Fonality Asterisk-based IP-PBX

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Fonality Asterisk-based IP-PBX

On Monday Fonality will be coming out of "stealth mode" promoting its PBXtra with their first press release even though they've been officially servicing customers since October 2004. "We've kind of been in stealth mode because we wanted a wide deployment before doing our announcement", said Chris Lyman, founder and CEO of Fonality based out of Culver City, California. "We're at hundreds of customers right now and thousands of lines sold on our platform in over 30 states and 3 countries deployed right now."

Fonality Web Interface

Fonality Web Interface

PBXtra at its core is an Asterisk-based PBX with over 110,000 lines of Fonality's code added to the Asterisk platform, which makes the system more complete than native Asterisk with a much easier to use Web-based front-end interface. According to FOnality, the total lines of code now supercede the amount of Asterisk code. While the phone system hardware (Digium PCI cards) and phones sit at the customer premise, the administration interface is an ASP model hosted by Fonality. Thus, adds, moves, and changes are done via a Web interface that communicates with a Web server hosted by Fonality.

I inquired as the reason for a hosted ASP administrative interface and Chris responded, "It resides at our data center outside of your firewall so moves, adds, and changes can be done without opening up your firewall, without having a web server running inside your business, without having an IT manager onboard. It plugs in and just works." Another reason given by Chris was. "I sold my web hosting company for 30 million in 2000. At that time we had 600 dedicated UNIX servers and we had our software installed on every one of them. We faced a decreasing economy of scale. Every bug fix, every feature fix had to be installed 600 times and the servers had to be rebooted which is when hardware fails. So what I swore to myself was that I would do a "write once use many" in my next business model." Chris gave an example of why he likes the ASP model when he told me, "Since January we have pushed 13 versions of our software to our customers and nobody had to do a reboot or click a download button."

I've blogged about a similar open-source VoIP systems, Switchvox, which just recently launched its channel program. Like Fonality, Switchvox has built its solution around the Asterisk platform and ironically it too is priced starting at $995. Coincidence? I think not. I had a detailed email conversation with the CEO of Switchvox, which I blogged about here. When someone suggested in this Switchvox blog entry that I also check out Fonality since it is a similar solution to Switchvox, a nasty comment was posted trashing Fonality and claiming that the previous comment poster was "obviously affiliated with Fonality so take his posts with a grain of salt."

This poster then goes onto trash Fonality's hosted business model. I was going to delete the comment, but I thought it was kind of funny how two competiting solutions were going at it in my blog. It could have simply been two avid customers of each solution or it could have been the head honchos of each respective organization. Who knows? I leave that for the reader to decide.

In any event, getting back to Fonality, it has Microsoft Outlook integration for quickly dialing Outlook Contacts and you can get CallerID popups on incoming calls as seen by this screenshot:

Fonality Outlook Interface

Fonality Outlook Interface

Fonality currently has our 300 resellers in their channel selling their product in about 40 countries. "We have more channel partners in more countries than we are selling in but that's because they're just getting ready to start deploying". Fonality has a referral program for their channel partners to encourage resellers to sign up other resellers.

When asked about how their reseller channel compares to traditional PBX channels Chris responded,"I guess the difference between us and the legacy PBX providers is they distribute through their own certified VAR channels, but those folks are getting a bigger commission check than we sell our whole product for." After a brief chuckle on my part at this statement, Chris explained that Fonality retails for under the $1000 psychological barrier at just $995 and under $3000 for a fully-featured PBX with 10 phones. The Call Center Edition is just an additional $1000 for the added call center functionality, which includes ACD, skills-based routing, agent reporting, and more. Think about that for a second - $995 for the phone system? That is damn cheap! Err. I mean inexpensive. (nobody likes having their phone system being called "cheap")

As for phones, Fonality currently supports phones from Polycom, Cisco, SNOM, and more. Although Chris pointed out that PBXtra supports SIP and IAX (Asterisk protocol) at its core, which means in theory it should work with any SIP phone, I was intrigued by his statement when he said "We're not in 'the bring your own phone party'. We have very specific phones with very specific firmware with very specific bootcode with the extension pre-preprogrammed so the small business owner just simply plugs it in and it works." This certainly makes sense for small businesses with minimal or no IT staff to setup the SIP configuration on a SIP phone which can be a bit daunting.

"We work closely with Mark Spencer (Asterisk/Digium founder) in advancing the specifications of their hardware. I believe we are moving the most Digium hardware of any single business model." I asked Chris what feature requests he had for the Digium telephony boards and he said, "I'd like to see them support echo cancellation on their 4-port TDM card." I then asked "What about fax support?" and Chris responded, "Ahhh, that's number two. The reason why I didn't mention fax is you can live without faxing but you can't live with an echo. So that's one and two. You're good man!"

Kudos aside, another question I asked was their thoughts on SIPFoundary, another open-source solution started by Pingtel. Chris responded with, "Yes, we've developed all of code in APIs outside of Asterisk with the specific understanding that we could move to another open-source platform if it made sense for the business. We're going through 2-3 levels of APIs before anything ever even talks to Asterisk. So the answer is if Pingtel has a superior product and if it matures to that point then we'll consider it."

Chris gave me a demo of their Web-based interface. I've included thumbnails below, so feel free to click on any of them to view the high-resolution version. While not an "official" review of their product since it was a quick demo, I was pretty impressed. One feature I did notice was missing was that they don't have extension templating or "class of service" for quickly applying user preferences and settings. Of course, when targeting such a small number of users - 20-100 users, quickly "cloning" users is really only a minor feature since you can quickly setup each user individually. The user interface was pretty clean and leveraged Javascript and DHTML to display "help" (descriptive balloon text) when you hover your mouse over a specific field.

If I had to summarize this product in once sentence I'd say "Fonality is turnkey, plug-and-play 'Asterisk on steroids' with a user-friendly Web interface and with additional functionality not found on native Asterisk that is perfectly suited for small businesses."

Check out some of the Web administration screenshots (Click for high-resolution):

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