If you thought routers only linked networks together, then think again. With modern communications processors spending just a fraction of their time actually routing packets it’s possible to get them to do a whole lot more. Such as power a complete small-business communication solution, based on Cisco’s market-leading CallManager VoIP technology.
Called, somewhat unimaginatively, the Business Communications Solution (BCS), the new Cisco product is built around its ISR (Integrated Services Router) family with a choice of 1U and 2U models to handle from 20 to 240 users. Naturally these all run Cisco’s tried and trusted IOS operating system, on top of which there’s a cut-down version of its popular CallManager IP telephony application, known as Cisco Unified CallManager Express.
A variety of WAN interface modules can be specified to plug inside the ISR, offering PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network) connectivity over analogue, ISDN or leased lines. Plus there’s support for H.323 and SIP trunking for PSTN connectivity via hosted service providers and to enable larger companies to link satellite offices running BCS to a central PBX.
An integrated Cisco EtherSwitch module provides the local network connectivity with 802.3af-compliant Power over Ethernet (PoE) support, plus layer 3 switching and QoS functionality as standard. However, you’re limited in the number of ports that can be fitted in the router and additional cascaded switches will, typically, be required.
When it comes to the handsets you’re, again, spoilt for choice. Most of the popular Cisco IP handsets can be employed, including the colour screen 7970 and its Wi-Fi phone. Wireless connectivity, however, has to be provided by a separate access point with no wireless interface in the router itself. Existing analogue handsets can also be used via adapters, and it’s possible to add dedicated FXS ports to the router, typically, to support fax machines.
The Cisco softphone is yet another option, with support for Microsoft TAPI for integration with Outlook and other applications. Support for SIP as well as Cisco’s own SCCP (Skinny Client Control Protocol) means that SIP-compatible softphones and hardware handsets can also be used. However, SIP users get a lot less functionality compared to those using Skinny, and most companies will be better off sticking to an all-Cisco deployment.
It’s CallManager Express that provides the core PBX functionality, with all the features you’d expect on a small-business telephone exchange. These include support for inbound DDI and both local extension-to-extension and PSTN calling. There are also facilities to put calls on hold, transfer and divert calls, configure speed dials, hunt groups and so on. Three-way conferencing is another useful feature, together with the ability to seamlessly hand-off calls to a separate video conferencing connection.
Voicemail is also available as part of an optional module called Cisco Unity Express, with flash memory cards to go inside the ISR to store the messages. There’s also a neat new facility to scroll through a voicemail list on some phones and selectively replay messages.
An automated attendant is another feature within Unity Express, although this isn’t the full IVR (Interactive Voice Response) system that's available for the enterprise CallManager solution. Similarly there’s no support for hot-desking in the BCS bundle at present, which could be an issue for larger organisations.
Call quality is excellent, with a good choice of codecs -- although, as with any VoIP solution, the quality of the supporting network and any WAN links will play a role here. And, as with most Internet routers, the Cisco ISR has a built-in firewall and VPN capabilities, both of which will be of benefit when linking multiple offices and teleworkers.
Mobile integration and online meeting services are other useful options, while management is straightforward with a single Web interface for both the CallManager and Unity Express functionality.
Unfortunately the smaller ISR routers only have a single power supply, and in the event of a failure PBX functionality will be lost along with power to the handsets where PoE is employed. On the plus side, most of the routers support what Cisco calls Survivable Remote Site Telephony (SRST), enabling PSTN calls to continue to be made and received in the event of a failure (assuming the phone still has power) and for branch offices to continue working even though the connection to the central PBX may be down.
There’s no denying the impressive functionality of the Business Communications Solution, which neatly delivers a small business PBX on the back of a Cisco router. And it’s certainly an interesting development for a company that, having previously concentrated almost exclusively on the larger enterprise market, is now keen to address the needs of smaller businesses. Interestingly too, BCS is branded as a proper Cisco product, available through specialist small-business resellers rather than being sold through its subsidiary Linksys.
But whether it’s for you will depend on your circumstances. In its favour, the Cisco product is based on proven technology and isn’t particularly expensive compared to other converged solutions. Even so, if you already have a working PBX the investment might be hard to justify. It only really makes sense where you're installing from scratch or upgrading anyway, although it’s worth noting that the majority of new deployments are still of conventional TDM products: VoIP has not yet taken a significant share of the small business PBX market.
The Cisco BCS starts at £3,600 (ex. VAT), while a typical 50-user configuration with voicemail, PRI WAN interface and Cisco handsets costs £18,620 (ex. VAT).