Business Software

New Version of Office-in-a-Box

If you ever needed confirmation that phones are now auditory computer devices, take a look at a modern "office-in-a-box" or "all-in-one" system for small businesses and remote offices. Phones are front and center, e-mail and Web servers come next, and, oh yes, file and print services are there, too. Such is the pattern for the EdgeBOX from Critical Links. The appliances powering typical file and print services now power the phones, Internet access, and security.

The name "EdgeBOX" seems a bit odd until you realize it sits at the edge of your company and links it to the world. If you choose, and I did, you can connect your broadband modem directly to the EdgeBOX and let it handle the job of router. In my case, I plugged it into a DSL line from AT&T, bypassing my SonicWall TZ 180. While the EdgeBOX doesn't have the security depth and manageability of the SonicWall, it does offer more than typical consumer routers many small companies use as their first company router. Think of the routing and security tools as semi-pro; up from amateur, but not quite to SonicWall levels in reputation and available add-ons.

I tested the EdgeBOX Office appliance, the smallest of the three units, rated for 10 to 40 users. Going upscale, you have EdgeBOX Business (up to 100 users) and EdgeBOX Enterprise, rated by Critical Links as able to support up to 300 users. If you need more users, you can just add a second EdgeBOX and keep going, according to the company. Prices start at $2,495 for Office, $5,295 for Business, and $10,995 for Enterprise, and go up depending on options. Add more user licenses as needed by small or large handfuls.

A 10 page quick-start guide for the Office appliance leans heavily on the phone functions, which seems to be the reason most customers buy into the EdgeBOX philosophy. Think of this as a phone system with extra stuff, rather than a file and print server with added phones.

The bundles delivered by EdgeBOX resellers include Polycom phones and a D-Link Power-over-Ethernet (PoE) switch to connect them to the EdgeBOX appliance. VoIP phones need power from somewhere, and PoE is the easiest way to juice them. The Polycom IP330 phone they sent includes a port for a computer, so the one existing Ethernet connection at every modern desk will be enough for the existing computer and the new IP phone.

While Critical Links and their competitors try hard to convince us all that modern computer-based telephone installations are no big deal, few if any small companies will be able to do this on their own. Typically, phone resellers or computer resellers getting into the phone business do the initial installation and setup. Small businesses tend to be resistant to computer support for basic functions, but show no such qualms about paying to get new phone systems installed. Network phone installations usually include new bandwidth for the added voice traffic, and that bandwidth must be configured using QoS settings to work properly. Companies will limp along with a poor file server for months, but phones must sound great, and experienced installers make the difference in phone call sound quality.

You administer the system through a browser interface, as expected. Unfortunately, the developers use Java to provide the screens, making updates slow and blocking any attempts to change the font sizes. Critical Edge recommends Internet Explorer, but I had no problems using Firefox.

Down the left side of the browser admin screen are the menu choices, in decent order of setup. First is the router section, followed by Security, Storage & Print, VoIP & IP-PBX, QoS, Wi-Fi, Collaboration, NAC, Reporting, System, Status, and Help. Yes, EdgeBOX includes standard 802.11b/g wireless networking.

Collaboration really means the e-mail and Web server modules. EdgeBOX makes it fairly easy to set up your own e-mail and Web server. If it was my company, I would use the Web and e-mail servers for internal communications and relay outgoing e-mail to an e-mail server hosted elsewhere. At least the Linux-based EdgeBOX won't attract as many hackers as standard (Microsoft) e-mail servers.

Since Critical Links works strictly through resellers, the company that installs your EdgeBOX can also remotely manage your system. Managed services are all the rage now, for good reason. Small businesses don't have the expertise to keep up to date with the security holes being explored by hackers every day. Yes, the EdgeBOX includes antivirus and a firewall and VPN, but it's nice that more experienced people can at least look over your shoulder now and then if not manage these details completely.

In this world of hosted everything, is there room for EdgeBOX? They think so, pointing out the 35 million businesses worldwide with between 10 and 100 employees, all perfect candidates for an EdgeBOX. Of course, they're also perfect candidates for all the competitors in this market, particularly Microsoft's Small Business Server.

EdgeBOX's value over competitors such as Microsoft include price, the all-in-one aspect including a single management interface for all functions, and security. Yes, Microsoft can mash phones onto their servers, but not easily or inexpensively. Companies change phone vendors when they move or their phone system lease is up. They should do the same with their data networking, backup, and security tools as well.

With EdgeBOX, they can upgrade everything at once. I might be more inclined to use an EdgeBOX for my phones and internal Web and e-mail services and relying on hosted e-mail for connecting to the world at large. Whether you want to manage everything internally or rely on an inside/outside hosting model, EdgeBOX should be part of that decision process.

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