This article was originally published in December, 2009.
Regular readers of this blog may recall that I recently reviewed another Packt Publishing book, FreePBX 2.5 Powerful Telephony Solutions by Alex Robar, and that my review was generally positive. However, I have wondered for a while if there was going to be any serious competition for Asterisk and FreePBX that would also be open source, and freely available to anyone that cares to download it. Well, this book discusses one contender – sipXecs by SIPfoundry. You can look over their web site to get some idea of what sipXecs is, but in one respect it’s along the same lines as FreePBX, in that it provides a web-based GUI that allows you to do all the work of configuring your phone system from any web browser. The book is called Building Enterprise Ready Telephony Systems with sipXecs 4.0 by Michael W. Picher.
I’ve never personally so much as laid eyes upon a working sipXecs installation, so this isn’t going to be a review of sipXecs per se. But I suppose some are wondering what the difference is between sipXecs and FreePBX. The impression I got from reading this book is that the two have some differences in features, and even where there is feature overlap, there are differences in the way those features are implemented. If you are just counting features, FreePBX probably offers more, and many of those features have more configuration options. FreePBX would probably work very well in a home or small office. sipXecs, on the other hand, seems to have been designed by folks with experience in networking and larger business installations. If you were trying to link several branches of a medium-sized to large corporation together, and it’s crucial to have 100% uptime (or as close to that figure as possible), sipXecs might be a better choice (at least until someone high in the corporate food chain demands a feature it doesn’t offer). And if you’re a networking professional, you might find sipXecs more appealing. This is definitely NOT to say that sipXecs could not be used in a home or small office setting, nor that FreePBX could not be used in a large corporation for that matter, just that each may fill a particular niche better than the other.
So I will concentrate on the book itself, and I’ll let the publisher have the first word. Here is how they describe this book:
A clear and concise approach to building a communications system for any organization with the open source sipX Enterprise Communications Server
Open source telephony systems are making big waves in the communications industry. Moving your organization from a lab environment to production system can seem like a daunting and inherently risky proposition. Building Enterprise Ready Telephony Systems with sipXecs delivers proven techniques for deploying reliable and robust communications systems.
Building Enterprise Ready Telephony Systems with sipXecs provides a guiding hand in planning, building and migrating a corporate communications system to the open source sipXecs SIP PBX platform. Following this step-by-step guide makes normally complex tasks, such as migrating your existing communication system to VOIP and deploying phones, easy. Imagine how good you’ll feel when you have a complete, enterprise ready telephony system at work in your business.
Planning a communications system for any size of network can seem an overwhelmingly complicated task. Deploying a robust and reliable communications system may seem even harder. This book will start by helping you understand the nuts and bolts of a Voice over IP Telephony system. The base knowledge gained is then built upon with system design and product selection. Soon you will be able to implement, utilize and maintain a communications system with sipXecs. Many screen-shots and diagrams help to illustrate and make simple what can otherwise be a complex undertaking. It’s easy to build an enterprise ready telephony system when you follow this helpful, straightforward guide.
What you will learn from this book
• Understand the complexities of an IP Telephony and Voice over IP network
• Build a clear process for migrating existing phone systems to an IP based system
• Deliver a solid foundation for any IP based phone system
• Quickly and easily get a sipXecs open source PBX running
• Deploy phones quickly and easily.
• Utilize Internet Telephony Service Providers to reduce monthly telephony bills
• Develop training materials to help successfully teach your users how to use the system
• Leverage sipXecs Automatic Call Distribution Queues to handle basic Call Center needs
• Operate and Maintain a reliable communications platform
This book was written to be a step by step approach to building a communications system for any organization. Care was taken to clearly illustrate with diagrams and screen shots all of the steps and concepts along the way. [Emphasis added – I’ll have more to say on that point!]
Who this book is written for
This book is written for network engineers who have been asked to deploy and maintain communications systems for their organizations.
And here’s the chapter list:
Chapter 1: Introduction to Telephony Concepts and sipXecs
Chapter 2: System Planning and Equipment Selection
Chapter 3: Installing sipXecs
Chapter 4: Configuring Users
Chapter 5: Configuring Phones in sipXecs
Chapter 6: Connecting to the World with sipXecs
Chapter 7: Configuring sipXecs Server Features
Chapter 8: Using sipXecs—The User Perspective
Chapter 9: Configuring Advanced sipXecs Features
Chapter 10: Utilizing the sipXecs ACD Service
Chapter 11: Maintenance and Security
See the Table of Contents page to get a more detailed chapter breakdown.
Now, when I review a book, the thing I am looking at is whether the author accomplishes what he or she set out to do. In this case, the intent of the book is to instruct someone in how to set up a working sipXecs PBX. So, I look at whether the author seems to have a good grasp of his subject matter, and whether he can communicate his knowledge to the reader in a clear and understandable manner. A third consideration is whether the book is a good value for the money. Technical books often aren’t inexpensive, so I tend to mark them down if I perceive that there’s a lot of “filler” material in the book.
It’s difficult for me to decide how to rate this book. Does the author understand his subject matter? Yes, it certainly appears that he does. Does he effectively communicate it? Yes, the book was an easy read — I really didn’t feel like I was in “over my head” at any point in the book. Could you set up a working sipXecs phone system after reading this book? I think I could, but I can’t speak for anyone else. In fact, in many ways, this was one of the clearest and most understandable technical books I’ve read.
You sense a “but” coming, don’t you?
Well, there is, and it’s a big one. Did you notice above where the publisher said that “Care was taken to clearly illustrate with diagrams and screen shots all of the steps and concepts along the way”? Well, the book definitely contains screenshots — a LOT of screenshots. And normally, that would be very good thing, because as the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. A screenshot would not add value to a book only in the case where it was useless “filler” material, and it’s pretty apparent that none of the screenshots in this book were intended to just be “filler.”
But, for a screenshot to be useful and not “filler”, it has to be readable. And in that regard, this book has a serious problem. If you buy the hardcopy edition of the book, I’d strongly urge you to also buy a good magnifying glass, because you’re going to need it to get anything out of those screenshots, unless perhaps you have perfect vision. Apparently the author (or whoever took the screenshots) has a widescreen monitor, and was running their web browser in full screen (or at least full width) mode. As a result, most of the text in the screenshots borders on microscopic, and some of the smaller print is unreadable (by me, anyway). When you take those extra-wide screenshots and reduce them to about five inches in width on a printed page, you need very good eyes (or good glasses) to make out the text. After trying to decipher the details in those screenshots for a while, I started to get a headache!
At first I thought maybe it was my eyes going bad — I am getting older, after all — but then I opened up some of the other books I have in my collection, including other Packt Publishing books, and none of them suffer from this problem. Frankly, if I were the publisher I’d stop the presses on this book immediately, and not let another copy go out the door until all the screenshots were re-done, but then that’s just me.
Now, that said, the book is not totally without value. I think that perhaps the author just might have realized he had a problem, because in many cases he repeats in the text most of what’s in the screenshot (at least the portion to which he’s calling your attention), so not being able to actually read the screenshot isn’t always such a loss — but unfortunately, it also relegates the screenshots more toward the category of “filler.”
So, would I recommend this book? Yes, for two classes of readers in particular:
- Those thinking about setting up an Asterisk/FreePBX system that would like to know about available alternatives. It may be that the particular combination of features that you deem essential can only be found in one of either sipXecs or FreePBX, and by reading this book and the aforementioned FreePBX book, you’d have a pretty good idea of the differences in capabilities between the two.
- Those thinking of installing a VoIP PBX in a larger organization, where reliability and scalability are far more important than the actual feature set. My impression from the book is that sipXecs is designed with larger businesses and higher call volumes in mind. That’s no reason that someone with a small business should shy away from it, but if you are very concerned about reliability and high “uptime” then you probably should at least give sipXecs some consideration. And if your organization is large enough to have people with degrees in computer networking in your employ, they might prefer working with sipXecs. This is not to say you can’t do a large installation using Asterisk, but now you have another choice, and this book can help you decide which is best in your particular situation.
If it weren’t for the screenshot issue, I’d be giving this book very high marks. The focus of the book is deployment in a business setting, and the author takes you through the steps for planning and implementing the system, whether you are replacing an existing PBX or starting from scratch. Having some knowledge of computer networking would be helpful, but as I noted, I’m no networking expert and yet I didn’t feel totally lost. In fact, if you know telephone systems but don’t know all that much about networking, you’ll find that just about everything you really need to know is explained, but without going into extraneous detail. You get the information you need to get the job done, but if you want to become a networking guru, you’ll need some other book for that.
I’m just really sorry that the bad screenshots marred an otherwise fine book, but I have to call ’em as I see ’em, and in my opinion they really are that bad. Whether that would matter to you is something only you can decide. I should mention that I was provided a hardcopy edition of the book for review, but Packt also offers an e-book edition in Adobe PDF format on their web site, and if you are comfortable reading e-books, I’d definitely go that route with this book, because most PDF readers will let you magnify sections of a page. So, the nearly unreadable screenshots might actually be very readable in the e-book edition. Also, if you do go the e-book route, be sure to scroll down the page and look for the offer, “Buy this eBook with FreePBX 2.5 Powerful Telephony Solutions eBook and get 50% discount on both. Just enter sip40xecs in the ‘Promotion Code’.” Seems like a good deal, especially if you’re wanting to compare FreePBX and sipXecs.