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Buyer's Guide

by Daniel Harris,
Market Research Associate
Last Updated: March 10, 2017

Here's what we'll cover in this guide:

  • What are Virtual, Hosted and Cloud PBXs?
  • Choosing Between an On-Site or a Hosted (or Cloud, or Virtual) PBX
  • Final Consideration

What are Virtual, Hosted and Cloud PBXs?

A PBX, or Private Branch Exchange, is at the heart of every business phone system. It is the central component that integrates all internal phone extensions with all external phone lines, and allows calls to be set up and transferred between them. Originally, PBXs were big, physical machines. First, they were switchboards with human operators; later, the switchboards became automated. But since the late 1990s, they have been available in a new form: as virtual or hosted machines.

It’s important to point out that the terms "virtual," "hosted" and "cloud" have all been used very loosely over the years. In the late 1990s, a company by the name of "Virtual PBX" was the first to offer a service similar to what most now call a hosted PBX. Theirs was a much more limited service: it could only forward incoming calls. (Businesses would pay for a single business number, and when their customers called it, Virtual PBX would route those incoming calls to their employees’ on-site or off-site phones.)

In the early 2000s, as VoIP networks expanded and their connectivity to landlines improved, most of the virtual PBX call-forwarding companies added outbound calling to their plans. These new plans took on a new description: hosted PBX services. Then, when cloud became the buzzword for describing hosted services, this term, too, joined the mix.

Today, we see the three terms "virtual," "hosted" and "cloud" used interchangeably. Buyers should not assume that the terms imply any specific set of features. All services need to be compared in detail to understand what they offer.

Choosing Between an On-Site or a Hosted (or Cloud, or Virtual) PBX

Choosing a new phone system is one of the most daunting tasks a business can face. There are many technologies on the market that are competing with, overlapping and blurring the distinctions between one another. As we just explained, cloud, virtual and hosted are all used to describe a PBX that’s hosted off-site by a third party. So how do on-site PBXs compare to those hosted in the cloud?

  Off-site PBX On-site PBX
Cost A hosted PBX will almost always have a lower initial cost. But since it is billed as a service, it will have a recurring monthly charge. Businesses on the fence should calculate the total cost of ownership, and consider that hosting prices could go up over time. There is a wide range of options for on-site PBXs. Some cost thousands of dollars; some are free. Included features and its form of network integration are the main cost factors. Companies that are already hosting their own computer servers might find this choice more feasible.
Maintenance Hosted PBX software is kept up to date by the hosting company. Configuration changes can often be made remotely, though some leave this responsibility to the company subscriber. This works well for small companies without dedicated IT staff. An on-site PBX could require a knowledgeable engineer or IT manager to add, remove and change phone extensions and perform periodic maintenance and other updates.
Flexibility It’s difficult to generalize about the flexibility of hosted PBXs because of the wide range of companies and offerings. The important thing here is that buyers ensure their hosted PBX comes with all of the features they expect to need. Though hosted PBX service providers do generally stay current as new technology becomes available, there is no guarantee that providers will add new features that subscribers may want in the future. There are few limitations with on-site PBXs. They can be programmed and reconfigured at will, as long as there’s an employee available who understands the system. On-site PBXs are more flexible with regards to WANs (Wide Area Networks), so integrating a newly opened branch office into the same phone network might be easier than with a hosted system.
Security With a hosted PBX, the hosting company is responsible for keeping the system secure. This takes some—but not all—of the security burden off subscribers. Businesses still need to have their data connections secured. Hosting providers can usually make suggestions about how to do that and how to best configure firewalls so as not to interfere with voice traffic. Modern PBXs are almost always connected to the Internet, and they face some of the same threats as computers. An unsecured PBX can become victim to denial of service and theft of services attacks. A properly configured firewall can prevent these attacks, though configuring firewalls so as not to interfere with voice calls can be challenging.
Analog or VoIP Though hosted PBXs can connect to traditional analog office phones, they are far more at home interfacing with VoIP phones. In most cases, businesses using a hosted PBX system are already using, or are in the process of switching to, an entirely VoIP system. If a company has a large investment in a traditional PBX system and uses many traditional (analog) phones, then the argument to go with an on-site virtual PBX becomes stronger. It’s easier to integrate analog phones with a PBX if it’s local instead of hosted remotely.

Final Consideration

Apart from the specific factors mentioned above, there is one other consideration that can help companies decide between a hosted and an on-site phone system. While difficult to quantify, this concept is one of the most influential in modern business strategy. It is known as the strategy of “core competencies,” and it all boils down to focus.

The strategy of core competencies states that businesses should focus on what they do well and what they do better than their competitors—and keep their focus there. If some element of their operations that is not directly related to these core competencies can be outsourced, it often makes more sense commercially to do so.

Many businesses switch to hosted phone systems for the simple reason that phone systems are not one of their core competencies. Placing management of the phone system in the hands of companies who do specialize in it shifts that burden there—and frees the other companies to focus on what they do best.

If telephone communication is central to what a business does (for example, a call center), it may be preferable to keep the phone system as close to the office as possible. But for the majority of companies—those that consider phone service important, but perhaps not central to their business model—hosting the system off-site is more often preferable.

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