REVIEW: The Time Is Right for 8x8 Virtual Office

The current economy, business climate and technology trends have combined to make this a perfect time for hosted IP PBX systems. 8x8's Virtual Office is a turnkey system that provides all of the functionality of full-featured corporate PBX systems, without the upfront implementation and management costs. However, much of Virtual Office's Web-based interface is unintuitive, making ongoing management chores more difficult than they need to be.

Sometimes events and conditions converge to create a perfect environment for a specific technology. Given the current economy, business climate and technology trends, the time seems perfect for hosted IP PBX systems.

Think of hosted IP PBX as VOIP (voice over IP) systems for business. And just as VOIP services like Skype and Vonage have freed individuals from the limitations and costs of traditional POTS offerings, hosted IP PBX systems give businesses all of the benefits of full-featured corporate PBX systems without most of the upfront implementation and management costs.

Aside from the cost savings, hosted IP PBX offerings are also well-suited for modern businesses where many (or sometimes all) of the employees are based out of home offices and not a central corporate office. With hosted IP PBX systems, home-based workers get all of the telecom benefits they would get if they were sitting at a desk in an office, such as the ability to dial extensions, be part of corporate dial-by-name directories and have easy access to conference lines.

Of course, as is the case with most forms of modern hosted/SAAS/cloud (or whatever you want to call them) solutions, numerous options can make it difficult for a business to determine what's best. Some offerings are simple to implement but are based completely around software-based phones, with no hardware options available. Others provide advanced hardware phone options but can be nearly as difficult to implement as traditional PBX systems.

One new service being positioned as a solid solution for small and mid-size businesses, as well as some enterprises, is 8x8's Virtual Office. Virtual Office is essentially a turnkey IP PBX offering that includes both a hosted IP PBX product (meaning that all server functionality is run on 8x8's servers) and full-featured IP PBX phones designed to work specifically with the Virtual Office system.

The phones offered as part of 8x8's Virtual Office include a low-end, basic phone designed for shared use (such as in a lobby or guest office); a traditional corporate PBX phone that would most likely be used by the majority of employees; and a high-end phone with a full set of features and customization options, as well as a cordless handset that can be used in conjunction with the phone. The phones are priced from $149 to $349, but they may be included in the total implementation cost depending on the service options a business chooses.

There's an extensive pricing list for 8x8 Virtual Office's many offerings here. In general, though, a small business of 25 employees would most likely pay about $5,000 for equipment and start-up costs, and less than $700 in monthly fees.

eWEEK Labs received a full set of phones (representing each of the available models), and split them between our Massachusetts and San Francisco offices for testing. All management of the Virtual Office system was done through a Web-based management portal set up for our test business.

The phones support Power over Ethernet, but if your network isn't set up for that, they can be powered using traditional power adapters provided with the phones. All network connections are made with standard Ethernet cables.

Once the phones were plugged in and connected to the Internet, the analysts participating in the tests went up to the Virtual Office portal to configure and activate them. A step-by-step process made this relatively easy; the only information needed from the phone was the MAC address, which was helpfully printed on the bottom of each device.

Each phone could be given any available number from across the country, so an employee could have a number from his or her location, or a number from the location of company headquarters. Of course, the phones also required proper E-911 settings for the actual address of the phone. Once set up, each phone was assigned to an employee (eWEEK Labs analyst) and given an extension.

Getting the test office phone system set up was also relatively simple. I was able to choose the company number, which could be a virtual number or could correspond to an actual physical number.

Virtual Office provides many options for meeting different business requirements.

A nice Auto Attendant feature made it possible to set up a welcome message for callers and define ways to navigate through the company phone system. (For example, press 1 for the dial-by-name directory, press 2 to dial by extension, and so on). Once I had defined the settings for the Auto Attendant, I received an e-mail with instructions for recording the Auto Attendant messages.

Virtual Office also made it possible to create Ring Groups, so that calls could be directed to all workers in a specific department, such as sales or support. The Labs' test system also included a well-implemented conference call bridge that was accessible both internally and externally.

Once the Virtual Office system was set up, everything worked well. The phones themselves were as good as any corporate PBX phone the analysts had previously used. Pretty much everything one expected was available from the phones, and the devices could be managed directly from the integrated display on the phone or by directing a Web browser to the phone's IP address (bringing up a simple phone management interface).

The system itself worked well, and I was glad to see standard features such as the ability to have voice mails sent to a user's e-mail address. It was also nice for geographically dispersed workers to be able to call each other directly using extensions and easily perform tasks such as transfer a call--, things that can be impossible when telecommuters are using their home phones.

We did run into a few issues with the 8x8 Virtual Office system. While the Web-based portal proved effective for initial setup, subsequent management proved a bit more challenging. Much of the interface was unintuitive, and it wasn't clear where certain tasks were carried out. For example, to edit settings on a phone line, we had to click on the account number.

Potential buyers will also have to take into consideration the fact that 8x8's Virtual Office is essentially a closed system. According to 8x8 officials, because of the security connections used, the phones and the service itself can be used only in conjunction with each other. This means that you won't be able to get other IP phones to work with your Virtual Office system or use your 8x8 phones with other IP PBX systems.

Chief Technology Analyst Jim Rapoza can be reached at [email protected]