Are VOIP Phones other than SIP Worth It on Asterisk Systems?

I’ve played with Asterisk over the years, and it’s somewhat to write home about (you know the phone system-like snapin to any Unix or Linux operating systems?)

One of the things that caught my attention from almost the early days was it’s “support” for some proprietary IP phone drivers and protocols. Particularly Cisco’s SCCP and Nortel’s UniSTIM. Session Initiation Protocol or SIP is an “open” standard, meaning that the way the phone communicates to the phone system (that’s now a server) is supposed to use a uniform specifications outlined in Request for Comment in the Holy Grail of Internet Standards. That RFC is rather interesting, because while these phones could work on any system that supports SIP, basically, it’s almost like having a house phone with an IP stack instead.

I have focused on SIP in other posts, and I don’t really support this idea on phones, because it’s almost like having a landline just that it communicates over the Internet. I personally feel that SIP is way too religious in the way a vendor must follow. In fact, there is a movement to obsolete that with WebRTC. With that aside, SIP is going to be withheld for the rest of this story.

UniSTIM and SCCP uses a standard called H323, another standard for VOIP network communications. Essentially, you assign the phone to communicate to the IP address of the phone system and the magic, such as button assignments, URLs and other goodies would travel through a single IP address.

Does an ol Nortel/Avaya Blue i2004 or a Cisco 7961 without SIP work exactly like if it was on their own systems? My theory is “no”. While I have not independently confirmed this, I’ve researched that what Asterisk does is the following:

  • It provides a “driver” for these phones to reach a “home”
  • All the hard buttons will work natively (mostly on the Nortel, because Cisco’s is mostly softkeys on the bottom of the LCD display)
  • They support the “sidecars” or Key Expansion Modules,
  • They may also support additional hardware, like analog phone adaptors, etc.

The UCx phone system is a commercial derivative of an Asterisk distro, that has been marketed to help Nortel/Avaya Blue customers to go onto a sustainable voice communications platform. The theory came to my mind after reading through some public documents about the UCx; and realizing that they aren’t that much different. With that. what makes the UCX special? If you avoid the raves from Joe in Chicago, all it is, it supports the Nortel IP and digital phones with some proprietary drivers in the UCx. All the customer would need to do is point the digital gateway hardware to power the digital sets to a UCX away from a legacy Nortel. The phones will work almost in the same way, just if a user wants to access a legacy Nortel feature, they may be S.O.L.

One of the dirty little secrets with Voice over IP or even Unified Communications is the lack of office telephony. Most often these phones that work on another guy’s softswitch, is a major tradeoff. VOIP dumbed down these once large and feature riched PBXes into handicapped Norstars or even a Partner phone system, the only difference is it could support a couple hundred on one instance. Standard VOIP implementations by Asterisk and the Ciscos for features, was the CLASS features (you know the 19 features you can get from Xfinity at a low rate), and perhaps if you were lucky to have a couple extra “call appearances”. If anything VOIP is like having a phone carrier in your building as opposed to having an easier to configure PBX that runs on servers or virtual instances instead.

Is it Worth It?

If you prefer avoiding re-training users, on the hardware side, and willing to refresh users on the differences, then perhaps it is worth it. Many first or second gen IP phones that used H323 mimicked the traditional telephony metaphor, just instead of a 2 wire or 3 wire RJ 11 jack it was replaced with an Ethernet card, and a mini PC on a chip to make the phone work over IP. These phones did not tradeoff the digital’s features. When SIP came along, it was more like the landline being out over an IP stack, and the phone worked more like a POTS, which meant conferencing  or even paging, etc. would be more complicated because of the strict limitations of the SIP protocol. The industry wanted to be “standardized” and this has been the tradeoff.

The sad part is the industry assumes that all users will not see a difference other than being more infuriated that their phones can’t do what they want it to do and SIP cloud providers insist their systems are much better.

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