Cisco Delivers Scalable UC for SMBs
Now with support for more users, Cisco's Smart Business Communications System is an attractive option for most small companies looking to move to a next-generation communications platform that's future-proofed for applications beyond voiceparticularly for companies looking to increase user mobility via voice over wireless.
The SBCS is intended to be delivered through and managed by Cisco's channel partners, and the product's simplified licensing and improved centralized management tools for multiple networks go a long way toward smoothing over these deployment scenarios.
Released in October, the latest iteration of the SBCS may be mounted in a 19-inch rack, unlike the desktop form factor of the first generation. While the base configuration of SBCS only supports eight users, the system is easily upgradeable (both in hardware and licensing) to support a maximum of 48 users (the first generation supported a maximum of 16 users).
An eight user system starts at $524 per person, a price that includes all basic telephony applications but not the cost of the phone hardware. Because the core UC appliance only offers 8 POE client ports, license fees for additional users include the cost for the expansion Catalyst Express switch. As a result, the cost for a 16-user license increases slightly to $537 per user, while a 48-port system costs $429 per user.
For small businesses, these per-user costs may seem excessive, compared to Asterisk-based alternatives such as those from Fonality or Switchvox, or the Microsoft Response Point-based appliances from D-Link or Quanta. However, the hardware and software included in SBCS system are based on the same technologies available to larger companies, and the platform are ready to go for applications beyond voice over IP, including video, instant messaging, or other vertical-dependent applications.
Testing the SBCS
eWEEK's test system consisted of the UC (Unified Communications) 520 appliance and one Cisco Catalyst Express 520 switch. The UC 520 features eight POE (Power over Ethernet)-enabled switch ports, 8 FXO (Foreign Exchange Office) analog trunk ports, 4 FXS (Foreign Exchange Station) analog phone ports, a WAN port and an expansion port to uplink to the Catalyst switch. The Catalyst Express switch adds 24 more POE ports for voice client expansion.
SBCS is designed to allow an installer to get the voice network up and running within minutes. SBCS features a suite of technologies tagged Cisco Smart Assist that identifies all Cisco network components present on the network via CDP (Cisco Discovery Protocol), as well as end-user devices that are automatically assigned an extension and provisioned as soon as they are detected on the network.
In my tests, I found that SBCS' auto-attendant was fully configured and ready to use right out of the box. I could create up to four paging groups, four hunt groups, eight call park slots, and assign a single intercom connection. For trunks, SBCS supports both analog and SIP trunks for networks needing more outbound connections.
SBCS customers can use the included samples for music-on-hold, or attach an external sound system via the audio input jack on the UC520. SBCS also supports up to 50 voice mailboxes.
Furthermore, SBCS utilizes Smart Ports on the UC520 and Catalyst Express 520, essentially a series of roles that are preconfigured for the switch ports. The system detects just what type of device is connected to the port (client device, access point, etc.) and suggests the proper configuration for the port, which can be deployed with a single click.
According to the product's documentation, SBCS supports all Cisco IP Phones. Indeed, in testing, I found it quite simple to add to the network and provision Cisco IP phone models 7970, 7931, 7961 and the wireless 7921.
After the phones were recognized by the system and assigned an extension, I could then go into the management interface and add user information like name, password, DID (Direct Inward Dial) number, hunt and paging groups, and intercom at a later time. I also found that this user information automatically populates the corporate directory, allowing callers to find users by name on the system.
SBCS is intended to be configured and managed by a trusted partner. Administrative access to the full suite of features requires command line access to the underlying IOS operating system (via Telnet, SSH or the console port), but Cisco has also created a new graphical interface to help resellers easily manage the core features of multiple SBCS deployments from a single interface, called the CCA (Cisco Configuration Assistant).
The Java-based CCA guides resellers to organize networks into communities, which are essentially per-customer groupings of voice infrastructure components such as the UC appliance, Catalyst switches and wireless network pieces.
The reseller logs into a community and is shortly shown the topology for the entire community plus any clients currently attached to the network. From there, the reseller can view system status and view or update the configuration of the voice settings, wireless networks, or data network, including core networking features like the DHCP server and VLANs.
Unfortunately, I found the CCA (I tested version 1.1) to be limited in the features it supports. While I could configure things like dialing rules, extension patterns and SIP trunks from the CCA, I could not make changes to the auto-attendant without doing it by hand (or script) in IOS.
I also found the CCA a little unhelpful in its warnings of the implications of its use for system configuration. Specifically, the interface offered the administrator no warnings when pending changes would drop active calls. As a rule of thumb, I found changes to any tab on the voice management pane (with the exception of the User tab) would trigger a reset of active calls.
I could change a user's personal information or paging group without dropping active calls, but assigning an Intercom would drop active calls on both ends of the Intercom connection. It would be nice for the CCA to definitively remind the administrator when calls would be dropped, rather than requiring a bunch of trial and error to find out what can and cannot be done safely.
Cisco should be releasing a new version of CCA for beta testing within the next month, and I expect to see in increase in the number of features configurable from the graphical interface. I hope to see Cisco also improve the warning message feedback it offers to administrators who might not realize they're about to disconnect their users' calls.
Cisco also offers two monitoring and reporting tools, Monitor Director and Monitor Manager, to help VARs easily keep tabs on the operational performance of their clients' voice networks. A startup package of these tools is available for $2,900, but prices vary depending on licensed user count.
One advantage I've found from SBCS over any other small business-oriented voice system I've tested is the integration of wireless networkingboth for voice and for data connectionsinto the system. SBCS supports both single-cell configurations (I tested with one Cisco $499 AP521) and full controller-based wireless networks that support roaming (like the Cisco WLAN Controller 526, which starts at $1799).
As soon as I connected the Cisco access point to my UC520, my test network identified the new device, allowing me to join the device to the community from the CCA. A warning message indicated I needed to update my Smart Port configuration. With that done, I could then assign multiple SSIDs with different Wi-Fi security settings, and assign different VLANs depending on whether the wireless network was intended for voice or data trafficall from the CCA.
SBCS also shines in out-of-office mobility scenarios. The product's UC520 appliance features a WAN port and IPSEC VPN support, so remote users can securely connect to their network via the Internet to access data or to make phone calls using the Cisco IP Communicator softphone.
SBCS also goes beyond simple VOIP (voice over IP) functionality, offering connectors to plug different applications into the communications infrastructure. For instance, Cisco partnered with application provider IPCelerate to provide a series of vertical-specific applications called IPSmartSuite, which can be used and accessed directly from the Cisco phone.
Some examples of available applications are time and staff management, personalized dashboards and task-related alerting.
eWEEK Labs Senior Analyst Andrew Garcia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at his blog, where he welcomes your take on Cisco's SBCS.
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