Little Phones

October 12, 2011

I recently had the experience of installing one of Cisco’s newer small business phone systems, the UC320. In the spirit of full disclosure, I think it would be safe to say that I’m a Cisco snob. I have always stayed as far away from anything Cisco marked “small business” (UC500, UC320, anything made by Linksys) as I could. I have grown accustomed to all of the features, expandability, and redundancy that a full Communications Manager system. If someone asked me if you can do something in CallManager, the answer was usually yes, even if I had to do some crazy configuration to fulfill the request. The small business product line always seemed not so customizable and for that I didn’t have the comfort of saying yes where I could before.

Several months ago, our Cisco small business rep came by and asked us if we would like to participate in a seed program. If we did a few things (pre-sales calls, made a sale, filled out surveys, etc) then we would get to keep the demo unit that they shipped to us (a UC320 and two SPA504 phones). You probably already know that I signed up for the opportunity, after all what self-respecting nerd would turn down free gear to play with.

Just a break to talk about what this is for those that haven’t seen it before. The UC320 is a small form-factor phone system that Cisco has made for small businesses. It is designed to support up to 24 phones and up to 12 phone lines (or connection to SIP providers). It’s claim to fame is the ease of configuration and attractive price point. Ok, let’s move on.

I received the box with the phone system and the two phone systems and opened it up. Let me start by saying that this thing is really small. The box that the phone system shipped in was smaller than the box that the phone shipped in. Small is good for small business because the often don’t have space for wiring closets, I’ve seen them hung over toilets, under water heaters (not a great choice, but that’s where it was) in storage cabinets just to name a few.

I will say that after pulling it out of the box, I was able to get the phone system out of the box and running within 15 minutes. I didn’t do a lot of customization, but I had a working phone system with two phones and a connection to a SIP service provider to make calls in that short period of time. Pretty great and I will say that just about anyone could probably get this set up with minimal interaction with an engineer. Just to test things out and see how easy it really was, I had my nephew who had no experience configuring phone systems when he worked on this. It took him about 30-45 minutes and he asked me two questions during the process, but other than that he got the phone system configured on his own with:

  • Shared Line appearances
  • Voicemail boxes
  • Time of day routing
  • Hunt groups
  • Auto attendant
  • and much more!

Ok, so that last line was kind of sales-man like, so let’s just forget that. The point is that he was able to get a lot of features configured without having to have prior experience with phone systems.

So far the UC320 looks like a pretty good investment. So far everything we have talked about has been good, so let’s get to the downers.

Routing
The first install of a UC320 was a challenge on a couple of fronts, but one of the big issues was the route plan. When you set up a UC320 you have the option of using a 7-Digit or 10-Digit dial plan. That’s it. There is no option for blended or anything like that. This particular customer was in the Austin area that still uses 7-digit dialing, but they lived on the outskirts enough that there was another area code that they could dial 10-digit local calls to. Because it’s an either or situation, the 7-Digit option I had selected would not work. The resolution for this was to set it to 10-digit dialing and make users wait for the inter digit timeout when they dialed a 7-digit number. Luckily this customer was fine with that, but there are some that won’t be.

Is it Windows?
My number one pet peeve about the UC320 is that every time you make a change, if you want it to be applied and in production, it requires a reboot. Change hunt group membership? Reboot. Add an extension to a phone? Reboot. Add a voicemail box? Reboot. I think that the folks designing this product followed Microsoft’s lead with requiring reboots. It makes it really difficult when you want to try out a potential solution for a customer issue when you can’t make a minor change without taking down the whole phone system.

Network Setup
I won’t say that the network setup is weird, but it is strict. There are certain things that can only be done through the “Internet” interface, like connecting to NTP or doing automated updates. If you already have your network set up with a decent router, there is a decent chance that you don’t want to replace it with a UC320. I was installing this at a customer site who had a requirement that we didn’t change their network structure (I realize that it is a little hard to do because you’re installing VoIP phones, but we didn’t change the data network). We couldn’t connect to NTP. Luckily the day before install Cisco released a patch so that you could change the system time from the phone, but before that there wasn’t even an option, it was NTP or nothing and NTP had to come from the Internet interface.

Phones
Ok, this is where my Cisco snobbery comes out again. The only phones that you can use with the UC320 system are the SPA series of phones. These are basically linksys phones that got re-branded as Cisco Small Business. It’s just my preference I know, but I prefer at least a 7900 series phone.

After installing it and seeing it in use, I can see a place for the UC320. It is extremely affordable and there are a lot of features that you get for the money. The big problems I have with it are that your configuration is fairly locked and when you need to make a change it requires a reboot. For small businesses, that probably won’t be that big of an issue, I just don’t really want to be the one installing it.

2 Comments

  • Navin Albert October 13, 2011 at 11:00 pm

    I can tell you that the reboot behavior is going to be a lot better in our next major release.
    The restrictions around routing, network setup and phones are needed to keep the simplicity intact.

    • john October 14, 2011 at 7:25 pm

      Improvement on the reboot behavior would be a huge step in the right direction. I understand the simplicity issue, but sometimes it makes it difficult to deploy for people that are a perfect fit for this product in everything but their network setup.