Product review: Linksys low-end VoIP PBX

The Linksys SPA9000 offers good features at a great price but suffers from a too-complex setup

Linksys' first low-end entry into the IP-PBX world is a capable system whose diminutive size hides a high level of complexity. Called the Linksys SPA9000, it's smaller than your average sandwich but packs plenty of features. Getting some of them to work will require a great deal of patience, reading the manual and trial-and-error experimenting in the brave new world of business IP telephony.

In the past, small offices of fewer than 10 people tended to spend several thousand dollars on their phone switches, buying systems that couldn't be easily upgraded. Moving or reassigning extensions was a tedious process, and there were often lots of hidden costs for extra features. And if you moved to a new office, you had to start from scratch with a new system, new phones and new phone numbers.

That's the market that Linksys is squarely aiming at with the 9000. It almost succeeded, for the reasons we'll get into shortly.

A business voice-over-IP (VoIP) solution has lots of advantages. First is cost -- you can purchase an unlimited calling plan and eliminate the suspenseful surprise when you get your monthly bill, because most plans include the cost of calls to all North American phone numbers.

Portable phone number

You also can carry your phone number with you wherever you are, just as long as you have an Internet connection. You can make changes to your configuration without having to talk to your local phone company. You can have a phone number in another area code outside of your physical location to make it a local call for your customers in that area. You can have more control and more features all at an affordable price.

The 9000 unit is part of a larger collection of products based on technology that Linksys' parent company, Cisco Systems Inc., acquired from Sipura Technology Inc. Taken together, the Linksys Voice System components can be used as a small-business phone system supporting up to 16 different extensions, with VoIP protocols.

You will need to separately purchase service (usually bundled with a T1 Internet access line) from a VoIP hosting provider, such as CBeyond or Bandwidth.com. The provider assigns your phone numbers and routes calls to your equipment.

Linksys also sells a line of VoIP phone handsets; I tested the model 962 (which sells for about $300 retail) that has color screens and plenty of buttons to control their functions. The final piece of the puzzle is the SPA400, which is used to set up voice mail and also to provide a connection to the public switched analog phone network. (I didn't test this module, and it's sold as a separate $250 product.)

Any VoIP rollout will need to carefully examine the network infrastructure and ensure that it's up to snuff to support voice applications. I would also recommend putting in power-over-Ethernet switches if you don't have them already. Each phone could be powered from the AC wall jack, but you can minimize wiring problems if they receive power directly from the network jack.

Some of the Linksys phones don't work with older gigabit switches; I received two supposedly identical models and one didn't like my older Netgear GS116. Linksys says it's working to address this with a firmware upgrade.

The 9000 unit has ports for two analog phone lines, which can be used to connect a fax machine or ordinary answering machine, for example.

Three different interfaces

Learning how to operate the 9000 will require using all three of the product's different interfaces. First is the Windows-based setup wizard that can walk you through the basic tasks. It's not well organized and is hard to follow for a new user. Next is the Web-based menus, which are excruciatingly complex. This is where you will be spending most of your time setting up the 9000 and its associated phones.

There are literally hundreds if not thousands of different parameters in the 9000's Web interface, and you don't want to go messing about changing 99% of them. This is the weakest portion of the product -- for example, setting up my fax machine took several attempts at picking the right choices for nearly a dozen parameters. Here is just the top half of one of the screens, to show you its complexity:

Product review: Linksys SPA9000

This graphic shows just some of the options available for one single setup task.

(Click image to see larger view)

And, finally, there is a built-in interactive voice-response system that is used to record audio prompts, which is at least a simple process. The analog line is also used to record the various voice prompts if you want to customize the system to answer the phone with your company name, for example, or provide particular prompts to your callers.

Making changes to the automatic attendant isn't simple; you have to record particular greetings and assign them a specific numerical ID. Then you go into the Web interface and edit the attendant configuration to use that ID for particular tasks, using a rather terse coding language that has about a dozen lines of code that looks a lot like XML: audio src="prompt6" bargein="T"/

This is all documented in the manuals, and hopefully once you get all of this set up, you won't have to touch it.

Annoying reboots

Anytime you update the configuration on the 9000, it will need to reset all the phones attached to it, which means each phone automatically reboots to obtain the new setup. This could be annoying at the beginning of a rollout, especially if your users actually want to make calls while you are going through the setup process. It's best to do all of your testing and reconfiguration ahead of time or in off-hours.

Another annoying issue: Your phones have to be all on the same subnet to register automatically with the 9000. You can also set up phones on outside networks (such as in branch offices in another state), but that will require some additional VPN setup. Linksys is working on a built-in VPN client for such situations.

There are plenty of features in the 9000 that can keep anyone busy trying them out and make it competitive with a more costly PBX. You can have music on hold, transfer calls between extensions, direct inward dial, call hunt groups, shared extensions, do not disturb and custom call greetings. For most of us, that is probably more that we want to do with our office phones. The 9000 comes in two versions: to support four or (for an extra $300) 16 lines, easily upgradeable as your needs expand.

I was able to get my phone system working after about two hours of direct technical support coaching; some of this was because my equipment had to be brought to the current firmware levels.

Linksys uses Windows-based updating programs that are separately downloaded for the phones and the 9000 unit. In an actual purchase, the system would likely be obtained from a reseller who would do most of this dirty work. One place you can purchase it directly is Voxilla, but you are better off finding a local specialty value-added reseller who understands the product line and its various telephony features.

Linksys SPA9000

www.linksys.com

$399 for four lines, $698 for 16 lines. Available through value-added resellers or CDW and other distributors

Phone (800) 546-5797

David Strom is a writer, editor, public speaker, blogging coach and consultant. He is a former editor in chief of Network Computing and Tom's Hardware and has his own blog. He can be reached at david@strom.com.

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