VoIP Gold Rush
The VoIP space is growing like crazy. This is just the beginning; we are not that far from having real live good-quality videophones and video conferencing just like in science fiction, high-quality, on-demand entertainment, and nearly unfettered mobility. Everyone who is anyone is jumping on the VoIP bandwagon. Businesses and home users are just beginning to wake up to all the cool telephony possibilities they never had before. Don't believe all the products that claim "Easy! Plug and play! Anyone can do it!" Yes, anyone with Linux skills, network administration skills, and telephony skills can do it. It is true that iPBX products are getting a lot easier to set up and administer, but they are still far from being something that the stereotypical "average business user" can set up with no training or experience. So there are opportunities in them thar hills for the computer or telephony geek who wants to carve out a niche doing onsite installations and service.
Fonality has two interesting approaches to the iPBX space. The first one is PBXtra, which I would call their flagship product. This is based on a customized version of Asterisk already installed on a server. It is structured differently than any other iPBX I know of. It is an ingenious hybrid of hosted services and customer-premise services. All of the management functions are hosted by Fonality, and all the customer data files are stored on the customer's PBXtra server. The system is managed via a Web-based interface, so even if you aren't using VoIP service, but just using PBXtra with your PSTN service, you'll still need Internet access to manage your server. (Is there any business without Internet access these days?) Your users will also manage their personal preferences with the Web control panel.
This hybrid approach solves a number of vexing VoIP problems. It eliminates firewall drama, remote user drama, and reliability drama. (I suppose if you need more drama, this might not be the best product for you.) As long as your road warriors and telecommuters can find an Internet connection, they can use your PBXtra system just as if they were physically present in the office. They'll even carry their own extension numbers with them wherever they go.
This also solves the chronic problem of updates and patches. Rather than relying on individual system administrators to remember to apply updates and patches in a timely fashion, and especially security updates, Fonality takes care of that.
Where is the opportunity for the ace freelancer? Delivering onsite services such as installation and setup, purchasing advice, fixing hardware problems, and general network administration and integration. Fonality offers a considerable amount of remote support: auto-patching software, interoperability testing, and remote troubleshooting. There are several different reseller levels, from small-time to big-time, and they offer training and demo units.
Trixbox is an option for the elite guru who doesn't need a lot of handholding, or who wants more customizability. Currently it is only available as a software appliance, but Fonality will soon release the Trixbox Appliance. PBXtra is available only as a complete system that includes the server; with Trixbox you have the option to install it on your own hardware.
The Trixbox Appliance packs a lot into a single compact box. It will fit anywhererack mount, wall mount, sitting on the floor, slide rack, wherever you want. It promises to be quiet. You'll have a number of hardware configuration options that include dual power supplies (do not penny pinch on power!), and various T1/E1 and FXO options. The base unit includes a single high-quality power supply, dual mirrored 80-gigabyte SATA drives, two network interface cards, a built-in switch, a single 3GHz Pentium 4, and a 4-line LCD status display on the front panel. The nice people at Fonality promised to send me a unit to examine, so stay tuned for a report.
If you want to be an independent Trixbox mogul, you won't get the same support or financial incentives that the PBXtra resellers get. It's a standalone system that does not connect to the Fonality datacenter, or use Fonality's hosted functions. PBXtra has been extensively customized for significantly better performance, scalability, and it supports a true distributed architecture. If you have been beating your head on "real" Asterisk and having problems with scaling or performance, you might give PBXtra a try.
HUDlite is included with Trixbox; PBXra users must purchase the full version as an add-on. HUDlite is an excellent graphical call-management interface for both end users and administrators. You can manage virtually everything with HUDlitepark or transfer calls, monitor call activity, instant messaging, Outlook integration, manage recordings, and many more everyday tasks.
Thank you to the CEO of Fonality, Chris Lyman, for patiently answering my gazillion questions.