Mobility

Cutting the cord on in-house PBX

Cloud-based business phone systems offer an array of capabilities geared towards the distributed and mobile workforce. Learn about one example called RingCentral and the options it offers.

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Image: www.RingCentral.com
I've dabbled in phone system administration in my career as a system administrator and it's had its share of ups and downs, much like all elements of technology. You might say I never quite inhaled, however. Cisco CallManager is the type of private branch exchange (PBX) I'm most familiar with; an IP phone system which is both incredibly powerful but can be incredibly tough to support - especially if you babysit many different "children" in the IT world. Cisco's products work well when they're in "set it and forget it" mode, but change management is a real chore. I think I have a permanent dent in my head from banging it against the wall after looking for answers to routine solutions like updating the auto-attendant features providing the "welcome to such-and-such company" message callers hear when dialing the main number, as well as configuring the extensions callers can reach by pressing various numbers ("Dial 1 for Sales" and so forth). Cisco's documentation red herrings make "Alice in Wonderland" look positively mundane.

Arguably the most challenging part of the phone system realm has been setting up analog lines for modems and fax machines and implementing said fax machines themselves. While digital fax systems do exist this functionality is not always present on existing phone systems but may need to be added or configured. Considering the fax is older than many system administrators themselves, it's showing its age. The use of paper is a productivity killer in today's mobile work-from-anywhere society which relies more on digital data than printed material. Don't even get me started on the maddeningly illogical process of receiving a digital document and then having to print it and fax it back to the sender, when scanning it to a PDF and emailing it (or better yet, using a digital/electronic signature) would work much better.

Desk phones aren't always much better in terms of ease of administration. While they work reasonably well in the office, a good deal of an IT department's time is spent setting up new phones/reassigning existing phones/ordering headsets and other accessories or helping users forward their desk phones to their smartphones while they're out. Like the fax machine, it's an outdated model with too many moving parts and difficult transitioning from one workspace to another, especially in this modern age.

With this in mind, I've been looking at the concept of a virtualized cloud-based PBX system to help support a company with a heavy remote worker base. One such concept is called RingCentral.

RingCentral provides an integrated cloud business phone system. Smartphones, desk phones and softphones (virtual IP phones which work as programs on a Mac or PC; RingCentral provides this application) are all tied into a central hub, with a single business number for voice, text and fax, in a solution called RingCentral Office. You can port your existing lines to RingCentral and own the numbers, whether you continue to use their service or not.

Physical phones

RingCentral can provide you with desk, receptionist and conference phones which arrive ready for use with almost any Internet connection and states "adding or removing users takes only minutes." No manual configurations (or technicians) are required so long as you use their phones, though RingCentral recommends enabling Quality of Service (QoS) features on your firewall.

It's possible to use your own existing IP phones so long as they are SIP Compliant and have been unlocked by the original provider, but they will require manual set up to work with RingCentral.

Call options

RingCentral offers call management rules to allow you to forward, transfer, screen, or record calls, set up answering rules and message alerts, make intercom calls on coworker desk phones, view call logs, and move live phone calls between any of your phones. This last option is a feature called "call flip" and RingCentral describes it as thus: "Your call might begin on your mobile device on the drive to work, and you can conveniently move it to your desk phone when you arrive in office. When you start scattering communication across different channels, you lose continuity and clarity. Important details are thrown between personal and business networks and can quickly become clutter that isn't connected." RingCentral is designed to keep all of those channels and endpoints organized and streamlined.

I noted with interest RingCentral's statement that "BYOD capabilities let dispersed sales representatives replace their desk phones with personal mobile devices or reps can wear comfortable headphones and not be tethered to their desks."

Shared lines are also available, along with full voice functions including visual voicemail and voicemail-to-email.

Communication features

RingCentral uses a single phone number for each employee, for all communication needs, including voice, fax and text. Unlimited texts are provided for users. Audio conferencing can facilitate group discussions and HD video conferencing in RingCentral Meetings permits face time between employees, customers and the rest of the outside world with document sharing (including from mobile devices) and recording capabilities. RingCentral even integrates with Outlook and Salesforce for better call management functionality and productivity.

Mobile application

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Image: www.RingCentral.com

The RingCentral mobile application works for iOS and Android platforms - to make/receive phone calls, send/receive faxes and text, access voicemails, engage in audio/video conferencing and configure notifications and phone settings. It can eliminate need for other third party applications and works via one central interface with unified communication and collaboration capabilities. It provides presence updates ("Available," "Away," "Do Not Disturb," etc.) to show your status or that of others. You can engage in phone calls, audio conferences or video meetings over Wi-Fi or mobile 3G/4G connections.

Fax functionality

With RingCentral, faxing works via email, and you can send faxes to multiple contacts from personal or corporate directories. Faxing works within the mobile app, on the softphone (PC or Mac), or from a user's online account. Documents can be faxed directly from Google Drive, Box or Dropbox. This alone is a huge efficiency boost, not to mention less headaches for the users and the phone system administrator.

PBX features

The PBX features of RingCentral are comparable to the Cisco phone system I've worked with. It provides music on hold options, a directory service for callers to reach users via a "dial by name" option (you can exclude users from this function if needed), and an auto attendant feature which can provide callers with custom greetings, options to press specific numbers to reach certain departments, or use more elaborate call flow strategies. So far I like what I see just based on the auto attendant feature alone, which blows Cisco CallManager away. The dent in my head was particularly attracted to RingCentral's comment: "throw out those huge technical operational guides that came with your PBX— free technical support is included with RingCentral."

Note that since the PBX lives in the cloud, obviously internet connectivity is critical. Many companies purchase backup internet access lines and routers to ensure failover capability if their primary internet connection is unavailable. But even if your company loses internet access RingCentral will still work in the cloud to handle calls (taking voicemails if physical phones can't be reached, for instance) and mobile devices will continue to work as expected.

Pricing

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Image: www.RingCentral.com

Pricing is fairly straightforward; the basic package runs about $25 per user per month (and as low as $20 if you have more than 100 employees) with full voice, fax, text, audio conferencing features plus 1000 toll-free minutes and HD video meetings for up to 4 people per meeting. Additional features in the other packages are more toll-free minutes and people allowed in meetings, plus Salesforce CRM integration, automatic call recording and multi-level auto-attendant. There are no setup costs, no additional equipment is needed, and you can buy as many lines as you like.

RingCentral has a product pricing page outlining the types of physical phones they sell. They also offer a return on investment (ROI) calculator to help determine the cost savings over on-premise PBX and whether this is the right option for you.

Future-proofing the evolution of the mobile workforce

I engage in product reviews to keep an eye on current trends, new capabilities, and what's coming down the road. As someone who can do 75-90% of my job anywhere I have internet access, leveraging mobility options is both a technological hobby and a career necessity. I used to drive 40 miles each way to work and remember one occasion (from the early 2000's before remote access became easy and ubiquitous) during which I drove home, heard about a problem, then had to drive another 40 miles back to the office.

I like the idea of a portable communication solution which works from anywhere and reduces complexity, yet still provides in-house control in the form of administering users and configuring options. My forehead agrees. It doesn't do admins or users any good to have to cede control of their phone environment to an outside entity which then has to make any and all changes. RingCentral provides a nice balance of letting you manage your own functions while they handle updates and support for the cloud PBX, the apps and the features. This last is particularly valuable since it means you can eliminate those challenging patch/upgrade maintenance windows (something I am looking at this summer for my physical PBX assuming it survives the next few months).

Finding out more

RingCentral provides a comprehensive list of frequently asked questions (FAQs) which can provide more detail. They also have a learning center with overview guides, datasheets, and admin documentation as well as information covering more technical aspects such as Quality of Service (QOS) for ensuring best voice service results. The documentation on their "RingCentral Office" options goes over many common actions and steps such as transferring numbers, setting up users, and working with faxes. Finally, those concerned about security can review RingCentral's approach to this concept.

About Scott Matteson

Scott Matteson is a senior systems administrator and freelance technical writer who also performs consulting work for small organizations. He resides in the Greater Boston area with his wife and three children.

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