When it comes to choices in free PBXs, times have indeed changed. A decade ago your options went something like this. There was Asterisk@Home or Asterisk@Home. Then along came trixbox® and Elastix® and PBX in a Flash™ and AsteriskNOW®. What remained constant throughout this evolution was the underlying Asterisk® platform. With the exception of Digium’s offering, the remaining products all included the FreePBX® GUI. Then came a whole new way of looking at things with FreeSWITCH®. Another morphing occurred when the FreePBX developers introduced their own distribution which bundled free software with a collection of commercial demoware, better known as NagWare. Along the way we introduced Incredible PBX™ which let you choose an underlying platform and then an installer preconfigured the entire PBX together with dozens of applications. We also discovered an open source sleeper called XiVO that morphed into Wazo. It wasn’t long until commercial companies discovered that there might be gold in them hills. Sangoma® purchased FreePBX and 3CX acquired PBX in a Flash and Elastix. Digium’s AsteriskNOW product morphed into a rebranded FreePBX Distro®. Another popular commercial company that had been around the Asterisk community for more than a decade was Xorcom, and in 2016, they introduced their own freeware PBX called Ombutel. Another well-respected commercial provider, 3CX, quickly followed suit and introduced a collection of freeware PBXs1 including PBX in a Flash 5, Elastix 5, and a free edition of its popular 3CX UC platform running under Debian. Whew! What a ride it has been. But now what?
We’ve gone from rags to riches, but how do you sort out which solution is best for you? I’m reminded of some advice my dad gave me when I was trying to choose a college to attend. He said, "Make yourself a list of what’s important to you, and then rank each school from 1 to 10 on each of those criteria. Add up the columns, and there’s your answer." I would offer you the same advice in choosing a PBX. So let’s start with our list of 10 criteria in no particular order that should be considered in choosing a PBX. Then we’ll drill down on each of these and provide some tips on what to consider when you develop your own scorecard.
- Reputation of the Provider
- Reliability of the Product
- Feature Set
- Ease of Deployment
- Ease of Use
- Support Availability
- Long-Term Cost
A couple other factors will weigh into your ratings. First, your own level of expertise matters. And, second, the intended use for your PBX is critically important. If you’re deploying a PBX in your home where the only Happy Campers have to be you and the Little Mrs., that’s obviously a different use case than a business that relies upon telephones for its livelihood. If you have 30 years of telephony and networking experience, that makes some of these criteria less important than others. You can adjust your ratings scale accordingly or simply remove the criteria that don’t matter in your particular situation.
1. Reputation of the Provider
Depending upon whether you’ve chosen an open source PBX and your own level of expertise, the reputation of the provider matters. And, for those that aren’t do-it-yourselfers, the reputation of the installer or reseller is also important. There’s a reason that people pay big bucks for Cisco phone systems. Provider reputation becomes even more significant if you’re installing a closed source system and there’s a risk that the vendor won’t be around in a couple of years. If, on the other hand, you’re choosing a free PBX as a sandbox to learn about telephony, then provider reputation is obviously less important than some of the other factors. One of the real beauties of the Internet is that it’s easy to obtain information on and customer ratings of providers. So do your homework!
2. Reliability of the Product
Forums such as the PIAF Forum and DSL Reports provide a limitless supply of information about PBX offerings. Take the time to read user comments about their experience with the various offerings. Most of the free PBX products we’ve listed above have been around for many years, but that doesn’t always tell you everything you need to know. Visit the provider’s own forum so you can see for yourself what problems are being reported by their own users. If there are dozens of postings about bugs and non-working components with no proffered solutions, that’s usually a pretty good hint to start looking elsewhere.
3. Feature Set
Whenever we provide consulting services to companies, the first thing we do is ask everyone in the organization to provide a list of the top 10 features they need in an ideal phone system. You then can take that survey and match it against available offerings for free and commercial PBXs. If 90% of your users travel and need their smartphones integrated into the company’s PBX, that’s important. If your organization depends upon incoming phone calls for 90% of your new business, then deployment of a PBX that never hands out busy signals is critical. If IVRs need to be integrated into your existing corporate databases to check availability of product without employee intervention, then write it down as a "must have." You get the idea. Figure out what really matters to everyone that will actually be using phones connected to your PBX. Then find the offerings that are the best fit insofar as features are concerned.
The last thing anyone wants to see is a whopping phone bill because some creep on the other side of the globe managed to make expensive calls on your nickel. Do all the research that time permits to discover which phone systems have a history of security breaches. Does the phone system you are considering have its own firewall? Is it self-configured or are you on your own? Will you need to hire a consultant just to keep your phone system secure? What’s your budget for security mistakes? A PBX isn’t free if you get an unexpected $100,000 phone bill. Visit the forums including the forums of the providers you are considering and look for any mentions of security breaches, hacking, and bugs related to software vulnerabilities. Google is your friend as well. Search for the name of the PBX you’re considering together with the word "vulnerability" and see how long a list you receive. Last, but not least, visit CVE Details and look up the scorecard of your vendor and product. One final consideration worth mentioning is the procedure required to update the PBX when security vulnerabilities are discovered. Is it a manual upgrade process or is it automatic when you log into your server? Do you have to keep abreast of security developments by regularly visiting some web site or are the alerts prominently displayed on the admin interface whenever you log into your PBX? Are you responsible for keeping the underlying operating system vulnerabilities patched or does your vendor handle that as well? Suffice it to say, you get what you pay for when it comes to a secure PBX. Do your homework and decide whether a free PBX really is the best choice for your situation.
There’s a big difference in a phone system for a home or SOHO deployment with a handful of phones versus a small business PBX with dozens of phones and hundreds or thousands of calls every day. Lots of external factors weigh into the actual performance you will see with any given phone system. For VoIP-based PBXs, your calls are only as good as your Internet connection and the ability of your server to handle the workload. Whether you plan to deploy your PBX on local hardware or in the Cloud also impacts performance. There are cloud providers and cloud providers. Some put you on an overloaded shared server to maximize profits while others (such as our own advertiser, RentPBX) carefully monitor the time slice that every PBX receives to assure reliable PBX performance all the time. As we’ve previously noted, you get what you pay for. Don’t expect a Cloud at Cost server for which you paid a one-time fee to provide the same level of performance and phone quality as a dedicated server or a provider such as RentPBX. Our best advice is to try your desired platform with your desired PBX. You’ll know quickly whether the combination will meet your performance requirements.
If your business depends upon reliable telephone calls, redundancy would be a requirement at the top of our list. How long can your business go without incoming or outgoing phone service? Do you have a dedicated administrator on staff? Does your support provider offer 24/7 assistance? Answers to those questions will narrow down your options. With a dedicated administrator on site and a hot standby server, you probably have all the redundancy you need unless criticality is judged in minutes. In the latter case, a High Availability failover system may be what you need. You can spend thousands of dollars on software and hardware to achieve an acceptable level of High Availability. What is your budget? Luckily, Wazo is a free alternative that also includes free HA support. All you need is a second server which could be a second hardware device on site or a Cloud-based server at minimal cost. We’ve documented the Wazo HA setup procedure here if you want to evaluate whether it will meet your requirements.
7. Ease of Deployment
Determining the ease with which you can deploy a new server is obviously subjective and depends upon your skill set, the expertise of others in your organization, and the complexity of the system you will be deploying. Bringing up and configuring the various systems is the only way you’re going to get an accurate picture of what’s involved. If you will be relying upon a vendor to perform the heavy lifting, then get some references and start making calls to judge the satisfaction level of similarly situated customers. Then ask yourself what the likelihood is that your vendor will still be around five years down the road. Is there a competitor that could step in and perform the same tasks? Are your available choices limited to telephone support or are on site services available to assist with or perform setup and configuration tasks? Be sure to get an accurate estimate of the overall cost of deployment including server and telephone configuration as well as staff training.
8. Ease of Use
Nothing holds a candle to letting employees at all levels in your organization actually use the system you’ve chosen before you purchase it. Particularly with a phone system, a free evaluation period is worth its weight in gold. The beauty of a free PBX is you can install it and kick the tires to your heart’s content. To end users, the ease of use determination is pretty simple. There’s a phone sitting on the desk. Does it do what I need it to do to get my job done?
9. Support Availability
There are three kinds of support: in-house, free, and paid. If you have in-house staff to manage and support your PBX, this criteria may be less important to you. If not, then the free and paid options are important. We have tens of thousands of administrators who have relied upon the PIAF Forum for support over the years. With the latest PBXs that have been around for a very long time, that’s probably all you need if you have made backups and have a recovery plan or a redundant system. As for paid support, the sky’s the limit quite literally. Telephone support does not equal on site support. If your business demands 24×7 phone service, then choose a support option that can make that happen.
10. Long-Term Cost
Last, but not least, is factoring in the overall cost of your phone system. Just because your PBX may be free, it doesn’t mean that add-ons and software maintenance and support are. Do the math and figure out what the long-term cost actually is to get the feature set and support level that your business requires. It may very well turn out that $395 a year for a fully-supported commercial PBX such as our corporate sponsor’s 3CX PBX may be a downright bargain compared to a free PBX for which you’d easily spend that much with a single call for commercial support. Do the math before you jump feet first into the free fire.
Originally published: Monday, May 8, 2017
SECURITY ALERT: The Sangoma® Portal reportedly has been compromised. According to Sangoma’s Chief Operating Officer, customers’ root passwords were stored on Sangoma servers as a favor to customers to facilitate future support access by Sangoma staff. That procedure now has been discontinued. Although not acknowledged, the root passwords were apparently stored in unencrypted format unbeknownst to customers. More than a dozen customers have since reported their servers were compromised using their own root credentials. Sangoma maintains there is a "theoretical possibility" that their portal was the culprit although the COO indicates that they have been unable to find any evidence of an intrusion. Rootkit appears to be a word missing from the Sangoma lexicon. If you do business with Sangoma through their web portal, you are well advised to check your server immediately to determine if your PBX also has been compromised. Full details regarding breach detection and a link to Sangoma’s response are available on the PIAF Forum. If your server has been hacked, prudence would dictate rebuilding your server from the ground up. There was no mention whether Sangoma did the same after a previous unauthorized intrusion. As this incident reinforces, attempting to patch a compromised server is extremely risky.
Need help with Asterisk? Visit the PBX in a Flash Forum.
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