This article is for small business owners, and even better, for their IT guy/gal… If you are looking at upgrading your phone system, and want to upgrade inexpensively but have a clear upgrade path for the future, I’m going to outline how to build what I believe to be the most cost effective, easy to maintain, pbx based phone system available.

The pbx itself is based on PC hardware, with a special card for interfacing with the telco (ATT, Verizon, etc), and a software stack called PBX in a Flash. PBX in a Flash (PiaF) was put together by a few gentlemen looking for a solid software stack for their telephony needs. Here is what is in the stack:

  • CentOS for the OS that everything lies on top of.
  • Asterisk for the PBX stack.
  • FreePBX helps in configuring and maintaining the Asterisk configuration.
  • Prebuilt scripts, for configuring everything from dhcp to cisco phones

For phone hardware I’ve used Cisco, Linksys, and Aastra. Aastra seems to be the recommended brand of late, for features, price, and ease of configuration. I’m not a huge fan of the Cisco phones (overpriced and they seem to cripple their SIP firmware), but Cisco’s economical product line, Linksys, makes some great phones.

Well, there’s the intro for you, if you want to learn more, read on!

I’ve done phone systems for businesses that only need 2 or 3 phones, and systems for companies with 20+ extensions. I’m comfortable recommending this system for a business with up to 100 extensions, more than that and you might want to look at having dual load balanced servers.

For this setup I’m going to describe below, we’ve got a business with around 30 employees, 20 of which have their own extensions on the phone system. There is a sales group, support group, and various administrators, as well as production staff.

Any $400 to $600 PC will work for our base system. 2.0ghz+ Intel or AMD processor, at least 1gb of ram (I put in 2gb since its so cheap). Looking for hardware with a good warranty? Check out my company SabreTech Consulting LLC for some great PC’s. We ship anywhere in the US (and actually, a lot of our PC’s are overseas as well, thru an associate of ours).

Let me back up for a second and explain the two ways we can get “dial tone” to our phone system (i.e. be able to make calls to the outside world). Way #1, use land lines thru your local telco, for example ATT or Verizon. Way #2, use voip trunks thru any of hundreds of carriers, this method requires a NICE SOLID internet connection. Depending on your area and telco providers, it may or may not be more cost effective to use land lines thru the telco. These days I’ve found that its usually cost effective to have enough land lines, with “unlimited” long distance/local packages on them, for your average use (sum of the number of lines you use every minute of the day, divided by the number of minutes they are in use), and then voip trunks for “peak” times when you need Just A Little More, and for international calls.

So, we’ve figured out that our average use is 4 to 6 lines in use at any given minute (this is just calls to the outside world, does not include internal calls, i.e. extension to extension). So we want to get 6 lines with unlimited local and long distance packages, which ends up costing about $456 a month. So how do we get these phone lines into our phone system?

Ok, time to step back again and explain the two ways the phone company can get us a line, digital or analog. Analog lines are the ones we had when we were growing up, you know, the phone on your wall in the kitchen :-) These analog lines are also called pots lines. Digital lines, a.k.a. PRI’s, usually come in bundles of 23. In some areas you can get “partial” PRI’s, and if you can in your area, and the price is right, DO IT… Digital lines will be better quality and give fewer headaches than analog lines. The nice thing about digital lines is they either WORK or the DON’T WORK, there’s not much in-between. Analog lines on the other hand, can have a myriad of problems, including dropped calls, static, etc. Analog lines can work, even if the connection is crappy, and therefore its harder to convince the telco that there might be a problem with the line.

So, I want some lines from my telco, but I need to get them INTO the phone system! My absolute favorite company for doing this is Rhino Equipment. They make a series of analog and digital interface cards. These cards ARE NOT CHEAP, BUT they are worth every penny and more. In fact, I would pay twice the price they charge for them, and here is why: they have the best tech support I have ever used in my life. Let me repeat that. THEY HAVE THE BEST TECH SUPPORT ON THE PLANET. These guys have helped me time and time again, always courteous and patient. On one job they worked with me for 3 days trying to troubleshoot dropped calls, and said on day 2 that it wasn’t their equipment, but instead the phone company, but they stuck in there RIGHT TO THE END. They kept helping me, even after they knew it was the phone company and not their equipment causing problems, and if it weren’t for them, I never could have convinced the phone company to get their act together and fix the lines.

For most small businesses, where I can’t get a PRI, only pots lines, I use the Rhino R8FXX-EC card. It can support up to 4 fxo (or fxs) modules on it. Each fxo module can handle 2 pots lines from the telco. This card has built in echo cancellation, just one more reason its worth every penny. For this example, since we’re going to have 6 lines, I need to get the Rhino card with 3 modules on it.

Ok, we’ve got our PC, we’ve got our interface card to interface with the telco, now we just need to pick a phone model to get everyone. I’m going to have to go with this recommendation, the Aastra 57i. I have yet to get this particular model in to try myself, but I trust Ward Mundy with my life, so what he says, goes :-)

Well, two pages in and I’ve decided to split this into a multi part article. We’ll call this Part I. Please keep checking back for Part II, where I’ll cover installing and configuring the software stack and your Rhino card.