Anyone who reads networking magazines can tell you how much hype there is today about Voice over IP (VoIP) technology and the convergence of voice and data networking. If you go to a VoIP seminar, they will tell you that there is an old way and a new way. They describe the “old way” as using a PBX or key system (a traditional phone system). Then, of course, the “new way” is using VoIP. If you go to a company like Nortel (or any of their resellers), they will tell you that the distinction isn’t about old vs. new. Instead, there are simply two different types of technology available today, each with its own applicable uses.

While I believe that VoIP and converged voice and data will eventually be the standard design for networks, when to make the move to this design is a business decision and should not be clouded by the old vs. new marketing hype.

I’m going to provide a look at what VoIP solutions can do, show you the three types of VoIP systems on the market today, and give you a closer look at a 3Com VoIP solution that my company recently deployed.

Understanding VoIP
For those unfamiliar with Voice over IP technology, here are six things you should know about it:

  1. VoIP traffic rides your Ethernet network backbone (on the LAN) or your WAN backbone if you are sending voice over the WAN. The benefit of sending voice over the WAN is that you may be able to save money on long distance by simply using unutilized bandwidth on your data network.
  2. Since the voice traffic is sharing the network, you’re also sharing network infrastructure—the voice and data cables are the same cable. There’s no longer a voice cable plant and a data cable plant. The benefit is that you only have one cable and hardware infrastructure to maintain, and you’ll be able to save money in new locations by having to install only one cabling system.
  3. With many IP phone systems, a user can simply take a phone and move it from one place to another, without any reconfiguration, as long as each place has the same network connectivity. For instance, two people may need to switch cubicles. With VoIP, the two people just take their phones with them, plug them in, and there is no reconfiguration or cabling for administrators to do. You can save a great deal of money by not having to rely on the IT department to do moves, adds, and changes (“MAC”).
  4. Another example of easily moving a phone might be a user taking his or her phone home (or to a hotel, another office, etc.) to work remotely. As long as the home has a high-speed connection (like a DSL line) with a VPN back to the office, the phone will work just as it did at the office—same extension, same voice mail, and same ring. The benefit is that users can work from anywhere just as if they are in their offices, increasing productivity.
  5. VoIP phone systems usually offer additional applications that traditional systems do not. For instance, the 3Com NBX comes with a form of integrated messaging that allows you to receive your voice mail messages in your e-mail inbox. This is sometimes referred to as unified messaging, and it can increase productivity by allowing users to access messages more quickly and easily as part of their regular workflow.
  6. One of the features that I like the most about VoIP is the ease of management. At minimum, a Voice over IP phone system will provide Telnet or HTTP (Web-based) management of the system. I compare this to Nortel key systems I have, where the standard management interface is having to pick up a phone at the remote location and use the telephone keypad to make changes. Also, on Nortel systems, the phones must be programmed individually. With VoIP systems, the phones usually can be changed remotely via a graphical interface. (Some vendors have nicer interfaces than others.) The benefit is that these VoIP phone systems save time and expense by offering remote management.

You should also realize that there are three types of IP phone systems in use today:

  1. Pure IP—Pure IP phone systems are hardware-based and use only IP to communicate between phones. Cisco AVVID and 3Com NBX are examples of pure IP systems.
  2. Hybrid—Hybrid systems are traditional key systems, using key-system phones and separate cabling, attached to a network unit that can encapsulate the voice into network data to send across a WAN, if needed. Nortel BCM, Alcatel 2200, and Avaya IP 600 are examples of hybrid systems.
  3. PC-PBX—PC-PBX systems use a regular server (usually Intel-based) and a network operating system (usually Windows) as the phone system, along with IP-based phones. Shoreline and Avaya Definity IP are some examples of PC-PBX.

In my mind, the pure IP category is the best category to be in, since hybrid systems just seem like old phone technology with an add-on VoIP box, and PC-PBX systems are only as stable as the Intel-based server and Windows operating system that you run it on.

My VoIP deployment
The owners of my company and I have been interested in testing Voice over IP for the past few years. We were willing to pay a small premium over the normal key systems we deploy at our 70 locations to test a VoIP phone system. Most of our remote locations are small (fewer than 10 lines and fewer than 20 phones). We don’t intend on testing voice over our WAN, since we don’t see enough voice long-distance savings in that, compared to the additional bandwidth we would have to add to our already bandwidth-strained WAN lines.

We investigated Cisco’s VoIP offerings and found them to be designed more toward medium-to-large offices, plus they had a large premium and seemed complex to implement. We then ran across the 3Com NBX phone system. Figure A shows some of the equipment.

Figure A
3Com’s NBX phone system offers a pure IP solution.

Being a previous 3Com router customer who was burned by its sudden pullout from the router market, we were initially skeptical. After further investigation, we found out that 3Com bought the NBX technology and began shipping the NBX system back in 1998, so this is not a “new” product. 3Com has shipped over 16,000 NBX systems and 700,000 phones since 1998, so this product has a large number of end users who have already tested and deployed it.

3Com NBX standard features include:

  • Web-based management.
  • Call detail reporting.
  • Voice mail.
  • The ability to connect new phones and move existing phones without any reconfiguration.
  • Voice mail in your e-mail inbox. (Listen to your voice mail in Microsoft Outlook or another IMAP-compliant e-mail client.)
  • A soft-phone client. (This is software to load on a PC or laptop and make it into a phone that can be taken anywhere. You only need an appropriate mic and speakers.)
  • Local and speed-dial directories built into the phone.
  • Cell phone-like features so you can see if you have missed calls, and view your inbound and outbound call history right on the phone.
  • The ability for users to print their own phone user guides, change their own speed dials, and set up their own off-site notifications.
  • With a special card, made by Citel, the ability to reuse Nortel phones with the NBX system to save money. (However, those phones will not be Ethernet phones, so they won’t have many of the benefits of Ethernet/VoIP phones.)
  • Auto-attendant features built in to the NBX so you can have an automated message answer your phone. (Different messages can be used during different times of the day or week. The caller can be prompted to, for example, “Press 1 for the paint department, press 2 for electrical, press 3 for plumbing, or press 0 to speak to an operator.”)
  • With the 3Com NBX 100 (the system we chose), support for up to 200 devices per site. 3Com offers larger systems to accommodate larger sites. The next step up is the SuperStack 3 NBX, which supports up to 1,500 devices. Above that is the new VCX V7000.

Some of the advanced options available for the NBX system are call recording, call accounting, conferencing, CRM integration, and intelligent voice response (IVR).

One of the features that is not available, but that I would like to see, is integration with Windows Active Directory through LDAP to be able to browse the company directory on the phone and use phone numbers from the directory to make calls.

Another point of interest is that 3Com does not use the industry-standard VoIP protocol, SIP. Voice, with 3Com, is Layer 2 traffic and must get an “IP on the Fly” IP address if it is going to traverse a WAN. 3Com plans to migrate to SIP in the near future.

Below you can see a picture of our phone system, before (Figure B) and after (Figure C) we installed the 3Com NBX system. As you can see, the 3Com NBX system fit perfectly into our network cabinet, along with the location’s router, switch, patch panel, and UPS. Prior to this, it was a complete mess of cables and old technology.

Figure B
Here’s what the cable plant and equipment looked like with the old PBX phone system.

Figure C
Here’s what it looked like after the 3Com NBX installation.

How much it costs
The cost of the phone system we implemented was about $6,000. This included a new 3COM NBX 100 system, four analog ports, nine business phones, 20 hours of voice mail, one soft phone client, voice mail in e-mail inboxes, call-detail reporting, caller ID, auto attendant, installation, configuration, and training (through a reseller). This cost was within a couple thousand dollars of a comparable Nortel key system. We chose not to use power over Ethernet, so each phone had to be plugged into an AC power jack. Nor did we use voice over our WAN, because we don’t have available bandwidth.

I’ve also seen 3Com NBX 100 systems available on eBay or in the “grey market” for only $1,000 to $3,000. The phones are also available. By shopping for used equipment and installing it yourself, you could save tons of money and get a great, easy-to-manage phone system.


Something I would like to note is that I’m not here to sell you this product. I enjoy writing articles about what I believe are good solutions to business problems. I admit that I have not done what I would consider a thorough investigation of all VoIP phone systems available, so this is not intended to be any type of competitive comparison. It’s simply a report on a VoIP solution that worked for me.

End sum
We like the 3Com phone system enough to want to use it as a standard in our organization for remote phone systems. We’ll consider upgrading our corporate office phone system to a 3Com SuperStack as well, when the lease is up on our current Nortel PBX. The largest benefits to us are the easy remote management, which allows us to do changes ourselves; the integration into our current local network, which allows us to troubleshoot the phones just as we would PCs; and the ease of moves, adds, and changes, which allows users to move phones wherever there is an Ethernet jack (without the involvement of IT). Other features we love are automated inventory, easy network upgrade of the operating system and voice mail capacity, and call-detail reports. Even if the system has a slightly higher price tag, when you add all these benefits together, you have a long list to justify the solution.