In my May 30th post in the Servers and Storage blog, I asked the TechRepublic community for feedback regarding Asterisk’s ability to meet the communications needs for a relatively large installation that would consist of about 200 IP phones and another 350 to 400 analog devices. You guys didn’t let me down! There were 23 comments left with all kinds of great information. I’m going to focus on one particular comment in this post by reader jgreaves, but before I do that, I wanted to address some of the other points that came up in the discussions.

The most common piece of advice that came up in the comments was to stay away from the Avaya IP Office solution. Prior to my query regarding Asterisk, I had come down to the IP Office as a finalist based on the recommendation of our current Nortel reseller, but had not yet done the full due diligence on the solution. Since that time, I have, and concur with the fact that IP Office may be fine for very, very small organizations, but moving into a larger space with this product would not yield positive results.

Next up, it was suggested that I simply drop the maintenance contract I currently have on my Meridian PBX and move to a break/fix model paying just time and materials. The reasoning is sound; there are a lot of Meridian technicians out there and used parts for the Meridian are easy to come by. However, even though I’m looking for an inexpensive solution to support voice, I understand that voice is, and probably always will be, a critical application. I’m reluctant to simply drop the contract and have absolutely no SLA on this critical application. It would solve the money side of the equation, but I think this approach could be viewed as throwing the baby out with the bath water.

One reader, delb, asked what kind of data network I run (Cisco/equivalent or DLink/equivalent) and, if Cisco, if I have SmartNet on all of my equipment. He was pretty adamant about an answer, and I think I see where he was going with his question. Basically, do I “cheap out” at the risk of stability or do I run tried and true solutions that are adequately supported? The answer: On the data network side of the house, I’ve settled on HP Procurve. I don’t believe in the “best of breed” approach whereby an organization automatically chooses the solution based on the vendor’s place in the market. I realize that Cisco equipment works extremely well and that their support is excellent. However, years ago, I discovered that HP’s Procurve division also manufactures great equipment at a much lower price and they provide a lifetime warranty on the equipment with next-day replacement. This kind of thinking frames pretty much every decision I make. I’m looking for the best solution available for the best price I can get. I sometimes spend months searching for the best fit for my environment and at some point, something comes along that just…works.

Which brings me to the comment by jgreaves. He provided me with a number of thoughtful insights into my dilemma, but it was this tidbit near the end of his comment that caught my eye:

“Toshiba has been a little slow in coming to the table with feature rich IP and large systems, but I think they have arrived. I ran some quick numbers on your configuration and came up with $82K in matl and 40K in labor. You might give them a quick look.”

To be honest, before I read this comment, I had no idea that Toshiba even made phone systems. After reading the comment, I did give Toshiba a quick look…and then another look followed by yet another look. I liked what I saw. I researched their Strata line of PBXs and, from a technical perspective, it fits the bill perfectly. As I searched the product selection, the Toshiba CTX 670 had the expansion and capability necessary to meet the needs of Westminster College.

Once I decided that the Toshiba system was a viable solution, at least on a first pass, I needed to get a little more professional help. I located two Toshiba resellers in my area. After contacting one of them, the following happened:

  1. The reseller turned around a quote in record time. They quoted me a CIX 1200 system, which is the successor to the CTX 670 and will be released in a couple of weeks. The CIX 1200 does not have major architectural differences from the CTX 670, but does have much greater scalability.
  2. After some tweaking, the pricing is well within budget. Even better, the total seven year cost of ownership is well within budget. I’ll provide more details later on this.
  3. I started the due diligence part of the project and contacted references and did my own research on the Toshiba system. The only negative information I located had to do with Toshiba’s market share. On the upside, the references that I spoke with on the phone indicated that they are extremely pleased with Toshiba as a system as well as with the reseller that I’m working with. One reference went so far as to say that, although they really like the Toshiba, if the reseller were to ever drop Toshiba, they would move to whatever the reseller sold.

Based on the recommendation of this reseller, I’ve moved away from IP as a major part of this project. The new system will be a hybrid system supporting digital, analog and IP devices. Faculty and staff will, for the most part, be provided with digital phones but some will receive IP sets, depending on their location on campus. Students will receive analog connectivity and we’ll use analog in some common areas as well.

The new system will also provide us with campus-wide paging capability, which will add to our emergency communications capability. Toshiba’s quote also includes unlimited seats for unified communications, including fax serving. We also have a need for a number of soft phones for remote workers and to set up a mini-call center in a computer lab for admissions and fund raising calls.

On the price side, the Toshiba is outstanding. The upfront costs, including installation, works in our budget. Better yet, the upfront price includes a seven-year warranty. The result: almost no maintenance costs for seven years. I say “almost” because, after a couple of years, the warranty includes parts, not labor. After that, I just pay for someone’s time to come in and replace any parts that we’re not able to replace ourselves. According to the references I spoke with, however, this has been a non-issue for them.

I also considered the Avaya S8300, which, from a technical perspective, also met our needs very well. The upfront pricing was excellent; the Avaya partner I worked with went seriously to bat for us on that front and got us pricing that, quite frankly, blew me away. However, over a seven year period, maintenance took the overall cost of ownership significantly beyond that of the Toshiba system. In fact, the cost of ownership difference is well into the tens of thousands of dollars.

So, this coming week, I’ll be signing a purchase agreement for a Toshiba CIX 1200 PBX, thanks to feedback I received from the TechRepublic community. Thanks, folks!