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Digium's Asterisk PBX does God's work at Midwest church

When its leased TDM PBX hit the wall, the Calvary Church turned to Digium for an open source, Asterisk-based IP PBX system.

When the Calvary Church hit the wall with its traditional PBX system, information systems administrator Shawn Ross turned to open source.

Ross thought Asterisk, the open source IP PBX, would be affordable and a good fit for the church, but he didn't think he had the expertise to roll out the system on his own.

"I knew Asterisk was out there being used by universities, but I didn't have time to learn it," he said. "And phones were such a high priority in terms of reliability that we weren't completely comfortable running our own from a support standpoint. So we started looking around at vendors of Asterisk-based systems."

Instead, Ross turned to Digium, the company that created the popular Asterisk open source technology. He has installed two Switchvox IP PBX systems in the two campuses of his St. Peter, Mo.-based evangelical church, which has a staff of about 100 employees and volunteers, and more than 3,300 regular attendees.

"We were using a PBX system with digital handsets that essentially had a channel bank provided by the phone company," he said. "It was provided by a third party, and we had been a longtime customer of theirs. But we had essentially hit a wall. We were at the maximum number of extensions, and we couldn't do site-to-site links. Also, it was a pain to administer. It was just horrid."

Ross said he considered a couple of vendors that provided Asterisk-based IP telephony, but he settled on Digium for two reasons. First he was impressed by Digium's staff, who did a good job of alleviating his concerns about the manageability of the system.

"I was really concerned," he said. "I didn't want to end up with something where I was going to be spending all this time administering it and learning something new. When talking to [Digium] about what they offered, it was a wonderful experience."

Digium was also able to help Ross trial the system on a desktop to see how it worked and get a feel for Digium's flavor of Asterisk without having to make any investment up front.

"We first started with trying to make some basic calls with the demo server they had set up," he said. The church had just constructed a building in Wentzville that required only a small deployment. "We bought a Switchvox SoHo system with three phones and just started using it because we wanted something we could plop in right away to the four copper phone lines we had out there," Ross explained. "It took me two hours to get everything set up how I wanted, and most of that time was spent familiarizing myself a little bit better because I was going to be on campus at that location to administer it."

The initial deployment went so well that when the lease expired on his legacy system, Ross bought a Switchvox SMB edition for an additional deployment of 45 phones that went "smooth as glass."

"I racked the system," he said. "All the phones came preconfigured; the system came preconfigured. I plugged the phones in, recorded my IVRs. At that point, I just turned it on and made sure things were working properly. Then I waited until after hours [to do the cutover]. Within 10 minutes of switching the termination point from the old system to the new system, the phones were up and running."

Ross also had to program an application programming interface (API) to include a "find-me" feature, which sends texts or emails to on-call pastors to alert them that someone has left a voicemail for the ministry after hours.

The API was probably the biggest challenge, he said, because there were a few inconsistencies in the documentation provided by Digium. However, the vendor walked him through those problems. The API was also a challenge because Ross is not a programmer by trade. "And all I really needed was some basic Perl script, so I had to work my way through that."

The other challenge Ross encountered was on user training and being able to take full advantage of the system's flexibility. Many of his end users were not accustomed to dialing "9" to get an outside line. His old leased system had direct dial to outside lines.

"We had one guy that kept dialing 911," he said. "And when you dial 911 it calls 911. He kept doing that. It dawned on me that, hey, I can tell the phone system I don't want to have to dial '9' for an outside line. That was a hurdle, to learn that it was flexible enough that I could make it do whatever I wanted it to do."

Ross has since upgraded the SoHo Switchvox at his second campus to an SMB edition. The two PBXs are now peered together over a site-to-site VPN connection, which allows direct dial and automatic call routing between locations.

The church's end users have enjoyed huge productivity improvements from the unified messaging that Switchvox delivers.

"A lot of people love the fact that when they get a voicemail message, it's in their inbox in email," Ross said. "If they're not at a phone or don't want to call it in, it's right there on their mobile devices."

"I have users that are using call rules very successfully," he said. "I can spend five minutes teaching them how to set up call rules on a Web interface, and it's easy for them, whether they need to temporarily send calls to an administrative assistant or have calls forwarded to another part of the building for a period of time."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Editor

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