Monday, September 1, 2008

Office Phone Systems

The motivation for this article came from a situation sprung on me a few months ago that I'll elaborate on a bit more later. Chances are if there are more than a handful of phones in your office, you have an office phone system of one type or another. I'm not going to jump into the various types of technologies behind phone systems, quite intentionally so. One quickly discovers that phone systems, much akin to networking, have their own mystique and black magic, and can be quickly overwhelming with acronyms and terminology. Like networking and other 'complicated' subject matter, the experts are often best left with handling the fine grain details of phone systems. This isn't to say a moderately savvy person can not handle the basic / common phone system operations.

Moving closer to my surprise 'situation'. Phone systems are very important parts of business, there isn't any questioning this fact. I can't help but feel this business value is exploited to a certain extent by phone system manufactures and those who install and support them(partners). Anyone who has purchased a system that supports more than a handful of extensions quickly realizes the investment is substantial, not to mention ongoing support. I'm talking the kind of investment that stretches not 5 years but 10 or 15, maybe more.

The meat of the situation. The system I'm responsible for was made by a prominent manufacturer whose name starts with the letter "A". It was a good size investment when installed just 5 year ago and is currently supporting around 250 extensions with room to grow. The surprise I received was that part of the system will no longer be supported post 2008 by the manufacturer. The system is very modular so maybe this isn't that big of a deal, right? Well it seems that the 'suggested' upgrade path is more akin to replacing the entire engine of a car versus just 4 new tires and proportionally so in cost as well. Three things came to mind in this scenario: 1) So I spend this money to have a supportable system without any other added benefit, 2) When will the next 'Upgrade' have to take place, and 3) aren't phone systems supposed to last a long time?.

My next move was to investigate 3rd party support. In searching it seemed to be a very common situation where customers were presented with obsolescence / costly upgrades from manufacturers and end up using 3rd party support. Great I'm not alone. The endgame was that I've found what appears to be a very reputable provider (according to the several references I've spoken with) who can support my system (better than the mfg) long term, and for less cost.

I was not involved in the purchase of the current system thus did not have a chance to ask any questions. This situation does highlight a few pointers for the next time a new system purchase comes around. 1) Consider 3rd party support from the start or immediately after the initial mfg warranty is over. 2) Get feedback from customers with similar equipment and a long history with the manufacturer.

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Matt said...


Good article.

If I can give you some advice from someone who deals with Avaya hardware (I've got an IP OFfice 403, doing 15ish extensions, so much smaller than your system), I've found that if you don't know phone systems, and you don't want to, and don't have time to, it is much, much easier to hire a contractor to deal with exceptional situations.

When we moved our corporate HQ from downtown Manhattan into New Jersey, I hired a contractor to do the meat and potatoes for me. One of the stipulations to the contract was that I would be on-site every step, so that I could learn from the people who know. I also had them show me how to perform Moves, Adds, ad Changes (MACs), so that I don't need to contact them for every little thing (incurring massive charges, too).

I arrived at this decision after investigating possible replacement systems. The cost incurred is extensive, mostly because desk phone units aren't usually forward-compatible. Our Avaya handsets weren't compatible with even "modern" phone systems, let alone systems from other manufacturers.

It's pretty unlikely, but if you're in upper NJ, I can recommend a great company. Since you're probably not, your best bet is to ask around and make a lot of phone calls to contractors.

I know you run a more complex system than I do, but if I can help out at all, drop me a line.

JeffHengesbach said...


Thanks for the comment. Thankfully I don't run into major changes practically ever. I have a few times in the past used outside help for a few items out of the norm.

You're spot on with hanging around when the experts are doing their thing - those small bits of knowledge that can be picked up are great.


IanSVT said...


I don't have any experience with avaya, but I do have a bunch of on the job experience with Cisco's voice technologies. From my experience with our system, it is very modular. Sometimes, modular to a fault if you're not familiar with it.

The lines between the data network and voice networks are blurred. The call manager voice processing servers and Unity messaging systems are repackaged HP proliants running windows server 2000. All of the phones(roughly 400 now) run off of the same switches that our desktops are attached to. The CCM publisher server even runs the standard DHCP service to give the phones IPs.

I feel like the two problem areas I've had is designing call routing(which I've gotten a grasp of) and gateway configuration( which I have a vague grasp of).

At any rate, no modern system could be as heinous as the old cortelco millennium PBX system we've just retired. If I had to give a single word to describe the system and having to manage it, it would be 'painful'.