Introduction to what's in a PBX
If we take away all the whistles and bells and bloated featurism found in nearly all PBXes today, both open source and closed, commercial, offeirngs, we note there is a need to put as many features into the system as possible.
This is also reflected in the various procurement tracks I have seen over the years: The PBX with the most features wins. One of the reasons for this stance is simply to the fact that PBX procurements often only involves one or two people: Procurement experts and/or "a telephony guy" (often someone who is in charge of the old system). The procurement experts know nothing about telephony - and the telephony guy is often very geeky; AND NONE OF THESE TWO KNOWS ANYTHING ABOUT HOW A USER WANTS THINGS!
When I did my master degree, I wrote about what users really want in their PBX - or to put it in another way: How users really used their PBX system. My findings was that the majority of users only wanted/needed a few functions. Most users want to make, and receive, a phone call (duh!).
Seen from a phone system manager point of view - ease of use and phone provisioning is high up on the list.
When this is said, lets not forget that very few smaller companies bother to manage their own system. They outsource this to a vendor or a consultant. The latter is absolutely true when we look into open source telephony. To cost efficiently set up a PBX system, as little time spent as possible is the norm. If a company have the option of spending USD 6 000,- on a ready-to-deploy Alcatel Omni PCX - or pay a consultant 1-3 days work setting up an open source platform, most companies would rather choose the ready-to-deploy solution.
For a consultant it is important to have a tool that will let them give the customer a fixed price that is less than the commercial offering - while still maintaining interesting profit.
My guess is that a lot of open telephony consultants are either mucking around in config files or using FreePBX. FreePBX is good for consultancy - not so good for a company without the in-house technical expertise.
With these base lines in place, let's see how Freesentral compares.
The installation process
Currently Freesentral lacks a ready-to-deploy solution like AsteriskNOWtm. One need to go down the hard path of
- Installing a flavour of Linux
- Installing YATE
- Installing Freesentral
None of this is for the faint of heart - and of this time of writing, the installation instructions on the Freesentral web site does not correspond with the content in the Freesentral download. In other words, you must know what you are doing.
My advice to the Freesentral folks is to not release a "live CD" - but rather spend their efforts on two things:
1) A VMWare appliance for testing out the system.
2) A installer that will install the OS, YATE and Freesentral.
The setup process
This is where you add end points (i.e. telephones) and assign DIDs.
A cool thing about Freesentral is it's setup wizard, and as far as I can tell, this wizard is meant for non-technical people. Let's see how well it stands up with this in mind.
The first step is asking you to change the admin password.
Second step is to add a range of extensions. This is, in my opinion, übercööl. Most organizations do in fact have a range with regards to their internal extensions. Very seldom the extensions are assigned nilly-willy. What I do not like, is that the system forces the user to enter at least 3 digits. Why should a company with less than 100 users be forced to use 3 digts extensions?
3rd step is adding groups. You can of course skip this step if your organization does not need to have call groups. A very nice detail is having both the possibility to add single extensions AND to add a range of extensions.
Fourth step is named "Gateway". I admit that it is a better name than "Trunk" (as found in other products). If I had my choice, I would simply call it "Telephony provider". I also think that "SIP" should be the default protocol. Even if YATE does support H.323 - the GUI should not as most ITSPs support SIP, and a few supports IAX. Actually - since this is a "setup wizard", the only protocol supported should be SIP. If someone deliberately goes out and buy access from a IAX provider, they know what they are doing. The rest would probably not care for anything beside SIP.
A good thing in this step is that the GUI state that this is the default gateway. Even if people can have more than one VoIP provider, in reality very few do have. A small business will probably only have ONE VoIP provider - so with respect to this, the GUI is good.
Fifth step is the DID number to access the Voicemail sub-system. I am not sure if I like the idea of having a DID reaching the internal voice mail system. However, for some type of companies - this might be a good thing.
Sixth step is the auto attendant. AAs might be big in the USA, but over here most people dislike them to the extreme. However, if the AA is used to inform the caller that the shop is now closed and normally open from 0800-1600, this is acceptable. As far as I can tell, it's possible to only play back an offline message and not having a complete voice menu available.
Seventh step. If you like to have music on hold (who doesn't) - this is the time to upload your legal sound files.
So in seven simple steps (maybe except for the 4th and 6th step), you have configured your PBX.
Working with the system
The GUI is tab-based, holding the following tabs: Home, Auto Attendant, DIDs, Extensions, Music on Hold, Outbound, Settings, Wizzard and PBX Features. Each of these may have their own sub-menues.
After logging into Freesentral, the user is placed on the Home screen. This screen might be a bit confusing since it does have icons for the various functions also found in the tab-based menu above. Given the few tab-menues in the system, there should be no need to repeat those menu choices here.
What I would love to see changed here is placing the user into the "Active calls" or "Call logs" submenu. As it now stands, it looks like the developer did not know what to put on the Home screen.
The Auto Attendant menu
This choice give you the ability to manage your Auto Attendant is much the same was as the setup wizard. When I tested the GUI, I did not add an AA when I set up the system. Going back to the AA menu I did not find a intuitive way to add AA keys.
The DID menu
The user may manage it's DIDs along with setting up conference rooms! I'll deal with the conference option in a later paragraph. This is the place in the GUI where you assign a DID to an internal extension.
This part of the GUI is a bit confusing: There are a required field where a user must manually enter the extension (i.e. 004) - and a field where the extensions is found in a drop-down list (not a required field). It is also possible to enter a path to a (PHP) script (i.e. auto_attendant.php).
If the creators of Freesentral really wanted their software to be end user friendly both with respect to on site manager and consultants, the default should be to assign a DID with an extension. Everything else falls into the advanced category.
One thing I really found annoying was that I could not add all my DIDs without assigning them to a destination (either script, group or extension). A lot of companies will have DIDs not currently assigned to anything - but the PBX is the right place to keep track of these unused DIDs.
As stated above, the system let's the user set up a DID to be sent into a conference room. Security wise this is a bad thing - opening up your PBX for "the world" getting access to free conference room, eating up your sourly paid VoIP channels. At least a conference room should have a PIN attached. This is really a major fail. In a security perspective you MUST NEVER allow external users enter a internal resource without some form of authentication.
The Extensions menu
This is the place where you not only manages the extensions, but also the extension groups.
As with the setup wizard, you also add extension ranges.
What I miss in the list of extensions, is what DIDs they are assigned to. There is really no reason why I should not also have access to this information in these screens.
The Music On Hold menu
This is a nice touch as a lot of "management" folks are more concerned about what kind of music their PBX is playing - than actually managing the company. Keep this people happy and create your own play lists.
Do not forget to license the music you use on your PBX!
The Outbound trunks menu
Freesentral supports H.323, SIP and IAX. This means that you can connect to every ITSP there is out there. At least in theory. There are several ITSPs that will demand that their control connection (SIP) is run under a VPN - if you encounter this, Freesentral can not help you with this.
Under this main menu is where you add your dial plan for outgoing calls (naturally), and of course setting up your default Caller ID.
What I really like about this part of the system, is the ease of prioritizing the various outgoing trunks. On the negative side - the system is a bit limiting, and not suited for complex outgoing routing logic. BUT then again - most SOHO PBX owners have seldom more than one outgoing trunk (at least on this side of the North Sea).
The Settings menu
This is the most confusing part of the GUI. Several of the items found here is also found else where. At least one item (the address book) should be moved to the Extension menu.
The Wizard menu
This is a complete waste of screen real estate. Why is this menu choice deemed more important than the address book to warrant to be a main menu choice? Seriously - do the creators of Freesentral have so little belief in their own product that they urge it's users to execute the Wizzard more than once?
Even if I put every good faith I have in system design - I can not understand the rationale behind this design choice.
The BPX Features menu
This is, in my humble opinion, just plain silly to have as a primary menu item.
You can not do anything - or configure anything. NIL. ZIP. NADA. ZILCH.
Selecting this menu choice give you - well - information. Information on vertical service codes (the dreaded STAR-TWO-FIVE-THREE-ZERO-STAR-STAR-FOUR-FIVE-THREE-ZERO-STAR).
A better name for that menu choice should be Help - or even better. Put the help function on the line with the "logout" function and use this screen real estate for something more interesting.
End point manager
On a more disturbing note: The vertical service codes found under PBX Features are seriously lacking logic. *1, *2 and *4 have to do with call transfer - but *3 have to do with conference control (along with *6 and *9). So what about *7 then? *7 returns a party put on hold - and speaking about "on hold": *0 is a unattended transfer for a user put on hold (but no mentioning on how to actually put callers on hold). For a software boasting to be in version 1.0 - this is weak.
Over all conclusion
Even if there is a few confusing parts in the GUI - and two very important things missing, I can just say one thing: Go Fetch!
However - beware of the security implications of connecting a DID to a conference!
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