Fonality packs Asterisk PBX in a box

Low-cost, feature-rich PBX appliance sports ASP management model

When I looked at the open source Digium Asterisk PBX last year, one of things I noted is that implementation can be difficult, and that it would probably be necessary to call in an expert to set up an Asterisk phone system. Fonality aims to change all of that with its pre-installed, pre-configured PBXtra.

PBXtra is a version of Asterisk, but with many extra features, including a new suite of management tools based on an ASP model. In other words, you manage your PBX through Fonality’s Web site. The biggest difference is that Fonality sells PBXtra as an appliance: All you really need to do is give it an IP address, figure out your dial plan, and you’re ready to go. In fact, it’s easy enough that you can probably put a PBXtra into operation yourself.

Plugging in the PBX

The PBXtra plugs into your existing Ethernet network; there’s no need to create a second network, and the PBXtra is designed to coexist with your data traffic. For smaller offices (as many as about 100 users), you can get a mini-tower PC platform that runs Linux and sells for under $1,000. The next step up, with more memory in a 2U configuration (which is what I tested), will support as many as 500 users. Fonality will sell you larger, faster machines made by HP if you need more users.

These are practical limits to how much traffic the standard platforms will function with, as there is no license limit to the number of users for any PBXtra. The PBXtra will link to others of its type across the corporate network or across the Internet, and according to Fonality, there is no specific limit to how many users the PBXtra will support when networked.

When you get the PBXtra, the machine will already be configured and provisioned. You may need to provide an IP address, but after that your job will consist of assigning phone numbers, which you do manually, one at a time. Adding the identity information is very straightforward, and every field features a help pop-up to tell you what goes where and why you need it. Clearly, whoever created these help messages was having fun, and spent a lot of time reading the pseudo-motivational messages at the Despair, Inc. Web site.

Considering the way it’s delivered from the factory, it’s clear that the Fonality PBXtra would really like to be your DHCP and DNS server. If you set it up as such, everything will work automatically -- you only need to plug a phone into the network and it will find the PBX on its own (any SIP-capable phone should work).

If you already have a DNS server and/or a DHCP server, however, and don’t plan to remove them, you’ll need to make other arrangements to configure your phones. The test network already had such an environment, so I ended up setting static IP addresses on the phones, which wasn’t all that hard, but would be tedious on a large network.

Setting up the rest of the system, including recording special messages, deciding what extension gets called when someone presses “0”, setting up menu trees, and such will also need to be done at most companies, but the phone system will work without these details. After you enter the user names, for example, the default setting for the auto-attendant function invites you to spell out the first or last name of the person you’re trying to reach.

The PBXtra includes all of the other functions your employees are used to, including conferencing, voicemail, caller ID, and music on hold. You can set how these work by using the Fonality Web site and making changes via the online console.

This is where Fonality’s ASP approach comes into play. When I started testing the PBXtra, I was concerned that the need to go through the company Web site to make configuration changes and do general maintenance might be a security problem, and indeed it can be, because your employee directory will be in view of the Fonality employees. If you need to keep your directory in-house, this probably isn’t the right PBX for you.

Fonality’s access to the PBX, however, does mean that software updates happen automatically, and that Fonality engineers can fix things if something bad happens. For example, when my test PBX was delivered, it displayed very serious echo and latency until an engineer from Fonality made a couple of remote adjustments that fixed everything.

Quirks and quibbles

The PBXtra worked pretty well, but that doesn’t mean everything was perfect. As I said, I did encounter some echo and latency problems while connecting to the analog and PSTN lines, and before that, the hardware had to be replaced due to an unspecified problem with the motherboard. Most frustrating was trying to change one user’s extension number, which required several non-intuitive steps from various menus.

Overall, however, the Fonality PBXtra is as easy to manage as most other PBX products, has a lot of features, and, most importantly, a smaller-sized company can be up and running quickly and at a very reasonable price. Yes, you could get a server and download Asterisk for less money, but you’d have to do the work yourself, and that may not be easy.

That doesn’t mean Fonality won’t work for larger companies, but it would require a lot of PBX hardware, and some of the management tasks that are reasonable for small companies would be a burden for larger enterprises. For most small and medium companies, especially those without a lot of in-house expertise, Fonality is a good choice.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Value (10.0%)
Management (30.0%)
Scalability (20.0%)
Features (30.0%)
Setup (10.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
Fonality PBXtra 9.0 7.0 9.0 8.0 8.0 8.0
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Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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