Networking

Exploring entry-level options for using VoIP

In an era of slashed IT budgets, David Davis looks at several lower-cost and entry level options of implementing VoIP, including those from Cisco.

I would venture to say that just about all the network admins out there are sold on VoIP being the future of voice communications. However, I would venture to bet that only about half of them are sold on implementing VoIP "under their watch" because it could be difficult to manage or because it is too expensive. Let me make one final bet — that most network admins are still interested in testing and learning about VoIP. So, in this time of slashed IT budgets, how do you test VoIP for the lowest cost possible?

Four entry-level options for testing and using VoIP

Based on my own experience, I have put together a list of four different options to help you get your foot in the door with testing VoIP. Because Cisco is the leader in VoIP and I write for the Cisco Technology newsletter, a number of the options I chose are Cisco-based. However, as Cisco isn't known for being the lowest-cost option (and cost is a serious factor today), there are some non-Cisco and open-source options as well.

Option 1: Cisco's Unified Communications 500 (UC500)

You can learn all about Cisco's UC500 in my article "What You Need to Know about the Cisco Unified Communications 500 Series." Essentially, the UC500 is like a small router that has a built-in, low-end call manager. The UC500 is designed to be the "do it all" box for a small business, offering routing to the Internet, VoIP call switching, connection to the local PSTN phone network, voicemail, unified communications (integration between voice and e-mail, for example), and integration with existing applications like Outlook, Microsoft Dynamics, and SalesForce.com. Besides the UC500, you would also need to buy Cisco VoIP phones or use soft phones. I think that, out of all the Cisco options, this may be the best entry-level Cisco option (if the entry-level cost is within your budget).

To learn about the UC500, the five different models it is available in, and the official Cisco specifications, please see Cisco's UC500 appliance.

Option 2: Call Manager Express (CME) running inside a Cisco ISR Router

Did you know that you can put an interface card and software on a Cisco router and it can provide all the services you need for VoIP, except voicemail (of course, you will still need a VoIP phone or soft phone)? To do this, you need:

  • A Cisco ISR 1800, 2800, or 3800 series router
  • A CME License or CME/CUE (that's Unity) bundle
  • A voice interface card (VIC) of some kind

(For more information, please see CISCO IP Communications Services for Cisco Integrated Services Router Platforms.)

Of course, this is an even less expensive option if you already have one of these routers.

Even if all you have is a FXO/FXS module, you can make VoIP calls between routers. However, this doesn't give you any of the voicemail or unified communication features that you have likely come to expect from a VoIP phone system.

Option 3: Open source VoIP from Asterisk or an appliance from Digium

I am sure that Cisco wouldn't like me bringing this up, but you can download and run your own VoIP phone system (with voicemail and many advanced features) for free using Asterisk — the open source VoIP phone system. It can run on a standard PC; you can use a regular "hard" VoIP phone or an open source soft phone. You can buy an interface to the PSTN from Digium, and this isn't just for geeks who know C. There is a nice GUI interface and a number of large organizations have adopted Asterisk. (See "University Dumps Cisco VoIP for Open-Source Asterisk.") As we are talking about open source software, that means that it is zero cost. Certainly that falls within your budget, right?

If you don't want to use your own hardware for Asterisk, you can purchase a Digium Appliance that has Asterisk preinstalled. They also support Asterisk and sell VoIP handsets ("hard phones").

Option 4: Linksys VoIP solution for SMBs

As Linksys is owned by Cisco, you could say that this is still a Cisco solution. However, it won't have the well-known Cisco IOS and won't integrate with other Cisco VoIP hardware. The primary Linksys VoIP system today is the Cisco Small Business Voice System. If you used this system, you would use either the SPA400 or SPA9000 call managers that include analog ports and voicemail. The SPA9000 can even support Cisco or third-party SIP-compatible phones. Still, the experience gained from using these Linksys VoIP options is questionable, if you are trying to learn how to deploy VoIP for a large-scale enterprise VoIP implementation.

Conclusion

In the end, there are a number of options out there for entry-level VoIP. I would lean toward either a Cisco Call Manager-based or open source Asterisk-based implementation to learn about enterprise VoIP. If you want a Cisco VoIP certification then you would have to choose Cisco VoIP hardware to prepare. If you haven't started learning about VoIP, I encourage you to get started today. If you are already using VoIP, sound off in our comment section — what VoIP option did you choose to get started?

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