The Quietest Industry

It is ironic that an industry built around the human voice has so little said about it. I am thankful for sites like No Jitter, Daily Cloud, and Network World. There are scant resources for even finding comparative tests that are helpful for companies making a big decision. I had never even seen the NY Times cover telephone systems until the phone hacking article saw phone system hacking hit the mainstream media.

Of course, you can turn to the tech community, but you will find that telecom is an IT backwater. Sites like spiceworks and stackoverflow are amazing, fantastic resources that do not quite focus on telecom enough to be useful all the time for help and comparisons, and you never know if the person posting is a shill for a brand or not. Communities like reddit are similarly hit or miss, and written from perspectives that may not be your own. For example, the complaint about the type of RAID a Zultys system runs may be fascinating to sysadmins but perhaps not so important for a small business looking to get some cool new desktop integration features with their phone system.

One concern buyers of telecom equipment should have is in the use of industry consultant reports. Some have noted that some consultants, after receiving funding from an industry group, produce reports that further the interests of said group or are ‘astroturf’ support groups. Some writers describe a web of contributions and partnerships (not just in the USA, but overseas too) in a cottage industry of big telecom players like AT&T and Verizon supporting certain industry research groups which churn out reports favoring policies big telecom players like, which are in turn handed to Congressmen who receive donations from big telecom players and promote these special interests in Congress via bills and votes.

Industry awards might not be much help either. In this award ceremony, there was a tie between Citrix and Microsoft for Best Small Business Application Virtualization Software Providers – not much help if you are choosing between the two leading providers, who happen to be Citrix and Microsoft, at least at the time this was released.

In the end, outside of asking various reps a lot of questions, you are going to embark on a lonely journey in telecom research. Our advice is to see demos, ask for references, and even go on site visits to customers that have the systems you are considering purchasing. Don’t be shy about asking to try a trial or hosted version of the product you are looking at, there is no substitute for direct experience with a product. And take independent, 3rd party reviews with a grain of salt. There is big money in telecom and not a lot of press coverage, which leads to a lot of raised eyebrows when reports and reviews are tossed around.

In Memorium: Inter-Tel Axxess

May 30 is the end of the line for the Axxess system.  We have hundreds of customers that are still using the system, and have tried to reach out to as many organizations as we could since production stopped in 2011.

We address what all this means to customers here so this post is just my musings on what made this such a great system.

Basically, this system was years and years ahead of its time.  Built on a common, open programming language (C++) instead of the oddball proprietary code of the competition made a world of difference when it came to desktop and software integration with the phone system.

This led naturally to the Open Architecture Interface (OAI).  This interface would be called an API today, and shows that Inter-Tel had an amazing vision for the product that continues today in the Mitel MiVoice Office (former Mitel 5000 and Inter-Tel 5200/5400/5600). Inter-Tel was able to build up an exciting ecosystem of partner companies that could use the OAI to communicate with the Axxess.  A whole ecosystem flourished years ahead of the App Store and Google Play.

The Mitel MiVoice Office is backwards compatible with Axxess and even predecessor Axxent telephones from 1991 without shortchanging users on features or capabilities. It is amazing that some of my customers have had the same phones on their desk for 20 years across three different systems with three entirely different architectures.

One reason that Mitel and Inter-Tel were a good cultural fit was shown throughout this Axxess sunsetting process.  The MiVoice Office was made compatible with all this old stuff from the Axxess, including computer telephony integration software and old IP phones that were more like beta versions given how unreliable they were at the time. I am shocked that they are as committed to their customers as they are, when all of the competition discards systems regularly and mercilessly, leaving their customers in the lurch.

One thing that my technicians at least miss with the Axxess are the hot-swappable cards.  You could be pretty rough on the system and yank out components without turning anything off or otherwise disrupting operations.  VoIP systems have fewer hardware components and generally are far more reliable, but they certainly do not like to have physical components changed out while the power is on.

I think a lot of competing systems today, such as the Shoretel system, actually owe a great deal to the Axxess’ innovative architecture.  The primary advantage they had competing against the Axxess (besides a world-beating marketing department that ran circles around dear sweet Inter-Tel) was processor redundancy.  The new systems used an IP architecture while the Axxess relied on a TDM backplane – so there were several points of failure that IP-based systems just would never have.  However, if you took all of the ShoreGear boxes and stuck them in a chassis instead of an equipment rack, you would basically have a late model Axxess, with T1 cards, IP cards that supported fixed numbers of stations, and analog cards for FXS and FXO ports (think fax machines and traditional phone lines).  In fact, both systems share a weakness that continues to this day: voicemail and call control (on the Axxess 512 and ATM, at least) that runs on a Windows server with all the attendant headaches and vulnerabilities as well as familiarity and popularity that entailed.