Downloading and Installing 3CX Phone System (part 1)

11/6/2012 7:55:17 PM

Your 3CX server hardware requirements

What are the hardware requirements for 3CX? It might be astonishing but for a long time 3CX (the company) did not release specific requirements. The recommendation was "a currently sold Windows desktop will do." This might seem to be a somewhat "hazy" recommendation, but I've found that this rule of thumb actually can work quite well for a 10 to 15 extension system.

The first time I installed 3CX, I installed it on a fanless 1GHz VIA appliance PC with 512MB of RAM and a 100GB hard disk drive. I thought that, because it was a phone system, it wouldn't take many resources. Well I was wrong. When calls would come in, there was a long delay before the digital receptionist would pick up in other places when prompts played to the caller. I fiddled for quite a while before I moved the phone system to a modern desktop computer and then all the problems went away. With Asterisk, people often say you can turn an "old unused pc" into a phone system. 3CX is a Windows-based system, so make sure that you have a sufficiently powerful machine.

3CX now publishes minimum hardware requirements that appear during installation, which are as follows:

  • 1GB RAM

  • Pentium IV processor or higher

  • Audio playback capability

3CX uses an MP3 file residing on the 3CX server as the Music on Hold source. At this time, plugging an audio source into the audio card's IN port is not a feature. Also interfacing to PA systems by plugging into the audio card's OUT is not supported.

Obviously, if you are running 3CX alongside an Exchange Server, Active Directory, and File Sharing on a Microsoft Windows Small Business Server, you will need a more powerful machine. 3CX has published a test in such a situation on their official 3CX blog at http://www.3cx.com/blog/voip-howto/ no-dedicated-server-needed/.

For the test, the server was configured as follows:

  • Intel Core 2 Duo E4500 2.20GHz

  • 4GB RAM

  • 50GB SATA hard disk drive

  • 100MBps network connection

In the test, Windows Small Business Server was running IIS, Exchange Server, and Active Directory. 3CX was installed using the Cassini web server option. A load equal to 25 users heavily using Exchange Server was put on the server. Now a 16 simultaneous calls load was put on 3CX. In one hour, 2,000 calls were made. During this test for all 3CX services, the CPU usage was at less than 15%. The 3CX memory usage was approximately 300MB with Cassini using about 100MB. Exchange Server did not use more than 10% of CPU with a total CPU usage of about 30%.

Choosing a Windows operating system

3CX will run on most business editions of Windows, but there are some considerations for the different editions to take note of:

  • Windows XP Professional

    I personally think that Windows XP Professional makes a nice small office 3CX Phone System server and is a great choice for a first 3CX install. It can be clean, lean, and mean. It is especially compelling when you have a network and have another server taking care of DHCP.

    For performance reasons, Windows XP Professional along with the Cassini web server should be used for systems with fewer than 20 users. Consider upgrading to a server operating system when you reach this number of extensions.

  • Windows Vista Business, Enterprise, and Ultimate

    If you are using Windows Vista, make sure that your machine has plenty of resources and has User Account Control (UAC) turned off. Also, see that the firewall doesn't get in your way.

  • Windows Server Standard 2003 and 2008

    This may be the best fit for a 3CX server in a slightly larger installation. Like SBS, it will include a robust DHCP server for provisioning phones using DHCP option 66.

    This is just in: Microsoft has just released another version of their Windows Server line called Windows Foundation Server. This server will have all the features of Windows Server Standard, be priced at Windows desktop OS price levels, and be limited to 15 SMB connections. In my opinion, IP PBX administrators will want to keep their eye on it!

    In fair disclosure I need to admit that I personally favor having discrete servers or servers doing one job. In an SBS environment it's so easy for different server applications running on the same server to conflict, whether it is over RAM or ports, or whatever. With a real-time server like a communication server, even a little delay, stutter, or chop can cause a user to give the phone system administrator a support call. However, remember this is a personal opinion.

    3CX is also supported on Windows Server 2008. Still, you'll need to ensure that the Desktop Experience role is enabled. Without this you will have no audio prompts, and this will make your phone system useless.

  • Windows Small Business Server 2003

    Windows Small Business Server has a lot going on already, such as file sharing, Exchange Server, and Active Directory, so it can be potentially tricky to get yet another server running on it. However, it can be done, and 3CX will support it, too. My suggestion for a fi rst install is to try something simpler like Windows XP or Vista.

Starting with a clean operating system install

For our first 3CX server, we will need to start with a freshly installed and clean operating system. 3CX is quite a complex application as there are 13 services running, and it can use several TCP ports and audio interfaces with the PC's hardware audio capabilities. With 3CX, there is quite a lot going on, so a clean install will make our lives smoother.

Some real life experience: The first time I installed 3CX, it was on an older Windows XP Professional computer that had a lot of test applications installed and uninstalled on it. I had so many problems that I was about to write off 3CX as not ready for primetime when, on a hunch, I decided to install 3CX on a clean Windows XP Professional computer. The install was flawless and everything just worked! After working with other 3CX installations, I've found that 3CX likes a clean operating system and is perhaps a little more sensitive than some other applications.

Getting the Microsoft stack in place

The 3CX Phone System is largely based on several Microsoft Windows technologies that are stacked on top of each other.

You don't need to understand all the details about each layer; all you need to know is that each one needs to be installed and working properly. The Microsoft "stack" used in 3CX is as follows:

  • Windows operating system (and updates)

  • .NET Framework 2.0

  • IIS (Internet Information Services, unless you use Cassini)


Note that I said 3CX is "largely" based on Microsoft technologies. The 3CX database uses the PostgreSQL database engine and not Microsoft SQL. There is no problem with PostgreSQL, but many Windows users may not find it as familiar as Microsoft SQL when attempting to integrate with it. For example, you cannot connect to it from Microsoft Access as simply as Microsoft SQL.

Downloading 3CX and getting a key

To get to the 3CX Phone System download page, visit:


Fill in your information with a valid e-mail address, and you will get a demo key that will allow you to try out all the commercial features of the 3CX Phone System. You will also get a link to a nice PDF manual for 3CX, or if you are very security conscious, you can click on the link under the heading Updates, which will take you to the links to download without giving you a demo key. You can also go directly to the following link:


3CX is approximately a 40MB download. You may also want to download the 3CX Assistant and VoIP Phone right away from the same page.

Free key versus a two-user test key

If you filled in a valid e-mail while registering, to download 3CX you will receive a demo key by e-mail that will allow all features of the 3CX Phone System Commercial edition. The limitation of this key is that it will allow only two simultaneous calls.

To activate the two-user demo key, you will need to click on Settings | Activate License. To make things simple, I suggest you copy and paste the key from the e-mail that you received.

If you decide that you want to go back to the 4 simultaneous calls Free edition, your can simply click on the Free Version button and the 2-call demo key will be removed.

Once again, most people find that to thoroughly test phone features, you really need to have three phone extensions. At this point, 3CX only provides a 2-call demo key. I can understand 3CX's position that a 3-call key could be used for real use. A 3CX reseller can be a good resource to help you test features using a demo system they may make available to you.

For a neater comparison between the Free and Commercial editions of 3CX, visit the following URL: http://www.3cx.com/phone-system/edition-comparison.html.

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