Asterisk and Switchvox for Education

Digium's Asterisk is a free, open source telephone framework to build communications applications. Digium's Switchvox is a commercial, turnkey communication system that is built with Asterisk. Both are proven solutions for elementary, high school, university, and private or public education institutions. How should a school or district choose between Asterisk or Switchvox? For most institutions the answer involves the availability and budget for technical staff versus technological convenience plus the level or type of customization required. Let me explain using three examples: Clark County School District, Colorado River Schools (The Bullhead City Elementary School District and Colorado River Union High School District), and Ethos Academy.

Asterisk is a telephone framework. This means that by itself it is not a complete, managed telephone system. A raw installation provides a lot out of the box, but its power and long-time supportability require additional configuration, software, hardware, development, and technical staff.

Switchvox is a commercial communications solution. An immediate and obvious difference is that it is not free. Switchvox is a complete system that offers numerous user and administration features, professional support contracts, and an easy to use graphical interface for both technical maintenance and daily user interaction (for example graphically forward your calls, check voicemail, or see queue status).

Clark County School District is the nation's 5th largest public unified school district. They selected Asterisk to replace commercial telephone PBX systems. Two important factors leading to replacing their old commercial system with Asterisk are technical proficiency and ongoing high maintenance costs. The school's technical staff breadth and proficiency result in little to no benefit from the old system's commercial support service. But the service cost and all ongoing maintenance costs were extremely high. Asterisk requires staff proficiency but reduces or eliminates commercial maintenance costs. Asterisk also provides the specific features and customization that they need for their schools and management facilities. Given the size and capabilities of their technical staff they are able to install, customize, and support Asterisk.

Colorado River Schools (CRS) is the public school district for Bullhead City, AZ area elementary and high schools. They selected Switchvox to replace their previous VoIP telephone solution. Their old system, while modern, lacked features and had limited compatibility with their Polycom phones (for example, Busy Lamp Field - BLF). They also preferred to own the system and have full access to configure and maintain it themselves instead of through a vendor. One advantage for Switchvox is that it supports the SIP protocol permitting many existing VoIP phones to be reused rather than replaced. Since CRS did not need to replace their compatible SIP phones (Polycom) they could easily afford Switchvox in their budget. While very technically able their IT staffing budget does not permit hiring dedicated configuration and support staff so the added features and ease of Switchvox saves money versus staffing for Asterisk. Switchvox gives them more features, full ownership and control, and reduced cost of ownership.

Ethos Academy is a charter school in Phoenix, AZ. Most of their technical services are outsourced. Their outsourced IT company selected Switchvox for the Academy because it satisfies most feature requirements without additional expense and it is easy to configure and support. Switchvox easily and affordably integrates with third-party solutions that are unique to education such as overhead paging announcements with end of period or class bell chimes. The numerous Switchvox features, ease of configuration, and simplified ongoing support are a better fit for limited or no staff telephony IT departments.

It is not always a simple choice between Asterisk and Switchvox and sometimes a combination of the two can best accomplish the institution's goals. For example, Asterisk might provide a unique gateway feature or other customization requirement while Switchvox is the primary telephone system. The important things to consider are the technical requirements and the costs to install, customize, and support the whole communications system over the life of the system. If you have sufficient telephony technical staff that can be hired or trained then Asterisk might be best for your organization. If you do not then Switchvox might be best. Of course there are other considerations but this should be at the top.

Raise your hand if you have a question.

Chromis has experience with education institutions including the following:
BASIS Charter Shools (charter, Switchvox and Asterisk)
Clark County School District (public, Asterisk)
Colorado River Schools (public, Switchvox)
Ethos Academy (charter, Switchvox)
Leman Academy of Excellence (charter, Switchvox)

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