Switchvox SMB 4.5 Raises the Bar

by Dave Michels

Digium quietly released a fairly significant upgrade to its flagship business VoIP solution, Switchvox SMB. The release offers a number of improvements and continues to position the solution as a strong value.

If you are not familiar with Switchvox, it is one of Digium’s only proprietary products. It is an appliance like phone system that is based on the open source free Asterisk also from Digium. The product transforms Asterisk to a robust point and click feature-rich VoIP phone system. The entire system is managed from a web console and provides a number of highly innovative features.

What is really nice about Swichvox SMB, is software maintenance actually delivers new features. All SMB customers currently under maintenance will receive the upgrade and new features for no additional charge. As with all prior upgrades, the new software is installed over the Internet with a press of a button. The upgrade takes only a few minutes (not counting the download), and involves a system reboot.

Features? Yep, new ones that clearly raise the bar. Finally, Switchvox discovered the phone. One of my complaints about so many Asterisk/SIP based solutions is the featureless phone. Features are typically accessed via the web browser instead of the phone. Even worse, the phones weren’t exactly easy to configure – a lot of installation set-up for what becomes a fairly basic device. That’s the heart of 4.5, it makes phone set-up a breeze and makes the phone far more useful.

Call recording is a great example. Call recording has always been a standard feature in SMB, but only accessed from the “Switchboard” webapplet. A user desiring to record the call, had to first open the browser, login to Switchvox, launch the switchboard, and activate recording. Now, call recording is easily accessed via a softkey on the phone. Digium took a great standard feature and made it accessible.

Another nice improvement is the directory. Most phone systems have a limited directory. Switchvox SMB now allows users to upload photos, location information, and email address to the directory. The information is displayed in the Switchboard and the Polycom phone display (during incoming and outgoing calls). Smaller versions show up on the visual voice mail – yes visual voice mail comes to Switchvox. They also made call park information accessible from the phonetop.

Technically, these features were always possible, just not easy. Polycom phones can be customized with esoteric scripts via TFTP servers. What Switchvox did was make this all accessible via point and click options delivered by the new “Phone Feature Packs”. This is a beefed up version of what used to be called Provisioning Tokens which were almost useful in version SMB4. The concept was to simplify phone set-up, but the result was too simple. It made the phones featureless single line phones. With 4.5, it not only delivers these new features to the phone, but does so in with options for multi-line and resilient configurations. Any SIP phone can be used with Switchvox SMB, but the Feature Packs configure Polycom and Snom phones (not all features can be configured on Snom phones). The provisioning is done directly from the SMB server, no separate server or scripting is required. Phone Feature Packs are sold separately per phone, they replace the Provisioning Tokens.

The Feature Packs offer quite a bit of configuration control including digit map timeouts, NTP server details, options regarding displayed notifications, and line labels. A Click-to-dial improvement now initiates on-hook dialing instead of ring-answer to complete a call. All this means is Switchvox administration is now available for the masses, its simplistic point and click approach is now a complete offering.

The Feature Packs are sold per user just as the older Provisioning Tokens were. However, Digium is offering the Feature Packs with separate part numbers for Polycom and Snom phones. This makes no sense to me as customers should be able to mix and match endpoints as desired. It turns out, at least for now, the only difference is the part number. So in theory a Polycom license could be used with a Snom phone. It seems like a wasteful exercise in marketing research. There are plenty of great SIP devices, and I assume Digium is planning broader support to include phones from Aastra, Grandstream, Cisco, and more – I hope they aren’t planning on different licenses for each.

SMB 4.5 includes many other enhancements. There is a new concept called Ring Hints which is an additional form of distinctive ringing. A Ring Hint is associated with a call via the IVR. For example, a customer could enter a priority ID, or be authenticated, or select a language preference. The Ring Hint will follow the call through the system. Since custom ringtones are also supported (via standard wave files), the ring can be very distinctive. Thre are numerous improvements to the interface, upgrades to T.38 faxing, and improvements to the Help system. Switchvox also overcame some Asterisk hurdles regarding foreign language support.

There are also improvements in two areas where Switchvox is way ahead of the pack; Extend and SNMP. Extend is the Switchvox API that enables other systems to access administrative functions. Digium continues to enhance Extend and claims that all administrative functions will be API enabled and delivers new capabilities with each upgrade. SMB 4.5 delivered 60 new API calls to enable Switchvox integration. Integrating call management with various external systems will continue to increase in importance and these APIs create powerful options. SMB 4.5 also delivers SNMP improvements. New SNMP capabilities now report conditions and states of various components within the phone system. For example, administrators can receive SNMP alerts for call load thresholds, ITSP failures, or monitoring of the network interfaces, the RAID status, even system memory.

There are a few missing items I was expecting in the next release of SMB. Still no support for SIP URI calling surprises me. I think the voice mail interface could use some improvements, but I’m happy to see visual voice mail. The biggest shock was the lack of a stronger mobile integration story. However, I know something is coming. I’ve managed to get a sneak peek of some smartphone clients for Switchvox. What I saw though was mobile access to settings, logs, and options. I am hopeful they develop tighter integration with mobile phones. Unfortunately, the engineers in the back room have the door closed.