Dialing for Dollars with P2P

When Mike Furney took his big gamble last year and escaped from the Dallas carpet and flooring outlet where he’d been working to open his own place across town, the technology side of starting a new business that totally mystified him. What kind of computer system did he need, and what sort of phone system should he get? Like many budding entrepreneurs, Furney had no clue.

Luckily his younger brother Doug is president and CEO of The Small Business Solution, a Dallas-based computer consulting firm. When Mike started planning his new business, Signature Floor and Interiors, Doug was there every step of the way, helping him make the key technology decisions, including selecting a phone system — perhaps the most important technology decision for a retailer.

Doug looked at conventional small-office phone systems from Nortel Networks and Avaya Inc., but ended up recommending VentureIP from Aastra Technologies, a peer-to-peer (P2P) voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) system. P2P office phone systems are a fairly new phenomenon. They use the same network architecture and many of the same techniques that enable popular Internet applications such as Skype and Kazaa, but use them in entirely legal and secure ways within a local area network (LAN).

Understanding Peer-to-Peer
Most office phone systems include a central server or Private Branch eXchange (PBX) that routes calls, enables calling features like conferencing, call waiting, automated attendant, etc., and stores phone-related data such as digitized voice-mail messages. Because VentureIP is P2P, it doesn’t have a server. The PBX software resides on each of the VentureIP desk set phones, along with data such as speed dial numbers, auto attendant messages and voice mails.

The phones plug directly into any Ethernet local area network (LAN) that uses power over Ethernet (PoE) technology. They talk to each other over the network — peer to peer — to manage call routing. VentureIP only uses VoIP within the office. To make outside calls to the public switched telephone network (PSTN), Aastra provides a four-port VentureIP Gateway device that connects to the LAN on one side and to outside phone company lines on the other.

So why did the Furneys opt for VentureIP over a tried-and-true key system or a conventional server-based IP PBX?

It’s All About the Benefits
“Cost was a major factor,” says Doug Furney. Because VentureIP eliminates the need for a central phone server — all you need are the phones and the gateways — it’s usually less expensive for a very small office than conventional alternatives.

Doug found an online reseller, PhoneLady.com, and paid about $240 each for 11 VentureIP 480i phones and $220 each for two VentureIP Gateways — a little over $3,000 in total. His brother would have paid closer to $5,000 for a conventional small office phone system, he says.

This is partly because the conventional systems were bigger than Furney needed. Many small businesses are persuaded to buy phone systems that support more extensions than they actually need to ensure room for growth. The decision on how big a system to buy becomes a gamble on how big you think the business is going to grow and how fast. With VentureIP, when Furney adds new employees or a new location, he can simply buy as many VentureIP phones (and gateways) as he needs — one at a time if he wants — and plug them in.

“The ability to add to the system piecemeal was pretty attractive,” Doug Furney says.

It was particularly attractive to his brother because, like many small businesses, Signature had limited start-up capital. Mike Furney knew he’d need a good chunk of it to pay carpet mills for product ordered by his first customers before receivables started coming in. So it was important not to spend any more on a phone system than absolutely necessary. For Furney, a no-nonsense sales executive who admits he doesn’t know much about technology, the cost savings sealed the deal.

“Overall, we’re very pleased with the system,” he says. “It was very price competitive — a great deal.”

Installation: Some Experience Required
For Doug, VentureIP held other attractions, too. He’s a computer and networking wiz but admits to being a neophyte when it comes to telephone systems. So Aastra’s claim that even non-technical users can install VentureIP was appealing. With conventional server-based phone systems, buyers often pay extra for time-consuming professional installations.

Doug Furney says candidly that his brother probably couldn’t have installed VentureIP on his own, but Doug had little difficulty. He also set up the Ethernet network which uses power over Ethernet (PoE), a fairly advanced technology he says would be beyond most non-experts. With PoE, the phones are powered over the Ethernet cables and require no power plug. “If you already have an Ethernet network in place with PoE, any computer-savvy small business owner or office manager can install VentureIP,” Furney says.

He found basic installation “relatively easy,” but would like to see better documentation. He admits, though, that the same could be said of almost any hardware or software product. It took him four-to-five hours to install the VentureIP system once the network was in place.

The most difficult part was figuring out which features to activate and how to set up call-answering protocols involving roll-overs and hunt groups. How many extensions should receive calls from outside the building and which ones? How many times should an incoming call ring before being automatically transferred to another extension — or to all extensions? And how many times should it ring before going to voice-mail?

“I figured it out mostly by trial and error,” Furney says. “If I’d done one of these before, it would have been a lot easier.” He’d like to see Aastra include “best practices” advice in its documentation to guide buyers on how to make these kinds of decisions.

Performance that Pleases
Both Furneys say the system has performed well. One of the 11 VentureIP 480i phones Signature ordered from PhoneLady.com was dead on arrival and quickly replaced. Installed in late September of 2005, the system has been problem free. Doug Furney figures the VentureIP phones are as easy to learn as conventional business phones or easier because the screens on the phones prompt users. He spent a half day training the Signature employees on how to use voice-mail and the calling features.

VentureIP has a full slate of PBX features: paging/intercom, call forward, hold and hold alerts, call log, call transfer, conferencing, corporate and personal directories, visual voice-mail and auto-attendant. The calling features Signature employees use most: transferring calls (either blind or waiting on the line with the customer) and paging. They particularly like the voice-mail system because it allows them to listen to a caller leaving a message and answer the phone before the person hangs up if they want.

Signature isn’t using a lot of the features. It only activates the auto attendant for answering the phone after hours — Mike Furney would rather customer calls be answered by a live person. None of the employees collects e-mail messages from their PCs or uses conferencing, and Furney hasn’t implemented music on hold yet. As many features as VentureIP has, the Furneys would like to see Aastra add others. There is no operator station that lets an operator see quickly who is on the phone and who is available to take a call. There’s also no simple way to park a call and then page somebody to pick it up. And some employees have complained that the phones don’t have enough storage space for voice-mail. They have to check mail more frequently than they would like to ensure their box doesn’t fill up. Furney says Aastra has been receptive to such suggestions but has made no commitment on when it might add such features.

Bottom Line
VentureIP makes sense for small offices with fewer than 20 people, especially those that don’t have a resident technology expert. If you think your business may grow quickly to more than 20 users, think twice. But for start-ups or companies that have grown out of the four-phone home/home office systems available at retail, VentureIP is a good bet. It lets you grow your business without having to either install a new phone system or buy a more powerful system than you need.

Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980s. Just for fun, he also authors features and columns on digital photography for Here’s How, a spiffy Canadian consumer technology magazine.

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