Digium's Switchvox: Simple Yet Powerful

An appliance-based approach gives SMB customers access to enterprise-class features.

Telephony is a pain point for most IT departments. It's become common for companies to expect increasing amounts of information about how the equipment is used, especially when it's used in a customer-support function, where call queues and staffing define success or failure. At the same time, phone systems now have to integrate with other applications. Digium's Switchvox series of appliances and the software that powers them have evolved in recent years to accommodate those demands as well as embrace the new mobility, where businesses insist on being able to reach their employees on as many devices as possible, whether inside the office or not.

Digium comes to the table with a deep understanding of how people use telephones, as the owner of the Asterisk open-source telephony project. Asterisk has more than a dozen years of development behind it, and project founder Mark Spencer wears the CTO hat for Digium. The company's pride is its Switchvox software, a toolset that combines power with ease of use-never an easy task-and adds good reporting facilities and the ability to integrate with third-party applications.

The Switchvox SMB software has been extensively reworked for the 5.x release series. In June, Switchvox 5.0 introduced several new reporting features, such as the ability to break out concurrent calls and improved queue logging and tracking. Queue reports can now be included in the scheduled reports. It also added a bulk-modification feature for phone extensions, making it easier to roll out consistent changes to a group of users. Outgoing call rules were enhanced with failover capability, with up to five route alternatives available. Since then, Digium has issued a number of minor releases that incorporate bug fixes, language enhancements and support for the company's new echo-cancellation module.

But the hottest thing in Switchvox SMB 5.x is clearly the ability to "converge" phones, as Digium puts it. This allows the user's extension to be associated with a variety of devices including mobile phones and offsite lines. Although individual users have been able to use tools such as Google Voice to provide similar functionality on an ad hoc basis for a few years, by putting this in the box, Digium is making the concept a little more mainstream, and a little more manageable as well.

My test bed consisted of Switchvox SMB 5.1.2 software on a Switchvox SMB 65 appliance, which is aimed at locations with roughly 30 users, supporting up to 12 concurrent calls. The SMB 65 isn't exactly shiny-new; it launched in the fall of 2009 with the SMB 305 and SMB 355, which are designed for deployments to 150 users and 45 calls on the one hand and 400 users and 75 calls on the other. The SMB series devices also offer conferencing and recording features built into the platform, from 5 to 20 concurrent recordings and 5 to 30 conference users, depending on hardware.

The base price for the SMB 65 is $3,729. This includes 10 "Silver" subscriptions, which offer software upgrades and updates as well as unlimited email support. For business-hours support by phone, customers should consider a "Gold" or "Platinum" package. The annual cost for a "Silver" subscription starts at $660, $550 of which is designated as the software-maintenance fee and the remainder as the license fee, in this case for 10 devices.

Not all connected devices require a Switchvox subscription. Analog phones, SIP phones or SIP adapters, and virtual extensions are the only extension types that need licenses. Other extension types-including agent log in/out, call queue, call parking and group pickup, intercom and paging, IVR (interactive voice response) and voicemail access can be enabled without purchasing additional licenses.

Jump Right In

Managing the SMB 65 appliance is typically done through the appliance's Web interface, although the most basic settings-such as the IP address of the appliance-can be done through the front panel or through a console interface that requires a directly connected VGA monitor and keyboard. The Web interface sensibly groups management and setup functions, with reporting functions available at the click of a mouse. The reports can be exported to Microsoft Excel binary (XLS) or XML documents for offline processing or examination.

Diagnostic and maintenance information is also available without much fuss, and advanced debugging options allow the Switchvox administrator to capture packets, trace the command-line interface or probe a line card. Even these expert options have seen an admirable degree of what I call "P. J. proofing" to enforce a degree of sanity in the debugging session. Time limits for the session are defined when setting up the trace, and as obvious errors in the setup are fixed, they're crossed off in the on-screen dialog.

But today, it's not enough for a telephone system to simply be a reliable platform for placing and receiving calls. Switchvox's Switchboard feature allows the customer to connect the appliance to an instance of Salesforce.com or SugarCRM, displaying information about the caller based on the data in the CRM system. One can also rope in Google Maps, indicating the source of incoming calls via Caller ID, or tie Switchboard to other Web-based applications. The display of Switchboard panels can be customized for individual extensions, depending on that person's role in the organization, with presence information and other attributes.

Digium has earned itself whatever bragging rights it wants to claim. The Switchvox appliance is a powerful combination of hardware and software that can, with relative ease, be tied into a company's business processes, turning what was just a telephone into something far more useful.