Using network connections for voice traffic is commonplace today—FaceTime, Skype, and Teams share bandwidth with countless other VoIP services and applications. How does a purpose-built private branch exchange (PBX) stand up to these products? In this review, I'll look at 3CX v16; 4sysops has looked at it earlier for v15.5.

Paul Schnackenburg

Paul Schnackenburg works part time as an IT teacher as well as running his own business in Australia. He has MCSE, MCT, MCTS and MCITP certifications. Follow his blog TellITasITis.

There are several interesting new features in v16, such as the ability to offer live chat as well as voice communication from your website for no additional cost. There's also skills-based routing for call centers, deeper customer relationship management (CRM) system integration, along with better performance and Office 365 integration.

3CX comes in three flavors: Standard, Pro, and Enterprise. The main extra features you get in Pro over Standard are:

  • voicemail transcription
  • a custom fully qualified domain name (FQDN) and SMTP server for your deployment
  • syncing user phonebooks with Office 365
  • Hotel PBX (which is exactly what it sounds like)
  • web conference dial-in
  • enterprise features, such as hot desking and connecting remote offices

Enterprise provides skills-based routing and inbuilt failover over Pro. Web conferences top out at 25 seats in Standard, 100 seats in Pro, and 250 seats in Enterprise.

Main 3CX interface

Main 3CX interface

The main reasons organizations should consider a VoIP-based PBX are simplicity over a traditional PBX, integration of desk phones and computer applications, CRM integration, and mobility—3CX has client applications for iOS, Android, Windows, and Mac. This means you can answer your business line wherever you are (which of course can be good or bad, depending on your point of view).

Live chat ^

Many websites now offer a live chat feature to capture customer interests and questions better. 3CX takes this to the next level by providing the ability to elevate the chat to a voice call when required. This is a real-world example of unified communications (UC), which was a buzzword a few years ago.

The Live Chat & Talk functionality comes as a WordPress plug-in or as a script if your website isn't hosted on WordPress. This feature integrates with and builds on 3CX's long history of strong support for call center functionality.

VMs and Raspberry Pi ^

The Windows version of 3CX v16 runs on Windows 10 Pro/Enterprise and Windows Server 2012/2012 R2, 2016, and 2019 (yep, it's already supported). If you're going to run it in a VM, you can be on ESXi 5 or later, Hyper-V 2008 R2+, KVM, or Citrix XenServer 7.0 or later.

Picking an email provider for your 3CX PBX

Picking an email provider for your 3CX PBX

I installed my Enterprise version for this test in a clean Windows Server 2016 VM on Hyper-V. A step-by-step wizard guided me through the configuration, and when it was done, I logged into the clean web-based UI (see the screenshot above). It makes it easy to navigate and understand what each area does, easing the adoption curve for non-VoIP experts.

3CX can also run on Linux (Debian), and (new in v16) you can run it on a Raspberry Pi using Raspbian Stretch. It even has Australian English voice prompts!

Limiting countries users can call

Limiting countries users can call

Look, Ma, no hardware required! ^

One thing that has changed between 15.5 and 16 is support for hosting a 3CX virtual appliance in Azure. Previous versions only supported Google and Amazon (AWS and Lightsail), but 3CX now has baked in full support for Azure along with OpenStack. There's a simple wizard on the 3CX website to configure cloud hosting. It starts with license information, followed by time zone and country, domain name (I'm in Australia, so it appended my chosen domain with 3cx.com.au), and picking the number of extensions (two digits gives you 70 and five digits 9,970 since the system reserves 30).

Pick your preferred cloud provider

Pick your preferred cloud provider

When you pick your preferred cloud, you have to provide subscription information; for Azure I simply provided my subscription ID.

Azure subscription information

Azure subscription information

Other improvements ^

For hosters and people with large deployments, you can now manage multiple 3CX installations using Multi Instance Manager, synchronize users from Office 365, and get call quality reporting with Real-time Transport Control Protocol (RTCP) statistics. 3CX has also improved security with a global IP blacklist they update as well as the ability to whitelist IP addresses that can access the management console.

3CX has also built web meetings into the product at no additional cost. Based on Web Real-Time Communication (WebRTC), it lets you dial into a meeting via phone, lets you share your screen in the meeting without a browser plug-in, and has optimizations for bandwidth usage. Behind the scenes, a network of video conferencing servers hosted in AWS and Google's clouds supports it.

One of 3CX's challenges is remaining relevant in a world where 150 million+ users are using Office 365 where Microsoft provides (at least in the more expensive SKUs) the ability to use Cloud PBX and VoIP calling from Skype for Business and Teams. I was pleasantly surprised to find that one of the ways 3CX approaches this dilemma is with a comprehensive Office 365 integration story.

It syncs Office 365 users to 3CX extensions, personal contacts from Outlook to 3CX phone books, and provides presence information based on information in their Exchange calendars. You can make outbound calls using the 3CX app for Windows or using the browser extensions for Chrome and Firefox (where's Edge?).

The biggest improvement is perhaps the cost reduction. 3CX is free for up to eight simultaneous calls, and they've reduced the price for the Standard edition by 40% and the Pro and Enterprise versions by 20%.

Conclusion ^

3CX has online certification tests (Basic, Intermediate, and Advanced) along with video training to help you get up to speed on the technical details of VoIP in general and 3CX in particular. In my experience with VoIP systems over the years, they can be challenging for an "ordinary" IT pro. But I found 3CX easy to set up and get going with, and the call quality in my tests was excellent.

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