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As a Raleigh IT services provider, helping small businesses thrive is our passion. We help our clients develop cost-effective solutions to business problems, including everything from their websites to online marketing and sales funnels. One thing we’ve found is that it’s quite common to see a brand new business start out with the owner listing their cellular phone number as their business number. This can create all sorts of problems as your business grows, so we conducted a market study of low-cost options for call-forwarding numbers and discovered OpenVBX, a free cloud-based VoIP soft-switch of sorts that you run on your own server to provide additional functionality to Twilio. It’s quite popular for telephone and SMS marketing alike because you get a tremendous feature set at a price you simply can’t beat, and you can port numbers in and out of Twilio as needed.

The primary reason to implement such a solution is to get more control over what happens with your calls while keeping your actual direct phone numbers more private. Combined with a well developed website and social presence, it can make a one-person-show look like a big office. You can create business hours for call handling schedules, create a menu to route calls, and have different announcements and messages – either with your own recordings that you upload, or the native voice (we’ll come back to the voice further below.) In short, it has lots of great call-handling capabilities built right in. If you outgrow OpenVBX, you can simply change your forwarding in Twilio itself, port your number to another carrier, or upgrade to a more advanced alternative that we may offer in the future. It’s in early beta, so things are still hush-hush about it.

COST SAVINGS

Let’s go ahead and discuss potential savings. Twilio pricing scenarios vary based on how you receive the calls; calls to landlines cost more than cell phones or the native Twilio client. We’ll compare the cost of OpenVBX to a very popular alternative, based on the assumption that you are sending the incoming calls to your cell phone (cell phone cost not included):

1. You buy service from a well-known VoIP provider which charges you $0.05 per minute and $3 per month for the number itself. If you get incoming calls for 60 minutes a day, over the course of a month this adds up to $69.

2. You run OpenVBX on your existing hosting server. With the same amount of traffic, your cost could be just $30 per month, and possibly even lower depending on how you receive the calls.

That’s a $468 annual savings (over 50% off) by using OpenVBX for just one hour of inbound calls a day. All situations are different, but this can potentially rack up some serious savings on your small business communications cost. You can lower this cost even further by only giving callers the option to leave a message and then return their calls from another line that has unlimited usage, but you’ll be giving up the privacy benefit of using your Twilio number, and never answering the phone live could hurt your reputation.

OPENVBX VERSUS UNIFIED COMMUNICATIONS

OpenVBX is not Unified Communications (UC) by any stretch of the imagination. UC is about having a single platform that brings together all of your company’s voice, video, chat, and sometimes even email and video conferencing, into a centrally managed platform with all of those communication channels interconnected. The capabilities are fantastic, but they aren’t always the right fit. Such capabilities come with a price tag that might not make sense for certain types of companies. For those looking for more basic telephony needs, OpenVBX might give you everything a small business needs at a terrific price.

EXAMPLE SCENARIO

Suppose you have a main phone number for your business that’s published around the Internet. That’s a Twilio number which is configured to ring into OpenVBX on your server. The caller hears an audio menu that says something like, “Press 1 for sales, 2 for billing, and 3 for tech support.” When they make a selection, OpenVBX transfers them to some other number you own, such as the cellular phone of a sales person, a POTS line for your accountant who works out of their home, or even another menu with even more choices. All your caller knows is that they got a recording, pressed a button, heard ringing, and then somebody answered. You could even send the calls to other Twilio numbers with their own call-handlers. OpenVBX is open-source software, so if write your own plugins and extend its capabilities, the possibilities are truly endless.

Another reason to consider a service of this nature is that you can change your cell phone, home, or office phone numbers any time you want, while your main business number that’s published around the Internet stays the same.

PERSONAL PRIVACY FOR INDIVIDUALS

OpenVBX has a huge potential benefit for private individuals. By giving out your Twilio number to people you do business with, you gain a level of control over how and when they contact you. Tired of someone that keeps calling? There are ways to blacklist numbers or modify the call-flow based on their caller ID. This means that you could choose to have some calls ring through to your cell phone, while perhaps others ring your landline at home. If you run your blog for any sort of commercial or monetary purpose, for just $1 more a month (plus usage) you can add another number. Make it “voicemail only” and you have instant call-screening at a very low price.

OPENVBX MOBILE APP

OpenVBX currently has a mobile app for Android, but the iPhone app which used to be available was pulled for some reason. That doesn’t mean that you can’t make an outbound call from your iPhone and have your business Caller ID appear as your business number, though. You can do this using third-party programs like TwiDial, but you should consider the information security implications of distributing your Twilio credentials first, since they’re needed for TwiDial to access your Twilio numbers and place calls.

RISK MANAGEMENT AND SOLUTION ARCHITECTURE

The biggest problem with OpenVBX may be that it’s so easy to get running that you’re likely to skip past some very important things that you really should have considered more thoroughly. Like any I.T. application, you need to consider the required level of availability, backups, information security, and a general use-case analysis to be sure it’s a good fit. In other words, treat this like any other I.T. application and do your homework. When your phone system is down because your web host is under attack or your provider implemented some new security framework that made it stop working entirely, don’t say we didn’t warn you.

To install OpenVBX, you’ll need MySQL and PHP. Consider how critical inbound calls are to your business, and don’t install this on cheap hosting or shared servers if you depend on phone calls for customer contact. There are a lot of ways to approach this incorrectly and end up hurting your bottom line. A shoddy installation can cost your business big dollars in terms of lost sales opportunities or a damaged reputation. At minimum, a robust installation would involve a cloud-based high-availability architecture running on full SSD with a live standby instance in an alternate datacenter on a completely separate hosting provider, as well as very important security improvements to your .htaccess file to help deter hackers. The reality is that most small businesses will probably choose the simpler – and cheaper – basic installation model to keep cost to a minimum. Both solution architectures are valid. The important take-away is that you make a fully informed decision about risk management and choose the model that’s best for your business.

EXIT STRATEGY

If OpenVBX were to either break or become deprecated, which is to say not to be maintained and have no available support for the application, you can easily use Twilio to forward your number to an alternate service provider, or port the number elsewhere altogether. What this means is that you’re never “locked in” with OpenVBX. If something were to go haywire, your I.T. tech can log into your Twilio account and change the TwiML code to temporarily forward all calls to an alternate number while you get your OpenVBX fixed. Just be sure you save the existing settings first so you can restore it afterward.

HOW TO CHANGE THE DEFAULT VOICE

DISCLAIMER: We don’t make any guarantee about the continued accuracy of this information. You could delete everything on your server if you do things wrong, so attempt this entirely at your own risk. We warned you!

Supposing that you’ve implemented OpenVBX in a way that’s safe and reliable, you’ll soon discover that while Twilio offers several voices, OpenVBX only lets you use the ‘man’ voice. There’s no option anywhere to change it. We didn’t like that, so we fixed it as follows. If you want to follow in our footsteps, this is how you do it.

1. Make a full cPanel backup;
2. Log into your hosting account’s cPanel and access phpMyAdmin;
3. Expand the voice database assigned to your OpenVBX installation – this would have been determined during your original installation, so refer to those notes;
4. Select and expand the ‘settings’ table;
5. In the returned rows in the table, look for the row with ‘name’ equal to ‘voice’. It should have a value of ‘man’;
6. Click the edit button on that row, and change the value from man to whatever voice you want;
7. Click ‘go’ to write the change;
8. Test to confirm that the new voice is in effect.

CONCLUSION

OpenVBX makes it possible for a small business to have a professional appearance at a remarkably low price, and it gives individuals more control over their personal privacy. It includes capabilities for office hours, call trees, and loading customized greetings and recordings, and has both web-based and Android clients. As long as you don’t mind the risks of running it on your own server, it provides a terrific set of features at a price you simply can’t beat. It does not have some of the analytics and other features you might want in order to optimize the effectiveness of your marketing campaigns and get a little more sophisticated with your call flows. We are considering making available to clients our own advanced solution which includes additional business intelligence, better iPhone and Android clients, and more, but we have not yet reached a determination about its market viability. Inquire with us if you’re interested.