How do we make our PBX grow with our company?
February 1, 2012 12:41 PM   Subscribe

Where should I look and what should I look at for replacing our old Norstar/Meridian PBX? Should we replace the hardware or switch to a hosted solution?

Our current phone setup is running off a T1 that we will likely be dumping in a year. The T1 was serving as both our phone and internet but was not cutting it anymore for our data needs but we have a contract so we are stuck with it for a while.

Recently we got a Comcast Business cable modem installed. So we moved our data network over to that while leaving the voice on the T1 since we are paying for it anyway.

Current setup is a Norstar/Meridian PBX with Norstar phones on the desks. Currently we have 19 extensions, 5 incoming lines for voice and one for fax.

Our small company is growing and splitting into two divisions. My boss would like to have two different number for the two divisions, but they would ring in at the same front desk. So the receptionist would need to be able to see which number is ringing in, also if it could hunt to the proper extensions if the auto attendant is on. We would need voice mailboxes and also we have a large warehouse that we need to be able to use the intercom system for paging people in the warehouse.

Should we just be getting phone service thru Comcast? Or can I leave it as a data plan and use some other form of VoIP? Telephony is not an area I have much experience in, but it has fallen to me to investigate this.

Also I would love to just call in a good, reliable company that deals with many different voice communication solutions and can come in and consult with us, I just don't know who that might be. We are just north of Chicago. (The guy who helped us with our original phone system is no longer available.)
posted by MrBobaFett to Technology (15 answers total)
We have a PBX through Fonality, and use as our VOIP provider. I unfortunately can't give you too many specifics, as I wasn't involved in the choice of providers or the setup.

I do know that our PBX is a 1U server on one of our racks at our datacenter (I work for a web hosting company, so we have racks and racks of servers), which I think was provided by Fonality. It looks like you can get a hosted version also.

We have a combination of hard and soft phones. Our office at the data center has a few hard phones, and I know a few employees have them also. Everyone else has a soft phone. We are all set up in various queues, and the calls route by queue, and also by employee priority, meaning a more junior support tech will get a call before a senior support tech does. I think there are more options that you can use, but we're a small company and don't need anything too complex.

Overall, the system seems to work quite well. I'm sure that there are a lot of other companies who do what Fonality does, but they're the ones I'm familiar with.
posted by ralan at 2:05 PM on February 1, 2012

If you like having your own phone system in house, then something like Cisco IP phones might be what you are looking for. Perhaps this vendor can help? (I know someone who works there, fwiw.) Those can be expensive for just a phone system, but there are many ways the system can integrate with your other services that can make them a pretty good deal.
posted by gjc at 2:14 PM on February 1, 2012

Best answer: [Canadian experience]

I am surprised that you cannot do what you need with the Norstar/Meridian, they are quite capable systems. It may cost 2-300/hour but a good technician can likely setup your system to do just what you need.

Hosted or Virtual systems require all new equipment (assuming your extensions are standard Meridian phones like the T7208), there are also software phones available. So you will have to purchase all new IP phones (at about <>
Having said that, we no longer offer traditional PBX solutions to any of our clients. In our opinion that day is gone. There will always be exceptions, of course, but we have begun moving all new and upgraded customers to a hosted (or virtualized) environment (in our case Primus and RingCentral). The flexibility and configurabilty of these H/VBX systems are phenomenal. Moreover, our clients love them because they can configure the system without calling us (mixed blessings)

The cost curve is highly dependent on your growth and your inhouse knowledge of phone systems. Expect to pay at least $30-50 per extension per month for a H/VBX system.

IMHO, I would ride the existing Meridian into the ground, tweak it as much as possible, and only when you need to purchase another addon, or set of licenses consider the H/VBX solutions
posted by njk at 2:18 PM on February 1, 2012

Best answer: Disclaimer: I do technical and sales support for one of the many small/medium business telephone systems. I am not the most unbiased source of information, but will try to answer your questions fairly.

Service: Your options are fairly wide open. T1's are usually rather expensive to run voice unless you are utilizing the full 23 channels. The last checks we did indicated that T1's were running around $300-500/month for a full T1, not including long distance or international. Having 6 lines total, you fall into the area where most clients go with either regular POTS lines or SIP Trunking. I do know that Comcast does offer business phone service both via their equipment (an ATA that converts the digital to analog phones) or via SIP (true VoIP service). There are also other SIP service providers available, including XO, Broadvox, CBeyond, AT&T, etc.; there are something like 30+ major players in the SIP market, and they fight for business. What it really boils down to is what will work best for the company and at what price. The reason I'd be ditching the T1 is this: SIP service for 6 trunks typically runs around $150/month, give or take on long distance charges, and is often scalable. T1 will almost always cost more and T1 doesn't offer the scalability.

Equipment: There is a whole slew of equipment made by at least a dozen manufacturers that would fit in this space. Much of the SMB equipment will be able to do the features you listed: multiple VM boxes, ring groups, multiple auto attendants, caller ID, intercom, paging, cordless. This is where a local telecom company will really help you determine what is best. The local telecoms should be able to at least show off and demo equipment for you before purchase.

Local telecom: Bring in multiple businesses. They may charge to do an estimate and site survey, but I personally would pay that to make certain I'm getting the best deal. Make sure to go over all of the costs: system, installation, cabling, tear out of the old system (will be necessary for Nortel/Meridian), service fees, warranties and post-installation technical support. Often the telecoms can offer leasing programs to take some of the sting out of the cost. Systems in this range will typically cost anywhere between $5000-15000 including everything but the service.

Shameless self-promotion: If you would like information regarding who I work for, our system, or simply some references to local telecom installers, MeMail me.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 2:19 PM on February 1, 2012

oops darn html!!! That should have read ..

"So you will have to purchase all new IP phones (at about less than $150). "

darn angle brackets.
posted by njk at 2:20 PM on February 1, 2012

Best answer: I do voip for a living.

One thing to be concerned about when you switch to voip is voice quality. Depending on how much bandwidth you use and how many people use the phone at once, you're possibly going to run into problems with choppy calls. In general, this isn't a problem if you're getting VOIP from your ISP, because they'll have end-to-end QoS configured. If you're getting voip from a hosted provider, there are things you can do with your firewall to provide some level of QoS for traffic leaving your network, but for inbound traffic from the internet, your options are limited and spotty at best.

What I would do is call Comcast business and ask about a SIP to PRI trunk so you can keep your old PBX or ask them if they provide their own hosted PBX service.
posted by empath at 2:25 PM on February 1, 2012

Comcast offers a PRI trunk service you can use with your current PBX.
posted by empath at 2:27 PM on February 1, 2012

Oh, and the other thing about 3rd party hosted pbx's is getting support. Some people never have problems -- maybe most people, but if you do have problems, your hpbx provider will point at the ISP, and the ISP will point at the hpbx provider and it turns into a nightmare to resolve. And if your hosted PBX isn't also providing your firewall and managing it for you, you have to deal with figuring out firewall rules, qos, etc with your firewall vendor, also. I used to work for a hosted PBX and my job was getting all of this stuff working for them, and even though I was trying my best to help them through it, I can understand how frustrating it was for people when the cards didn't fall exactly right.
posted by empath at 2:32 PM on February 1, 2012

Best answer: I worked as a contractor for Norstar products, many years ago, so my information is not up to date, but what you are describing for your new set up should be possible with your current system.

Even the smallest Norstar system has the capability to handle routing different numbers to different sets. You can have the receptionist/front desk lines ring with different tones to designate which line is inbound. For example:"ABC Company" can use ring tone 1 on inbound lines 1, 2 and 3 and "DEF Company" can use ring tone 2 on inbound lines 4, 5 & 6. If you have the voice mail system attached, you can even program that to handle to two separate divisions calling in.

There are several good suggestions above for changing service to something less expensive than T1 - listen to Mister Fabulous - and if you do so, see about selling your Norstar system to a rebuild/refurbish company. There is one here in North Texas that will purchase used equipment from all over the world. So you can make a little (not a lot!) of your money back if you upgrade to a different system completely. Memail me and I'll give you the details!
posted by lootie777 at 2:35 PM on February 1, 2012

With only 5 lines I seriously doubt your existing system has a T1 card in it. It was generally cheaper to buy a channel bank and POTS cards if you were using less than half a T1 of voice. Go find the gray box on the wall in a closet somewhere that says Nortel on it and open the door and see which line cards you have. If you have DS or CI cards, anything that looks like or can be made to look like a POTS line will work with your current system pretty much as is.

A CallPilot voicemail addon and a paging transformer/speakers you'd have to buy no matter what system you went with would be a lot cheaper than a whole new phone system. Even if you max out the system as presently configured, it will still be cheaper to buy expansion cabinets than most any entirely new phone system. I like to troll eBay for deals on whatever we think we might need someday.

Right now our system serves three different entities, all with their own line pools, two of which are handled by a single receptionist. The other has an auto attendant set up on our Asterisk system which was originally interconnected to the system for remote workers. Even with the hardware, that setup was a lot less expensive than a whole new phone system. We're looking at replacing the VM capability with a CallPilot and moving over to a hosted Asterisk solution for the stuff we can run through our SIP gateway, which sadly does not include voicemail due to some brain-deadness in Nortel's support for third party voicemail solutions.

If you're at all technical, you can do it yourself, but it's better to have someone to yell at when things don't work like they should.

Would I buy a new Nortel system today? No. Would I scrap ours and go all IP? Not with the kind of pricing I've been quoted, either for a new onsite IP-based system or hosted. Will we continue to use IP for long distance and remote DIDs? Absolutely.
posted by wierdo at 6:18 PM on February 1, 2012

Response by poster: We defiantly have our voice lines coming in via T1 from First Comm, if the line type is converted after the box I don't know, I only ever dealt with the data side of the T1.
I'm unsure where to find the line card. We have a M8X24DS (does that DS on the end indicated a DS line card maybe?), in that we have a software cart and an expansion module that connects over to a MOX16. There is also a Norstar Flash for I believe the voice mail system.

Our current Norstar system may very well be capable of doing everything we need, I just don't know it's capabilities. Plain old computer data networks I'm fine with for the most part, anything attached to that voice port on the T1 beyond a punch down block I don't understand. I think my boss may have gotten the idea it needs to be replaced from talking to hosted VoIP solution salesmen, I don't know.

Using Comcast for our voice when the T1 contract is over is ideal so we only have on vendor. It sounds like maybe we would just need to replace the First Comm equipment and we could keep the Norstar, but I need to find a Norstar technician to come checkout our gear and do any reprogramming.

I don't suppose there is a good PDF or dead tree document that would help me understand the capabilities and function of the various components I'm dealing with.

Thanks for all the info thus far.
posted by MrBobaFett at 6:45 AM on February 2, 2012

Response by poster: gjc your link errors out when I click thru...
posted by MrBobaFett at 6:46 AM on February 2, 2012

It sounds like maybe we would just need to replace the First Comm equipment and we could keep the Norstar, but I need to find a Norstar technician to come checkout our gear and do any reprogramming.

If you get a sip to pri trunk for comcast, basically what they'll do is bring in an IAD (internet access device) which is going act as a router but will also have a sip trunk to their voice switch. The IAD will have a t1 port locally that will output however many channels of voice over PRI to your Nortel, and it just acts as a gateway between your nortel and the comcast voip switch.

After that, everything internally should work exactly the same. I'd just call your Comcast sales rep, they should have experience setting this up.

If you want a second opinion on anything they tell you, feel free to memail me.
posted by empath at 10:49 AM on February 2, 2012

The 8x24 is the main cabinet. The other thing is actually an 0x16 (as in zero), which gets you an extra 16 station ports in addition to the 24 built in to the main cabinet.

You can download the system coordinator's guide and the installer manual from various places online, or you might even have a CD hanging around somewhere with them on them. The systems I've bought new always came with documentation on CD.

In the 8x24 cabinet, you should see something like this. To the right, you'll note that there are two tall cards wider than the rest. The one on the left is a LS/DS card (it says DS on it just below the triangle, although you can't read it in this pic) and the one to the right is a T1 card.
posted by wierdo at 11:44 AM on February 2, 2012

Response by poster: OK we are going to look at keeping the current PBX and getting someone to program it. We got in touch with a company who is coming out to talk with us about how to make this work. Thanks.
posted by MrBobaFett at 11:05 AM on February 9, 2012

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