commented to me that he could hear a mosquito fart across the room). The site to site voice quality has also been amazing.  I was not impressed by the fact that they do not support VMWare yet, but this is voice after all.  I hope that someday soon, they figure out that just about everything will be virtual(and they should prepare for that).

We also bought their enterprise call center software, but so far that has not been installed.  I hope to have that in the coming weeks.  I can say that the rest of the companies could compete in this area(some more than others),   I was extremely impressed by the reporting in Shoretel's system.  No special reports required, just make your own if they dont have them in there and boy were they simple to design using the built in functions(no special software or knowledge).

Obviously, needs are a driving factor in the decision making process and i want to make sure i note that, if Shoretel been lacking in any way, we would have gone with Cisco.