Critical Links’ EdgeBox Creates Ample Opportunities for Solution Providers

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By combining the best bits of open-source software into a VOIP appliance, Critical Links brings convergence to a new milestone and creates what may be the must-have appliance for most any SMB.

Solution providers are turning to recession-resistant technologies to weather the current economic storm. Technologies such as voice over IP, security and remote access are becoming the solutions of choice to create revenue in challenging times. But there are still significant challenges ahead for those solution providers, ranging from training to product selection to identifying target markets. In other words, it’s going to take a lot more than selling a better mouse trap to succeed today and tomorrow.

For solution providers pursuing the small and midsize business market, the challenges are even greater, competition is fierce, and products are many. Critical Links has some questions for those stressed solution providers—what if there were a product that could do it all and then some, without being hard to implement, support or sell? What if there were a product that worked as well for startups as it did for established businesses? What if that same product fit both horizontal and vertical markets? And finally, what if the product could work as part of an MSP solution, or as part of a premises solution or even be a sell-and-forget solution? Would solution providers be interested? Of course, the answer here is academic, hell, yes, solution providers would be interested.

Critical Links is offering the ultimate answer to all of those questions with the EdgeBox series of appliances, which defy traditional categorisation. One might call the EdgeBox an office in a box, while another might claim the EdgeBox is the perfect add-on appliance for a small business, and neither would be wrong.

So, what exactly is the EdgeBox? The answer is not that simple. The EdgeBox is a storage, security, VOIP (PBX), remote access, VPN, unified communications, hosted application appliance that can be configured to do many additional tasks, easily and quickly.

The advantages to that customisable appliance are many. First off, solution providers can highlight the VOIP PBX functionality to sell the appliance into small businesses hungry for advance PBX features as well as for saving money on phone bills. Or solution providers can sell the appliance based on its unified communications capabilities, where it can be used to replace expensive Microsoft Exchange-based solutions. The list of scenarios goes on and on, which speaks volumes about the EdgeBox appliance flexibility and adaptability to the SMB market.

Vendors such as Cisco, Adtran, 3Com and others serving the SMB VOIP market, as well as traditional PBX vendors and some VOIP service providers, should be worried.

Critical Links describes the EdgeBox as a multiservice business gateway appliance, which provides a full-fledged VOIP/IP-PBX and a host of data and IT services in a single device. The EdgeBox replaces up to eight specialised solutions with a single integrated device, providing SMB customers with a complete networking infrastructure that is simple to install and configure, and easy to maintain and upgrade, and can be managed remotely.

Critical Links offers three versions of the EdgeBox, an EdgeBox Office appliance that supports up to 40 users, an EdgeBox Business appliance that supports up to 100 users and the EdgeBox Enterprise appliance, which supports as many as 300 users. In regard to functionality, the three appliances are the same, to the extent that moving from one appliance to another takes little more than copying all of the data and settings across.

The EdgeBox does so many things so well that it is difficult to pick what the most important features are and what feature set a solution provider should lead with when selling the unit.

Arguably, the lead feature is the IP-PBX, which is based on open-source software and supports a variety of VOIP providers. The EdgeBox covers most, if not all, the telephony features a small business needs. The system features call conferencing capabilities, call parking and forwarding, IVR (interactive voice response), LCR (least cost routing), ACD (automatic call distribution) and fallback to PSTN. A recent upgrade to the PBX software adds follow me/find me, call twinning, direct inward access, e-mail push, voice mail transcription, PDA synchronisation, remote worker access, Fax2Mail and a host of other features that clearly place the EdgeBox into the realm of a fully fledged unified communications server.

Surprisingly, all of the advanced features are easy to manage and implement—the unit’s browser-based configuration console offers simple menus with integrated wizards and context-sensitive help. In other words, installers and maintainers don’t have to be VOIP or PBX experts to make the system function as desired. The IP-PBX supports SIP protocols and many of the IP phones on the market today. What’s more, the EdgeBox fully supports a softphone, allowing users to have their PCs become their telephone. Softphone implementations also have the hooks to support video calls between extensions or remote sites.

For many, the collaboration features of the EdgeBox will be the key. The unit incorporates a full collaboration suite that includes e-mail (POP, IMAP, Webmail) and groupware (calendar, tasks, contacts) and can be further extended with vertical market “EdgePacks,” which are optional productivity applications that include CMS (content management system), LMS (learning management system) and other applications. The collaboration features are fully integrated, meaning that any user accounts created on the unit are automatically shared across all of the applications.

Of course, connectivity is critical for the advanced features of the EdgeBox to be of any use, and Critical Links includes several features that enable and extend connectivity. First and foremost, the EdgeBox can act as an access router, managing the traffic between the LAN and the WAN. The routing functionality includes all of the basic network access services, such as DHCP, NAT, DNS and VLAN. Broadband connectivity options include ADSL, 3G and cable.

The system also features DMZ capabilities, allowing certain features to be exposed to the Internet if needed. In addition, the product’s advanced routing capabilities include support for QOS, which guarantees that priority services, such as VOIP, are provided with dedicated bandwidth to prevent call quality problems. Additional connectivity options include embedded Wi-Fi support and an integrated access point controller that will support external access points.

With robust connectivity options and line-of-business applications, extensive security becomes a must-have. Here, yet again, the EdgeBox impresses. The unit includes a full suite of security products, which starts off with a stateful inspection firewall. Solution providers will find complete implementations of VPN for remote user access (L2TP, PPTP), site-to-site (IPSec), anti-spam, anti-virus (based on ClamAV, McAfee and Sophos) and content filtering.

Security is further enhanced by the inclusion of NAC features that control how employees and visitors access the network. Access can be granted or denied per user, service, IP, time of day and source (VPN, LAN, wireless). EdgeBox’s NAC supports authentication through a captive portal, 802.1X, and remotely through RADIUS, LDAP or AD.

The unit offers one last surprise, and that comes from the integrated NAS (network-attached storage) and printer server. The system provides scalable storage capacity and redundant disks (RAID) for critical business data and allows the sharing of MS Windows files, setting disk quotas, and configuring automatic backup to a remote server or an external USB disk drive. The print server works with most USB printers and allows users running Windows to quickly share a printer.

For solution providers and their customers, the management features of the unit are of critical importance. Here, Critical Links strove to create a unified management console that can be accessed remotely. The management console is fully Web-based and allows the configuration of all aspects of the system by non-IT experts. Processes such as adding new users/hires are fully integrated, meaning that a vast array of settings (e-mail, phone extension, Wi-Fi credentials, VPN settings, file server area with quotas and backup setting, etc.) can be completed in just a few minutes with the EdgeBox Management interface.

Perhaps the only downside to the EdgeBox is business continuity. Simply put, if the device fails, so does all of a business’s most important IT capabilities. Critical Links has thought that scenario through and offers a “virtual EdgeBox” solution. Here, a solution provider can host a virtual copy of the customer’s EdgeBox, which is constantly updated. If the EdgeBox fails, the solution provider can quickly switch the customer over to the virtual implementation until the actual unit is replaced.

Critical Links is currently recruiting new partners and only sells via the channel. EdgeBox starts at $2,500 (£1,767) and increases in price depending on the number of seats needed and EdgePacks ordered. Solution providers can expect healthy margins on the hardware and software, and can garner revenue from the installation and support of the unit. The failover option can add recurring revenue for solution providers hosting virtual EdgeBoxes, while remote management fits keenly into the MSP model.

Solution providers looking to build opportunity in the SMB market will be well-served by the EdgeBox product line.