Two For One

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted August 01, 2000
by Joe Rudich

A product that can do the job of two is always attractive, provided it works as well as two separate items. That is precisely the promise of combined voice and data network products, which combine the ability to network computers and manage a telephone system and/or share Internet access. Most of these products are designed for smaller businesses, where expenses cannot be justified as "long-term capital reinvestment," and savings are treasured. Multi-purpose network products typically combine basic physical connectivity components such as an Ethernet hub and telephone private branch exchange (PBX), with add-on functionality that is presently in the greatest demand, such as e-mail and access to the Internet.

DEVELOPMENT OF COMBINED NETWORK PRODUCTS

A few years ago, as smaller offices needed to give many PCs access to Internet, e-mail, Web browsing, and LAN services, many vendors designed new small-office Internet routers, which were essentially Ethernet hubs with added features to simplify their administration and/or extend their functionality. These "extras" often included built-in DHCP services to automatically assign TCP/IP addresses to networked PCs and proxy services for shared Internet access. Some even acted as Internet e-mail servers or hosts for Web sites. More recently, the idea of extending these by adding voice communications to the same type of product arose.

The products in this guide all combine LAN connectivity through a standard 10Base-T Ethernet switch, an Internet router that provides network users access to the Internet through a single shared (possibly high-speed) communications line, and an internal e-mail server.

In addition, these products provide some means of connecting telephone service, management of a PBX, and voice mail. The means by which voice communication is integrated with data networking is currently the biggest variable among voice-data products. Praxon's PDX and Merlot's Magnum use separate physical lines for telephone and PC, while Nortel's Enterprise Edge and TDK's Telemerge make voice and data share a cable. The shared lines reduce wiring installation costs, and in all products the telephony system can be managed through PC-based tools.

PROS AND CONS

The obvious advantage of any combined package is a reduction in cost, and while these products have a wide range of prices, they all have strong justifications for their contribution to the bottom line. Direct savings may come from the synergy of running data networking and telecommunication through the same hub. Users of these products often cite reductions in administrative time and effort as the greatest benefits they realize, however. This is due in part to the fact that combination equipment tends to be engineered with simplified management in mind, particularly in comparison to the widely-sold "generic" network products. There is also the ease of having a single interface for administration of what might normally be two or three distinct products.

Another benefit for many users is an improvement in their Internet access. Although separate tools could provide shared use of a Digital Services Line (DSL) or ISDN line for faster access and fewer standalone modems, many small businesses have not invested in a product designed solely for Internet routing. When this capability is included with "necessary" telecommunications equipment like a PBX or LAN hub, it can be justified more easily as a "bonus" feature.

The potential disadvantage of combined technology is that an integrated system is like putting all your eggs in one basket. Like a television with a built-in VCR, if one component fails, the entire system may be unusable while repairs are made. There is also the risk of limiting yourself in terms of selection. Barry Mori selected Praxon's PDX voice and data network for his employer, Pinnacle Composite Solutions, but admitted having some concern about that very risk before his selection. "In theory, it's kind of like buying a stereo system," he said. "Sometimes you want to put one manufacturer's tuner with another's CD player, and yet another's speakers, if you want to build the very best system possible." Nonetheless, Mori has been completely pleased with his "boom box" solution.

In most regards, the disadvantages of combined voice and data networking are directly mirrored by its advantages. While buying different components from more than one vendor inherently ensures that each component is non-proprietary and could be replaced by a competing model, it also forces users to serve as their own systems integrator (or pay a consultant) for planning the interoperation between products. Similarly, while integrated network products can make a business dependent on a single vendor, it also eliminates the finger-pointing between vendors which often accompanies troubleshooting a component solution.

Many of the combined network vendors themselves argue that divisions between voice and data are artificial, left over from the (quickly passing) era of analog telephony, and that voice is just another form of digital data, with a great deal of potential synergy in merging these forms. Currently, very large companies that have extensive support staff and are used to "tweaking" their network systems are not the target audience for combined voice and data networks, but many small companies have found great value in them.

Praxon Phone Data eXchange (PDX)

The PDX is a modular unit that combines a 10Base-T Ethernet switch for LAN connectivity, a phone PBX with voice mail and an automated attendant, an e-mail server which supports registered domain names, and shared Internet access via analog modem, ISDN, or T-1 high-speed leased line. A 16-user version retails for $6,995, and a 32-user version for $8,995.

PDX has made a satisfied customer out of Pinnacle Composite Solutions, a company with 60 employees, which designs consumer products utilizing composite materials, like kevlar, which were originally created for the aerospace/defense industry. Barry Mori, vice president of finance, acts as Pinnacle's network manager.

"I wish I had seen this before we bought our first network hardware a few years ago, because this system took care of a lot of questions for us," he said. "Prior to buying the PDX, we had a telephone system, which was very time consuming and inconvenient to manage, even for simple functions like adding a new user. The fact that Praxon's voice and data management are integrated on my PC means that I can set up a new person in less than one minute, literally."

The other great benefit of the integrated system, according to Mori, is the improved Internet access it provides users. "At the time we bought the PDX, our demand for Internet access was exploding, and we were attaching modems and secondary phone lines to everyone's PC to meet that need. Now we have shared access through a fast ISDN line attached to the PDX. It gives everyone their own e-mail address, and we couldn't ask for more. The PDX has paid for itself just in eliminating modem lines and reducing our Internet configuration workload."

Merlot Magnum Applications and Services Platform (ASP)

The Magnum ASP combines analog telephone lines with an Ethernet LAN. It uses Merlot's own phone sets for individual voice-messaging management, but manages all functions centrally. Shared Internet access is provided through a pre-configured router firewall. An eight-user system is priced at $2,995.

For Passport Travel, an independently-owned travel agency employing four full-time agents in Southbury, Conn., the phone features of the Magnum system were key selling points, as the agency conducts most of its business over the telephone. "Until approximately eight months ago, we had a basic, inexpensive telephone system that did little more than allow us to answer the phone and dial out," explained Susan Spielberg, who selected and now manages the Merlot system. "Our new system has allowed us much more convenience and flexibility."

"We now have the ability to make conference calls and use the intercom," says Spielberg. "We have voice mail during the day. This prevents constant interruptions while speaking with customers to answer the other five phone lines, and eliminates the use of an answering machine at night. We can call in for messages, change the message, and have music on hold."

According to Spielberg, implementation and administration of the new system have flowed smoothly, thanks in large part to Merlot's support staff. "The Merlot sales-people and technicians have been outstanding in areas of customer service," she added. "Any problems we did encounter were dealt with in a courteous and efficient manner. Thanks to them, changing over to the new system was simple, with minimal disruptions to our business. I have never dealt with a company that has been so customer oriented."

The Merlot system also provides network functionality for the new PCs that Passport is buying, as well as Internet access, which allows the company's agents to access the Sabre reservation system.

Ramp Networks WebRamp 200V

One of the most economical of these products is the WebRamp 200V. Ramp Networks has been making very popular and highly-rated Internet routers for several years, but the 200V is the first model that incorporates telephone service. The base unit, including a five-port Ethernet hub, is only $479, and the WebRamp can scale up to 50 users for less than $1,000. It can support a small LAN or be plugged into an existing LAN, and connects to the Internet through a fast DSL connection. A third-party PBX must be attached to the 200V for voice capability, and accommodates up to 16 phone lines in a stacked, two-unit configuration. The 200V offers a host of call-management features, including call waiting, caller ID, and voice messaging.

While the telephony features of the 200V are new, Ramp's data networking and Internet access capability have been proven in many prior WebRamp generations. The 200V has a hardware-based firewall to protect internal network resources from Internet hackers, as well as VPN (Virtual Private Network) capability to allow secure remote access to a LAN.

Geosafe Corporation is an innovative company that specializes in treating hazardous waste. One of 11 employees, Zeal Plyler is the company's manager of finance and administration, and also performs the primary functions of Information Technology in selection of computers and other equipment. Plyler installed Geosafe's first WebRamp product in 1997 and has progressed along with Ramp's product line. "I highly recommend WebRamp products," he says. "The primary factors in our selection of WebRamp were price, features, security, and expandability, and they have met every one of those repeatedly."

Plyler explains, "The greatest benefit of the WebRamp has been to allow Internet access through the LAN with the security of a firewall. Prior to the WebRamp M3 we used individual dial-up connections, which was not cost effective. The WebRamp 700s replaced the M3 with the advantages of DSL and a built-in firewall."

"Installation of the WebRamp was not difficult. The instruction manual was concise and accurate in directing the setup, and everyone in the office was pleased with its speed and reliability. From an administrative standpoint, it is straightforward and not difficult."

"Fortunately, we have not had many reasons to contact WebRamp for help. Over the course of almost three years, we have used technical support only one time, and in that case they were fast and accurate in solving the problem."

Flexion Business Guardian X300

Flexion's X300 System is designed for companies with as many as 64 employees, and emphasizes flexibility and scalability. It is a completely modular system that has the capability to expand by simply adding additional voice or data networking cards. Taking a virtually opposite approach than the WebRamp, the X300 is a high-priced networking product that offers a very comprehensive set of features. It offers Internet access, remote dial-up network access, voice switching, built-in PBX capabilities, voice and data messaging, call logging and monitoring, and remote access to messages while away from the office. The system retails for nearly $6,000 for its eight-port base configuration, and is managed through a separate Windows NT server.

The key quality of the Flexion system is the way it integrates communications tools into one unit, making them accessible to individual employees directly from their desktops. This is the most advanced of the combination voice and data products, in that it actually steps into the area of unified messaging, blurring the lines between voice and data. Messages are treated as interchangeable data files, and a telephone is just one more data input/output device on a shared information network. With this system, voice mails can be delivered by e-mail, and e-mails can be delivered over the phone. Administration of the Business Guardian X300 is more complex than other systems in this guide, but it is certainly provides more functionality.

Flexion argues that the X300 is a cost effective machine, due to the fact that it can not only eliminate the need for separate devices such as routers, multiplexers, and voice-messaging servers, but even fax machines and modems as well. It may also provide such a dramatic improvement in personal message handling that some positions, such as assistants or receptionists, may be eliminated.

WHAT WE THINK

Offices with small staffs and small budgets that need basic integration of data networking, Internet access, and telephony will do fine with the WebRamp 200V. While the telephony support is minimal, the product scales well to support more users and is a good value overall. We also liked the Magnum ASP for its affordability and strong telephony support. The Praxon PDX is a well-rounded, intuitive product, though it's somewhat expensive. The Business Guardian X300 offers the most advanced functionality of the products here, but is also more complex and costly. Buyers will most likely need a little more hand-holding from their vendor with this type of product.

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