As 2008 comes to a close, PBX in a Flash celebrates its First Anniversary and continues to be the only Asterisk® distro that offers users a choice of Asterisk 1.4 or 1.6 in either 32-bit or 64-bit flavors. In addition, you can choose our Lean, Mean Asterisk Machine or a preconfigured turnkey implementation with every VoIP bell and whistle on the planet. It’s all about choice and flexibility, and we offer both. For a preview of coming attractions, see the end of this article or take a look at the screen capture below. But today we hand over the editorial reins to some of our PBX in a Flash users to express in their own words why they chose PBX in a Flash and what their return on investment has been. We think you’ll be surprised by some of the responses. We certainly were.
You Never Know How Things Will Work Out
During the time of PBXIAF 1.0, I had been working with Trixbox for about 6 months. By the time PBXIAF 1.1 came out, I had learned enough about the way Trixbox can’t be updated to develop a healthy appreciation for the PBXIAF “compile on site, update as prudent” approach.
I happen to be a techno-nut -– but that notwithstanding, our small business was experiencing telephonic growing pains. After 7 years in business, an opportunity to expand our private label help desk product was easily ready to overrun the terrible copper lines we had for telephone service.
Since it was obvious VoIP was the only way to go – we began to explore what was out there. Vonage was riding high, Packet8 and many other competitors all got us around the limited copper into the office, each one we looked at had their own special quirks. All of them were using analog telephone adapters (ATAs) and either regular or slightly customized Analog phones.
We began a year of exploration that started with the BigGreenBox – hoping to learn enough about VoIP and this strange creature called FreePBX to be able to use it. But, with time marching on, Packet8’s Virtual Office product was selected, and put into use in a 10-phone system.
Although pretty much always under development, the web application that was provided was a little twisted, but worked once you got over its way of looking at call flow – rudimentary ring groups could be arranged in such a way as to simulate queues provided nor more than 8-10 callers were on hold. And so it went for a good year. We definitely used all our creativity to connect various IVR’s ($15/month each) to give the caller a good experience, but we were already clearly operating at the very limits of flexibility and capacity for the Packet8 system.
The average telephone bill during this period was approximately $380 per month (about 1/3 of what copper lines had cost) and almost nothing in hardware ($1,000 in proprietary telephones and ATAs).
Then the balance was broken when Packet8 rather arbitrarily stopped supporting a type of IVR transfer that was crucial to our work flow. At the same moment, the unthinkable happened. The help desk grew a little more. Less flexibility + even more demands for non-achievable call flow changes was the death knell for Packet8 at our office.
During this same time we had deployed several ISOs of the GreenBox in the lab and with field technicians….Several ISO’s! In a very short time. So many ISO’s, so fast – and a complete reinstall to go with each one. Yikes. It had become apparent to me that my career would suddenly change from network engineering to “PBX Upgrade and Reconfigure Monkey” if we deployed that distribution. Also – the forums were unproductive and negative much of the time. There are ways to disagree and still remain civil. Then, I rediscovered Nerd Vittles. This was about the time PBXIAF 1.1 was released.
The difference in the environment and team spirit – even when disagreements occurred – is very palatable. The community is full of people who are so wonderfully giving of their experience. The difference in the distributions – well- they can be summed up in about 6 words. Ward Mundy, Tom King, and Joe Roper.
This trio has brought together a remarkable set of skills and disciplines that produced a really, really good distribution, not solely RPM-based so knuckleheads like me can follow simpler instructions. [Asterisk code is] updated and compiled right on the box – and fully scripted. Security flaws get fixed in hours – sometimes minutes (when they find them – there’s been so FEW), not DAYS like the other guys. And all of it is based on FreePBX, arguably the most evolved UI for managing Asterisk.
Together – they got stability, reliability, and repeatability, and decorated it with enough solid features and functions to be a platform whose feature-function-benefit points are all top notch. Linux, Asterisk, Mysql, Apache, Text to Speech (2 different flavors), Voice Reminders, Wake Up Calls, Weather Reports, Tide Reports, Email by Phone, Headline News by Phone, and scripts that make it all go together just the way it needs to be: “stable and reliable”.
PBX In a Flash is a gift – an opportunity for our technical staff to learn a new area of our field, with the camaraderie of some genuine experts in the arena. We are 8 people, doing the work of 12 – just like a million small businesses. As an old network guy – learning a new skill has been tremendously exhilarating. And this technology is so flexible that I’m continually exhilarated learning new things… and for a long time to come! The professional growth has been great for all of us.
Now, the money. Way back up in the top of this [post], I told you the phone bill with Packet8 was on a good month $380 with barely the [functionality] needed to do our professional best.
Today, thanks to PBXIAF, we run 6 queues every day, with tremendous customer and client satisfaction. We use every part of the system to provide our customers with the best telephone interaction experience they could get anywhere. While handling about 10% more traffic, and with far superior call handling and work flow support, our average phone bill is $120 month.
Here’s the good part. With the $260 a month being saved, the company was able to afford to bring in group medical insurance for all our employees. How’s that for positively impacting 8 people every single day of their lives?
Ward, Tom, Joe – I could never have done it without you.
And then there was this testimonial from a venue that all of us are thinking about these days:
Our small public middle school in Washington, DC has to make every penny count. I’m in charge of our technology and its meager budget. This past summer we moved to a new and bigger building and needed to migrate our phone system. We had an existing NEC Aspire system with 15 extensions that worked just fine – nothing fancy – and it hooked up to a single POTS line.
At the new building we needed to double the size to 30 extensions. As the Aspire system used VOIP, it should just be a matter of buying the handsets and a little labor to configure them. Right? [Wrong!] $17,000 is what they wanted to hook up the existing equipment that we moved over and add the 15 new extensions. My response: "Hell no!"
I’d wanted an excuse to setup an Asterisk server for a while, but I had heard how complicated it was. School was close to opening. I had a lot of other things to take care of. And I needed a solution that would most likely work the first time. I found PiaF then read up on the wiki and Nerd Vittles. I ordered a set of Aastra 57i’s and a used Dell PowerEdge 2650. We decided to go "pure VOIP" for flexibility and signed up with Vitelity.com.
I followed the great step-by-step directions for PiaF. I wanted to set mine up inside a Virtual Machine which added some complexity, but I found lots of helpful users in the forums that had documented their experiences before me.
Now we’re 5 months in. The system has more capabilities than our old NECs. The sound quality is better, and it’s easier to use. I had some problems with my server crashing, but I was able to rebuild it on different hardware and transfer our entire configuration in about an hour. Now everything is great. I love that we’re implementing more open source tools, open standards, and aren’t limited to vendor BS when we’re ready to expand. Other schools thought we were "crazy" to setup our own system. Now they want all the details to try and do it themselves.
The best part, of course, is that our whole setup was under $7K. That’s a $10,000 savings. To translate that with regards to the school, that savings allowed us to buy and set up four desktop machines in each of ten classrooms. Now THAT is making a difference.
Thanks to the PiaF team and community!
And then there’s this one:
TODAY I TOOK CONTROL OF MY VOIP…..
I’ve been a happy VOIP user for 4 years running on Vonage. Even got my son hooked up on Vonage while he was in the Army stationed in Japan. But, when the lawsuits loomed over Vonage’s head, I started looking for something else, and I found Nerd Vittles. WOW! Being kind of a gadget junkie to start with and always looking for something interesting to do with my PCs, I started with Trixbox from Ward’s "build" and fumbled along. When PIAF came along I naturally followed.
I have two important successes that have made me love this VOIP/PIAF stuff.
1) When my grandson was diagnosed with a heart condition my daughter and her husband were stuck in hospital emergency rooms for hours at a time. Being about 500 miles from both our family and the other grandparents, they had a very difficult time getting news out to us since hospitals usually restrict the use of cell phones and don’t allow long distance calls from their phones. That only leaves (yuck!) pay phones. In just a few minutes time, I was able to buy a local DID to the hospital and connect it to my PIAF. I then set up an IVR that gave them access to a DISA. That way they could call us using a local number or call through the DISA to contact the other grandparents. Keeping everyone informed really eases your mind when the grandkids are ill!
2) When I got tired of my wife continuing to ask me for phone numbers when calling our family and friends, I finally decided to set up an IVR for her. So far, both of our kids’ home and cell numbers (as well as my cell number) have kept her happy. When she asks for more I’ll just add them. So far the "Wife Acceptance Factor" is high and I’m having great fun. Hanging up on recognized telemarketers is great, the Callerid Superfecta works great, and I like getting the Weather Forecast from Allison.
The port from Vonage was completed today. I’m using Future-Nine as my primary provider. So, like I said, today is the day I took control of my VOIP.
And, speaking of role reversal…
PIAF to the Rescue!!
Here is a twist for you.
First, the problem:
My company has a ShoreTel system in place, 48 extensions. They have 2 PRI’s bonded together with dynamic channel allocation. Eight channels are dedicated to the phones, the rest to the Internet. When we have more calls than 8, the system robs channels from the Internet, up to 23 channels max, and returns them as the call volume drops. This all works well.
Monday, a pole a few blocks from our office had the transformer catch fire, and the provider’s equipment was affected. We lost both Internet and phones for several hours. Much of our business is time critical. With no incoming phone calls and no email, we almost lost out on a chance to bid on a VERY large deal. Fortunately, the customer knew the L.A. branch number and after being unable to get in touch with us, he called L.A.
Anyway, now it is critical to management that this NEVER happen again.
Tuesday: I studied the issue and wrote a proposal.
Wednesday: I fired up a PIAF box, established a 10 channel SIP trunk group to the ShoreTel system, and got everything setup for intersystem routing, etc.
Thursday: I am picking up a pay-as-you-go service with 10 channels from a VOIP provider with a single DID and setting our Telco service for failover/rollover to the VOIP DID. I am then ordering a second Internet circuit, 2meg x 2meg, to bring in the SIP trunks from the provider. As soon as that is done, I will dual-home the mail server so that we can get and send email via both Internet providers.
The End Result:
If the primary connection fails, phone service rolls over to the DID from the VOIP provider, rolls into PIAF, and cross trunks to the ShoreTel – AUTOMATICALLY!! Email switches to the secondary MX record and keeps right on rolling. One change in the firewall for the public NAT address and gateway and Internet [and phone service] is back up and running.
THANK YOU Ward, Tom, Joe and gang for making this possible.
And, last but not least…
You made my Grandma Cry!
My wife and I are currently living in Germany, and we’ve been using a Skype-In number so our friends and family can call us. For my wife it is important that the solution just works like a regular phone and so I had setup a Siemens M34 to interface with our DECT phone and it worked, mostly, for a few days until the entire system needed to be restarted. For most of our family, this solution works. But my grandmother is living in a different area code and can’t afford to call us as often as she would like.
I stumbled upon the PBX in a Flash project a few weeks ago and, after I found two old Grandstream GXP-2000 in the company junk closet (we are an Internet startup – someone is always buying new toys), I installed PiaF 1.2 using VMWare. I set up a Vitelity DID, the CallerID Superfecta, the Callerid Creep Detector, experimented with ring groups, routing, IVRs and was so impressed that I knew our Skype-solution days were numbered.
Last night, I took the plunge, reformatted the Skype system, and deployed PiaF 1.3. The install was so fast and painless. I copied the old configuration information into the new system. And, my new PBX was up and running in under and hour.
I had so much time left on my hands that I figured I might as well experiment. I followed another Nerd Vittles tutorial and created a few cell phone extensions for my family back in the states. I went to Vitelity and purchased another DID. I recorded a quick message, setup an IVR, and a new corresponding route. That’s when the fun started.
I called my grandmother and told her: "Grandma, we’ve got a new telephone number. Will you please call me right back at…". She was a little surprised when I told her that the number was now going to be a local call for her. The real surprise came when she called the number and heard, "Hi Grandma, welcome to your phone system. For Martin and Ashlee, please press 1, for Rachel please press 2,…". By the time she pressed 1 and Asterisk was ringing our home ring group, she was in tears.
We talked for quite a while about our lives, the Olympics, the hurricane, and everything else. This morning when I got up, I checked the call logs and saw that she had systematically called every single IVR point after we got off the phone.
I didn’t deploy PiaF as a mission-critical business application yesterday–though that day will come for me, but I did what the open-source Internet ideology is all about in my mind. I used the knowledge and experience others have gifted the community to create a solution that fit my situation.
Thanks Again, PiaF Team, from the bottom of my heart!
For those of you that still need a New Year’s Resolution, we hope our fans have given you some ideas. And, when my wife again asks why I continue to work for 5¢ an hour, I’ve got something great for her to read.
Thanks, everybody. You’ve made it all worthwhile.
Want a Bootable PBX in a Flash Drive? Early in 2009 to celebrate the beginning of Nerd Vittles’ Fifth Year, we’ll be introducing our bootable USB flash installer for PBX in a Flash with all of the goodies in the VPN in a Flash system featured a few weeks ago on Nerd Vittles. You can build a complete turnkey system using almost any current generation PC with a SATA drive and our flash installer in less than 15 minutes!
If you’d like to put your name in the hat for a chance to win a free one delivered to your door, just post a comment below with your best PBX in a Flash story.1
Be sure to include your real email address which will not be posted. The winner will be chosen by drawing an email address out of a hat (the old fashioned way!) from all of the comments posted over the next couple weeks. All of the individuals whose comments were used in today’s story will automatically be included in the drawing as well. Good luck to everyone and Happy New Year!!
Nerd Vittles Fan Club Map. We hope you’ll take a second and add yourself to our Frappr World Map. In making your entry, you can choose an icon: guy, gal, nerd, or geek. For those that don’t know the difference in the last two, here’s the best definition we’ve found: "a nerd is very similar to a geek, but with more RAM and a faster modem." We’re always looking for the best BBQ joints on the planet. So, if you know of one, add it to the map while you’re visiting.
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