This blog originally appeared on Best in UC.
There exists a running debate on the merits of an open standard corporate phone system. On one side are open source software offerings such as Asterisk. Battling against these more open formats are packaged, proprietary systems from major vendors such as ShoreTel, Avaya and Cisco.
Each approach has merit, and the buyer must decide between them by weighing the pros and cons for their particular situation. Surprisingly, size and scale often are not the determining factors. We have seen both open source and proprietary systems scale to many thousands of endpoints. And we have seen great successes and spectacular failures at both ends of the scale.
Westron has provided turnkey IP telephony and unified communications solutions to our clients for more than a decade. We started with the Cisco (formerly Celsius) platform and moving on to provide solutions from EADS Telecom (formerly Intecom, now Aastra), Nortel (was AT&T, then Lucent, now Avaya), and finally settling on the ShoreTel (still ShoreTel!) platform for most of our
On our journey, we have explored not only the technical solutions our clients required, but also the human engineering and varied degrees of support the systems required. Our business volume with ShoreTel saw a dramatic uptick in 2004, when John Combs became CEO of the San Jose-based company, and Joe Vitalone took over the role of vice president of sales for the Americas.
Both of these industry veterans helped Westron develop a laser-like focus on customer satisfaction, and our customer sat scores today hover in the 99% positive range as measured by a neutral third-party company. This has helped us grow our company at a brisk pace, increasing sales and profits far ahead of many of our competitors. And this passion for delighted customers has spilled over into all technology areas we support: network, wireless, video, mobility and IP telephony.
The standardization offered by ShoreTel and other vendors allows a consistent user experience, as well as a loyal and vocal end-customer base. With a semi-proprietary approach, we and the client are in control of:
- the types of endpoint devices attached to the system
- how training is conducted and maintained
- standards of use for all employees
- how software integration at the endpoints is rolled out and supported
- security, encryption, problem resolution, and speedy on-boarding of new personnel
I won’t argue that all of these items (which are measured in customer satisfaction surveys) cannot be attained with open source systems. We have found, however, that staffing and associated costs required to maintain, operate and support the users is consistently less with a purpose designed
system. In a word, it’s simpler.
Ah, that word: simple. Marketing flack is peppered with terms like “user-friendly,” “ease of use,”
“standard,” “out of the box,” and other platitudes. In reality, advanced technology is, well, advanced. As a result, it often confuses folks, rather than delivering the promised spectacular improvements in productivity, employee happiness, customer satisfaction, blood pressure, and executive pride.
There is a reason Apple succeeds: simplicity. Most of the open source implementations I have seen have been based on the premise that there are hundreds of IP phone endpoints available at a wide range of price points. The argument goes like this: “Wouldn’t it be great if we were not beholden to some multi-million (billion) dollar corporation that will dictate what type of phone we put on the desk?”
Well, the fact is, most folks do not care what phone is on the desk as long as it works! And that they can do cool stuff like transfer and conference without the ubiquitous tag line, “If (and when) I disconnect you, Junior’s direct number is BR549.”
Now, we have seen great implementations of open source VoIP in some specific environments. Examples are higher education and K-12 schools. With the proper standards in place, a very lean IT and telephony team can roll out and support thousands of endpoints in this type of deployment.
As a taxpayer, I applaud thrifty IT folks at the schools. Most of the end users are not heavy phone users, and you can employ students to do much of the grunt work on an internship or work/study basis. Since the nature of the organization is non-profit, the sense of urgency to install, repair, and maintain 100% uptime does not seem to be at the same level as in a financial institution or air traffic control center, for example. And the use of multiple endpoints, servers, applications and equipment is legitimately used as a learning experience by the institutions. Some of our best engineers have come from this type of learning process.
That said, each organization has to measure what is most important to them, and make sure they have an ergonomic fit with both the technology platform and the business partner that will make that technology successful in their organization. Just remember, it is hard to top simple.