A fully featured free IP PBX & SIP Server – 3CX Phone System Product Review

by Ricky M. Magalhaes [Published on 22 May 2007 / Last Updated on 22 May 2007]

This article reviews the 3CX free edition PBX. In this review we will cover the various features of the software based PBX from 3CX.

Product: 3CX Free Edition PBX

Product Homepage: click here

Free Edition Download: click here

We will be testing the solution in a lab environment setup using a Dell Optiplex 270 and an IBM T30 notebook, and five other various SIP capable client machines.

The latest version of the 3CX server software was downloaded from www.3CX.com 3cxphonesystem3.exe build v3.0.1928.0 (Free edition) 18.9 MB. The server software was installed on the Dell machine on Windows XP, Windows 2000 and Windows 2003 on different hard drives whilst multi booting for testing purposes. The software installed in less than two minutes on all occasions, without problems. I decided to use the Windows 2003 Std server machine as I find W2K3 to be the most reliable of the above. The Dell is basically specified with 1 GB of RAM and a 2.8 GB processor. It is not the fastest machine on the planet but is representative of an ordinary desktop machine found in an office 2005-2007.

SIP Clients

Five client machines were installed with Windows XP. The free SIP client found on www.3CX.com was installed along with X-Lite, a well-known and commonly use SIP client. Each SIP client was installed individually on the five windows clients (one SIP client per machine).

More information and various SIP clients can be found on http://www.sipcenter.com

3CX SIP Server

The SIP server has other applications and services installed on the server computer as to properly test the solution. The test machine is typically installed with various other products and services to better emulate a live environment. We found that the 3CX SIP server did not stress the machine at all and once it was installed we did not notice any performance degradation, even when the clients started communicating with each other.

The 3CX server software, once installed, only used up 76.4 MB on the server’s hard disk. I found this to be quite efficient compared to other PBX solutions in the market space.

As always, I liked to see how much I could strip down the server software and run the 3CX software, and a virtual machine that was smaller than 1.5 GB was very possible.

The software installs by default to the C:\Program Files\3CX PhoneSystem directory. At this point you are able to define the number of digits for the extensions; the user can define up to five, allowing for up to 99,999 permutations.

Once your admin credentials are set, you specify an SMTP server address and your email address, and you are ready to perform the installation.

During the installation, a 3CX phone database server is installed and the 3CX directory structure is composed. This all takes less than two minutes.

The 3CX server was installed on a virtual machine and it worked well in a virtual environment. Most of the testing was performed in a virtual environment and this capability is helpful in the future, not only for scalability but also for hardware independence and portability. 5/5 for this feature.

After your two minute installation time you are able to log in with the credentials you provided during the installation and you can begin configuring the server.

It is a good idea to start off by creating your digital receptionist first as to secure the first extension number of your range.

On two occasions my machines did not like the system prompt page for one reason or other but when I clicked play to play .wav file, the machine was slow in responding and then looped the file in media player. I think media player could have played a role in this but I just closed it down and moved on to the next feature.

One feature that is really appreciated in all software, if a service is provided, is a real-time dashboard or one stop page that gives you a status of what is up or down. I find this useful as it helps to identify the status of the service in one glimpse. 3CX free edition has this status page. 4.7/5 for this, well-done! And it is free and not an add-on like other payware solutions.

Architecture

The 3CX PBX runs on an Apache web server which runs on a non-standard port, namely: port 5481. This web service can be published onto the Internet for remote manageability. Backups are always important and when testing the configuration backup to XML file we were pleasantly surprised. We were able to backup and restore settings effortlessly and the XML file was not larger than a few KB.

3CX SIP Server Features

After installing the SIP server and specifying the global user name and password, within two minutes, extensions had been set up for each of the five clients as well as a set of secure credentials for the clients to log on with.

The complete management of the server and PBX solution is made possible through a web console. This was published through an ISA server (just because we can) and access to the service was tested over the Internet. We found that we were able to manage the solution over the web without any difficulty.

Frills and more supported in the free edition of 3CX PBX

Music while on hold is a great feature as you can listen to something instead of silence or just a beep while you wait. Voice mail capability is also a standard feature and worked well, allowing the user to retrieve voice mail after authenticating to the 3CX server. The setting up of voicemail was not complicated at all and was easy to use and integrate into my SIP client.

The automated assistant is great feature as it negates the need for having a physical receptionist. You can record a customized voice message. You can even program the call divert options to divert users once they press certain keys on their tone based phones very simply using the web interface.

Want to know who has been calling who? The 3CX system can report on the calls that were made. I found this to be quite intuitive and useful in the test as we could track the time of the calls in a similar manner to how it is done on more proprietary PBX systems.

How many extensions? According to the documentation, the free edition has no limit on this. I got tired after creating more than 60 extensions and decided to stop after that. I was able to call the last extension I created and was fascinated to observe that when ten people were online, I still could not notice any significant degradation on the server.

One of the features that I found quite useful was the ability to define the office working hours. This would allow for calls to be handled in a different way after office hours.

Ring groups are supported in the free version. This is a great feature that allows the administrator to define groups made up of individuals which are performing similar tasks, for example, the Sales department. Typically calls go through to a ring group, in this case the sales number, and a free sales person will answer the call. This is like load balancing for people, quite a useful feature.

Voice mail

Voice mail is possible with the free sever solution and is functional out of the box; it works quite well compared to other commercial systems that I have tested.

3CX free edition support

Support is not offered for the free edition, but I found it easy to engage on the 3CX forums and as a test I looked up how to set up the 3CX server with some of the well-known providers and the first post explained what was needed to do this.

The help file and documentation was extremely well written and comprehensive, this is much appreciated from a technical perspective as there is nothing more frustrating than installing a product and not being able to find the answer to simple questions that should have been documented in the help file.  

Under the support section in the console, the administrator can create a support file (.zip) and this file can be used to email the support people at 3CX. I did not try this with the free edition as not to bother the good folk at 3CX.

Things to consider

When thinking of a PBX solution, it is important to consider the cost of the wiring and management of the solution. A software PBX helps in reducing the cost of the wiring and if you implement a wireless solution in your office environment, even more so. This is a compelling argument as on many occasions I have consulted with large organizations that are stuck with proprietary solutions that are difficult to expand and have difficulty scaling into a cost effective implementation.

With the emergence of hot-desking and home office type environments, phone client software on hardware and on a PC is a compelling solution as it allows the user to move from desk to desk and environment to environment and the telephone network or PBX can follow the user. Using the 3CX solution this was tested and as soon as the user logged on with the respective credentials, the user was able to establish a connection to the server even from a different computer.

A VPN was set up to the network that the 3CX PBX was installed on and a call was placed to an outside line with no problems. I started to think how easy it would be to turn this solution into a global exchange with break outs in every country. The possibilities are limitless once the solution is connected to the Internet.

A free PBX software solution that is web managed and that works as effectively as 3CX is welcome and will be appreciated by both small and medium end businesses. Features like Microsoft Exchange integration and call queuing are soon to follow and this will add to the feature set of the paid version.

Free edition features

The free edition of the 3CX PBX supports up to eight PSTN or VOIP provider connections, more advanced features like call queuing, ability to transfer calls, diversion of incoming calls to voice mail (live in case you would rather not take the call), and related features that need this support are not included in the free version. Apart from that I found that the free version was able to function pretty much like the enterprise solution without limitations.

It would be useful if the help file were accessible from the web interface. Right now it’s a PDF file and even if it opens in a different window, I think it would help to make it part of the console.

Features like incoming caller ID worked without much configuration. Using the built-in call assistant installable off the 3CX PBX web server, a user is able to see if the other user is using the phone and or if the other user is on DND or available to take calls internally.

When testing the free edition I could not believe my eyes, a free PBX with a multitude of features waiting to be used at no cost, just add your LAN and outside connections and in a few minutes you have a PBX up and running. 4.7/5 for ease of use, and 5/5 for being free and for saving time.

Conclusion

I always have reservations when testing or using freeware, most of the time there is a catch. Either you agree to an advertising scheme or the software reports on your habits or something along those lines, but this time I was surprised when the 3CX system installed and no connection was made other than the ones I created. I found the PBX to be stable and easy to use and in a few minutes I was able to set up a replica to our more costly hardware (proprietary alternative) that we use in our office. The product ran smoothly and the help files were helpful. I could not believe this system was free. I think from an ascetic perspective, a tiny bit of polishing could be done to the interface to make it a bit less white, but that’s just me being pedantic. Overall I feel that the 3CX PBX free edition is well worth the time to install and would recommend it to anyone that does not have a PBX. If you are looking at moving to VOIP, consider this product as a great introduction to the VOIP/SIP space.

4.6/5 overall for this product, well done to the 3CX team.

WindowsNetworking.com Rating 4.6/5

Get more information about 3CX Free Edition PBX.

Featured Links