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Review: CommuniGate's CommuniGate Pro 5 Attempts VoIP PBX Functionality

CGPro offers solid e-mail, but IP PBX applications must mature.

Five years ago, the CommuniGate Pro (GCPro) mail server came out of nowhere and vied against stiff competition to take our Editors' Choice award for large-scale e-mail server. CGPro has since morphed into a groupware server (version 4) and spruced up its corporate appearance by moving into the newly formed CommuniGate Systems division of Stalker Software.

I tested version 5 at our Syracuse University Real-World Labs® and was impressed with the server's move into the realm of voice over IP PBXs and its real-time presence-management tracking, which lets you know at a glance who's available.

Dependable Basics

Rock solid e-mail, scalability, high availability and support for more than 30 host OSs remain constants in CGPro. Like version 4, version 5 supports standard Internet e-mail protocols, including SMTP, POP3, IMAP4, and secure mail protocols, and it offers Webmail access.

CGPro also includes individual account Web sites and FTP, TFTP, RADIUS and LDAP servers, and supports PWD (Password Modification Protocol) and ACAP (Application Configuration Access Protocol).

CGPro 4 introduced groupware support by providing Web-based group calendaring and a custom MAPI connector that lets Microsoft Outlook users connect to CGPro as if they're connecting to a native Exchange server. The MAPI connector lets Outlook users gain access to the same group calendaring features available to CGPro Web users.

Don't Gulp, SIP

CommuniGate Systems started adding some SIP functionality into later releases of CGPro 4 by providing support for authenticated access to collaboration through Microsoft's SIP-based Messenger 5. (I'm talking about the Messenger available for download from Microsoft, not the messenger that ships with Windows XP.) I tested CGPro with Messenger 5.1.0701 and found seamless operation for instant messaging, video and voice conversations both for users attached to the same CGPro server and for those connected to different CGPro servers. Although Messenger uses SIP, Microsoft uses nonstandard packet signing in Messenger. The programmers at CommuniGate Systems wrote code to compensate for the packet-signing problem as well as a couple of other undocumented Messenger "features."

Good
• Scalable and standards-based
• Includes a presence server and an IP PBX
• Customizable PBX features

Bad

• Limited documentation for call setup
• Short list of compatible hardware and software
• Less-than-perfect PBX functionality

*CommuniGate Pro, single server starts at $699 for 25 users. CommuniGate Systems, a division of Stalker Software, (800) 262-4722, (415) 383-7164. m www.communigate.co

As long as I was collaborating with CGPro users on my server, I could take advantage of Messenger's whiteboarding, application-sharing and file-transfer features. But I couldn't use these features between users hosted by different CGPro servers on separate networks--I troubleshot this problem down to NAT (Network Address Translation) and remote firewall settings, but ran out of time trying to find a solution. If your corporate network topology is complex or you plan to collaborate with CGPro users on other servers and networks, give yourself extra time to work out these kinks.

The latest CGPro 4 release had bare-bones SIP functionality. CGPro 5 kicks SIP support up a notch by implementing a presence server. When I signed on to our CGPro server from any SIP-based device or application, my presence was noted immediately. My online status indicator changed to "busy" on other registered users' screens anytime I was on a call on a registered SIP phone. I could also change my status to "busy" at any time.

Call Direction

IP PBX functionality is the newest addition to CGPro, but it needs some work. For my tests, I had to get significant input from CommuniGate Systems' technicians. VoIP-to-VoIP calls were not a problem. I set up numeric account aliases as phone extensions for each of my users and easily dialed them using their alias. Because each user's phone was registered with CGPro, call completion between IP devices and applications went without a hitch. But that wasn't the case for calls to and from users on the PSTN.

I tried two PSTN-to-VoIP/VoIP-to-PSTN gateways--one from BroadVoice's managed service and the other a Sipura Technology SPA-3000. These gateways let me complete calls between our VoIP-based devices and people on the PSTN, and visa versa. I used SIP phones from Polycom and Zyxel, and a CounterPath Solutions' eyeBeam softphone, to test CGPro's VoIP features. The BroadVoice setup was simple to implement--I just input new CGPro router entries and my BroadVoice account information on CGPro's External PSTN Gateway setup page.

The Web setup for the SPA-3000 was as complex as any I've experienced. Those who regularly deal with PSTN phone-switching equipment might have a clue, but to me the Sipura interface was like looking at Martian spaceship assembly instructions in their native language. The PSTN world is new to the folks at CommuniGate Systems as well, so don't expect much documented help for tying IP PBX solutions together in the early releases of version 5. Small or midsize businesses interested in being early adopters of CGPro's VoIP-to-PSTN gateway should investigate the Mediatrix Telecom 1204, which CommuniGate Systems is implementing in-house.

CGPro ships with voicemail, conference, self-service and call-attendant applications--a good starting point. CommuniGate Systems uses GC/PL, a Perl-like language new to version 5 that exposes these applications for modification. I changed the call-attendant application to remove the prompt to select a language and had the call menu use the numeric keypad to select one of the technology editors in the Syracuse lab. Best of all, I made these changes in less than 30 minutes.

Those with the time and personnel to carry them through the initial set up should consider this release a viable option for unified messaging and IP PBX setups.

Ron Anderson is Network Computing's lab director. Write to him at [email protected].