Most businesses today use a telephone system for voice communication. Historically, phone systems have been complicated, challenging to configure, and not very scalable. However, the cloud revolution has redefined how businesses take advantage of business-critical services and the available options. The 3CX communications system is an open-platform phone system that runs on-premises with Windows or Linux and in the cloud as a hosted SaaS solution.

The on-premises wording here can mean a virtual machine running in the cloud. So, for example, you may spin up an EC2 instance running in AWS to house the 3CX solution.

The hosted SaaS solution, the 3CX-hosted PBX, is managed, patched, upgraded, and backed up by 3CX as a service. With the hosted PBX solution, you simply manage and administer the phone system. This option is great for companies that want to consume the phone system without worrying about the underlying infrastructure.

Other features besides PBX ^

3CX is not only a modern PBX. It provides additional communication platforms, such as video conferencing and live chat, two robust features that can strongly benefit the remote workforce. The 3CX video conferencing solution also provides remote assistance, presentation tools, and smartphone apps for meetings.

The 3CX Live Chat solution is a robust platform that provides voice or video calls along with the PBX component. Calls are routed through the browser, making them free to the customer and your business. In addition, companies can integrate the live chat feature into modern CMS solutions, such as WordPress, Drupal, Joomla, and others.

Free for one year ^

If you are on the fence about trying the 3CX PBX solution, 3CX provides a great incentive to try out its communications system: potential customers can try out 3CX for one year for unlimited users and apps, which is an extremely generous offering.

There are three options for the free one-year trial of 3CX:

  • Hosted by 3CX—3CX hosts the system for you and takes care of management, monitoring, and hosting.
  • Self-hosted in your cloud—You can self-host the solution in your own Amazon AWS/Lightsail, Google Cloud, or Microsoft Azure account. This option allows you to maintain full control of the solution.
  • On-premises—It allows installation of 3CX on Linux, Windows, or Raspberry Pi in your on-premises data center.

Additionally, combining the 3CX offering and the AWS free tier offering for running the underlying infrastructure for 3CX enables trying out the 3CX solution free for a year while leveraging the cloud and without infrastructure costs. Instead of an Amazon EC2 instance, you can download the solution and host it in your own private cloud infrastructure.

Note that to receive a valid phone number, there are things like a SIP trunk that you will have to pay for if using it in production. However, you can easily sign up for a SIP trunk using Amazon Chime, making the process of closing the loop for inbound and outbound calling with a valid phone number easy.

Installation and configuration ^

For my test of 3CX, I opted for the "self-hosted in your cloud" option. This option is the balance between the others, in my opinion, as it allows you to retain control and benefit from cloud infrastructure and network connectivity. However, choose the option that aligns with your business needs and technical requirements.

AWS configuration for 3CX

I spun up an Amazon AWS account to host the VM required for the 3CX configuration. The requirements for this are pretty simple. You need to configure:

  1. IAM credentials for 3CX—Programmatic access only.
  2. EC2 access permissions—According to the 3CX documentation, this step requires AmazonEC2FullAccess permissions.
  3. An EC2 key pair—The key pair is used to interact with the resulting AWS EC2 instance.
  4. Subscribe to Debian in the AWS marketplace—You need to subscribe to Debian 10 in the AWS marketplace. 3CX will provision the EC2 VM with Debian.
Creating an AWS IAM user for 3CX

Creating an AWS IAM user for 3CX

Creating the 3CX key pair in Amazon AWS

Creating the 3CX key pair in Amazon AWS

3CX configuration

Once you have your cloud components in place, such as the AWS shown above, you are ready to begin the 3CX configuration. First, you will need to sign up for the 3CX service. For my lab environment, I signed up for the "free for one year" option.

Sign up for 3CX free for one year

Sign up for 3CX free for one year

After signing up, you will need to wait for the usual verification email and proceed to the configuration portal. After you access the 3CX configuration environment, one of the first configuration pages defines the hosting type for your 3CX account. If you have followed the steps I took above, you will select the middle option here: "Self-host in your Cloud."

Choose your configuration option for how 3CX will be hosted

Choose your configuration option for how 3CX will be hosted

After configuring your time zone, language, and extension configuration, you will select your cloud provider. Note the list of supported providers.

Selecting your cloud provider account

Selecting your cloud provider account

Next, for AWS, you will be asked to enter your IAM information.

Enter your AWS IAM access and secret key

Enter your AWS IAM access and secret key

On the next provider configuration screen, in the case of AWS, select your region, key pair, and machine type. Here, I am staying within the free tier limits by choosing the t2.nano machine type.

Select your region key pair and machine type

Select your region key pair and machine type

The remaining configuration is simply the license agreement and reviewing the summary of your 3CX configuration before deployment.

Using and managing 3CX ^

One of the first things that I noticed about the 3CX interface is the ease with which you can navigate. Even though I had never used the 3CX interface before, I found it intuitive and straightforward. Setting up users was easy. Also, you can bulk import users using a CSV file.

The 3CX dashboard is arranged with a left-focused menu that provides a modern look and feel for managing the phone system.

Viewing the 3CX portal

Viewing the 3CX portal

In addition to easy user management, 3CX provides access to apps across a wide variety of platforms. You can start calling between users' devices using the 3CX apps, even without a SIP trunk, as soon as you create a user.

Downloading 3CX apps

Downloading 3CX apps

The mobile apps were easy to install and worked out of the box. I also tested the web client in Chrome. 3CX makes linking your phone to the service simple with QR code scanning. In the user management portal, 3CX provides a QR code you can scan to securely link the mobile app to the 3CX environment.

The 3CX Android mobile app

The 3CX Android mobile app

Most businesses will want to have the professional feel of a digital auto-attendant workflow when someone calls in to the main number. You can configure the Digital Receptionist feature to route calls to the appropriate destination.

Configuring the digital assistant for auto attendant workflows

Configuring the digital assistant for auto attendant workflows

Most organizations are familiar with the traditional "hunt group," which provides a way to allow calls to flow through various team member extensions. The 3CX Ring Group provides this functionality and is straightforward to configure in the web interface. You configure this with:

  • Virtual extension number
  • Ring strategy
  • Adding group members to the ring group
Configuring a 3CX ring group

Configuring a 3CX ring group

One of the strong suits of the 3CX solution is its security features. They feature an antihacking module that provides the following:

  • Automatic global 3CX IP blacklist
  • Failed authentication protection
  • Failed challenge requests
  • Security "barriers"
  • Live chat requests protection
  • SSL/SecureSIP transport and ciphers

In addition, you can configure allowed country codes, blacklisted numbers, console restrictions, IP blacklists, secure SIP, and a 3CX tunnel.

The 3CX phone system security features

The 3CX phone system security features

Wrapping up and impressions ^

The 3CX communications system provides a robust solution for organizations transitioning from a legacy on-premises PBX system to a modern, fully featured cloud-native solution. In addition, 3CX provides all the tools organizations need to leverage the cloud for VOIP functionality, overcoming the challenges with on-premises phone systems.

In just a few minutes, I was able to provision the necessary AWS infrastructure, configure the 3CX phone platform, and start making calls between softphone applications installed on mobile devices. It provides all the standard legacy features businesses need, such as auto-attendant, hunt groups, and others, while providing modern security features, embedded web applications, softphone features, and more.

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I barely scratched the surface of the features provided by 3CX in this overview. However, as shown, you can easily try out 3CX for free for an entire year, using their free offering and AWS free tier resources.

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