Your next IP PBX

As the IP PBX gets more integrated with other applications, it’s getting harder to think of it as a stand-alone telephone system.

Jon Arnold, Toronto consultant and proprietor of J. Arnold Associates, says the early development of the IP PBX focused on duplicating the functions of traditional PBXs. Now that IP PBX capabilities have reached or surpassed those of the old stand-alone PBX, the focus has shifted.

“Now they’re also starting to integrate more with converged communications,” says Arnold, “and I think that’s the big underlying trend.”

Among other things that means unified communications, in which voice, e-mail and other communication modes such as instant messaging come together in one interface.

Even video can be tied in, as the MaRS Discovery District in Toronto has done by linking its Nortel Networks unified communications system with its Tandberg videoconferencing equipment. This, coupled with presence technology that lets people see when colleagues are available, allows for more effective collaboration, says Robert Smith, chief technology consultant at MaRS.

Fraser Milner Casgrain was a pioneer in adding video capabilities to its IP phone system. Webcams on desktop and laptop PCs are integrated with the phone system. If one user with video capability calls another, the video link comes up automatically. The law firm’s technology director, David Komaromi, says that while not everyone likes video calls, the technology has reduced travel.

The trend extends to integration with other applications and plug-ins that flesh out voice communications with added functions. Switchvox, the IP PBX technology acquired by Digium, Inc., in 2007, comes with a plug-in that integrates voice software with Google Maps. Using caller ID information, it can show you where a call comes from, says Tristan Dagenhart, director of product marketing at Digium and Switchvox co-founder.

Another plug-in provided with Switchvox connects to, the popular software as a service customer relationship management (CRM) system, to pull up a customer’s record when he or she calls.

Montreal-based Reliance Protectron Security Services has integrated its Avaya Inc. VOIP system with its CRM system in some offices, so when customers call from known phone numbers, their records pop up on computer screens automatically. This saves 15 to 20 seconds per call and improves customer service, says Patti McDougall, Protectron’s manager of quality assurance and telecommunications.

At Fraser Milner, an application tied into the phone system gives lawyers instant records of their calls for billing purposes. Switchvox has open application programming interfaces for connecting other applications to the system. As an example, Dagenhart says, “you would very, very easily be able to build click to call into your own application.”

Avaya recently launched Aura, a VOIP management architecture meant to eliminate problem of linking phone systems from different vendors. In the past, says Tracy Fleming, senior consulting systems engineer at Avaya Canada in Toronto, making different vendors’ systems work together essentially meant creating interfaces from each to every other. Aura provides a central management core so each phone system can connect just to the core, which provides the interface to all other systems. It also supports phones from multiple vendors, and provides APIs to integrate with other applications.

To create an application that worked with Avaya’s VOIP systems in the past, says Fleming, you had to add code to the company’s Communication Manager, which could take months. Now it can be done in the new Aura Session Manager in a couple of days.

A key to Aura is Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), a standard widely seen as the glue that will tie varying VOIP systems together. “Once they all speak the same language using SIP as a standard base protocol,” Arnold says, “then they can communicate with each other more effectively.”

SIP is only beginning to deliver on this promise. Despite widespread SIP support, Smith says, there are subtle differences in vendors’ implementations, so compatibility isn’t guaranteed. “The challenges now are (interoperability) testing,” he says. “When Nortel does an upgrade you have to go back and do the interop testing on the previous versions of Tandberg and vice versa.” McDougall says Reliance Protectron is waiting for SIP technology to get a bit more stable before getting into it.

VOIP’s potential also gets harder to realize when multiple locations are involved. “There’s still a disconnect between the internal enterprise and bridging the gap to the outside world,” Komaromi says. SIP trunking – which replaces the traditional connection to the public telephone network with IP – is seen as a way to extend the benefits and features of VOIP among multiple locations. “That’s certainly going to change the landscape,” Komaromi predicts.

It has been slow to develop in Canada, though. “We don’t really have a good viable model in Canada for SIP trunking yet,” says Fleming, who notes that Avaya is working with a dozen or so major carriers in other countries on SIP trunking initiatives. However, he hopes to see progress in Canada in the next few months.

And there is some activity. Smith says MaRS is working on a demonstration SIP trunking project with carrier MTS Allstream Inc., to tie in branch offices of some tenant companies with MaRS’ central Toronto location.

While IP PBXs will do more over the next few years, some will also sound better. Although some people associate VOIP with inferior voice quality, Arnold notes that audio problems with VOIP are often due to problems with mixing IP and circuit-switched technology, and pure-IP systems can offer very good quality. That quality gets even better when you take advantage of broadband networks to offer high-definition voice.

The human ear can hear a range of sound from 80 Hertz to about 14,000 hertz, says Jeff Rodman, co-founder and chief technology officer at Polycom, Inc. A normal phone line can only handle the range from around 300 to 3,300 Hertz. With the increasing availability of broadband networks, VOIP can now provide high-definition voice capabililty that transmits the full range of the human voice. “When you’ve had conference calls with HD voice,” says Arnold, “you notice the difference right away.”

Most IP PBXs can already support high-definition voice, Rodman says, and high-definition phones are readily available. But there are two problems: VOIP systems from different vendors may not be fully aware of each other’s capabilities, and often calls travel part of the way over the switched telephone network, which can’t handle high-definition. SIP trunking and better links between systems will make it easier to take advantage of the high-definition capabilities that already exist.

As with so much of VOIP’s promise, end-to-end interoperability is the key.

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