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December 16, 2005

The Voice of IP: Open Source and the Traditional Business Model -- Can They Be Buddies?

By David Duffett


Something that has become really noticeable is the prominence of Asterisk (the open source PBX) in the telecoms media and at telephony shows.  It is not just the high profile presence of Asterisk and Digium (the primary developer and sponsor of Asterisk) at events like VoIP Developer and IT Expo, but it is the growing number of other companies who have products based on Asterisk that is truly staggering.
 
You might be tempted to think certain thoughts when the term ‘Open Source’ is used.  Two of the things that may instantly spring to mind (in no particular order) are nerds with an inability or lack of desire to achieve commercial success and communities of beardies (people with beards) that are more concerned with advancing technology for the sake of it, rather than making peoples’ lives better.  Both these things may be true in some arenas, but they are most certainly false when it comes to Asterisk.
 
Although Asterisk is Open Source, it has created a lot of business for individuals and companies who run with the more traditional business model.
 
Mark Spencer, creator of Asterisk and founder of Digium, is a smart guy in so many different dimensions.  His achievements stretch well outside his amazing success with Asterisk – he is an award-winning musical composer, he speaks Arabic, he has created useful electronic components and is extensively travelled.
 
Fired with a desire to do “something big” to help Open Source, he hit on the idea of creating an IP PBX on the open architecture of the PC using the Linux operating system after discovering the prohibitive cost of buying a traditional PBX.  Asterisk is not only a fully functional IP PBX, but it will also connect to virtually any legacy telephony interface using inexpensive, widely available hardware.
 
Some people have made comparisons between the effects that Linux has caused in the operating system world and the effects that Asterisk has made and will make in the sphere of telecoms.  What is often missing from these commentaries is an acknowledgement of the vast difference between these two areas.  Operating systems are a part of every computer and as such are not only used in everyday business and home settings, but they are also the subject of a lot of academic interest – people create their own operating systems in order to use them as teaching tools, or to try out new things.  The world of telecoms tends to be a little more pragmatic.
 
So when Linux came into the world it was greeted by people who were interested in it as an experimental tool, as something of academic interest.  A community of people grew who helped develop Linux because they liked fiddling with operating systems.  Of course it did not take too long for people to see uses for it in business.  Today we see all sorts of deployments, some sticking to the true principles of Open Source (e.g., Ubuntu – "Ubuntu" is an ancient African word, meaning "humanity to others". Ubuntu also means "I am what I am because of who we all are". The Ubuntu Linux distribution brings the spirit of Ubuntu to the software world www.ubuntulinux.org).  Other deployments are being really creative in finding ways to achieve commercial success by adding value around Open Source products.
 
The telecoms world that Asterisk was born into was very different.  It is a world of the commercial imperative, a world where revenue streams are closely guarded, and where a high degree of proprietary design is used to lock existing customers into having to buy further equipment and services from their incumbent equipment provider.
 
An example of this way of thinking is the traditional enterprise PBX.  Once this PBX has been purchased by the hapless customer, they find that they can only add handsets that will work by buying them from the PBX vendor.  The handsets from another make of PBX will certainly not work, and standard telephones (or POTs) will only connect via expensive interface cards – and even then functionality will usually be severely reduced.
 
Along comes Asterisk, not only Open Source but also compatible with open standards like SIP, H.323, T1 interfaces (via additional hardware), etc. You get a fully functional IP PBX that is ready to go – your telephones can be any SIP, H.323 or IAX (Inter Asterisk eXchange, now at revision 2 – but still known as IAX) handsets, available from $60 and up.  If you want to connect a standard analogue phone you can use an ATA (analogue telephone adaptor), available from $40 and up – and if you want to connect an analogue line then boards are available from $9.99, although I would personally recommend the Digium branded cards at $140 and up.  If you only want to use VoIP and you are happy to use a soft phone on your PC you do not need to buy anything!
 
To check out the popularity of Asterisk, visit www.ebay.com and search on “Asterisk” to see the number of items already available.
 
If Digium does not make money from the Asterisk software itself, how do they keep going?  After all, as Stephen Covey (author of ‘The Seven Habits’ books) put it, “No margin, no mission” – meaning you cannot achieve your mission if you are not making money in order to continue your venture.
 
Digium does make money in several different ways.  The sale of Digium hardware for analogue telephony connections and primary rate (T1/E1) interfaces is one way, technical support packages for Asterisk is another.  And most recently, the introduction of Asterisk Business Edition is another revenue stream.  The Business Edition is a stable, regression tested version of Asterisk for businesses to work with – it comes with a support package and other goodies.
 
The free availability of Asterisk seems to have given rise to two broad (but distinctly different) sets of users.  One group is the free/cheap/hobby brigade who, before the arrival of Asterisk, were prohibited from getting into the world of telephony by cost.  These guys love Asterisk, but are shocked and disappointed to find that attaching other stuff (like analogue telephony) to Asterisk is still going to cost them some money.
 
The other group are the big guys already in the telephony space, already paying real money for things, who see Asterisk as saving them the work of creating applications to do what Asterisk will already do for them.  Needless to say, it is this group that spends the money and makes the money.
 
Back to my original question:  can Open Source and the traditional business model be buddies?  The answer is undoubtedly ‘Yes’, in fact Mark Spencer himself already lists a number of companies who follow the traditional business model (make something and sell it) as part of the ‘Asterisk ecosystem’.
 
One of these companies is Aculab, creator of the Prosody range of media processing and digital network connectivity (T1/E1/IP) range of products.
 
Given that Digium also supply T1/E1 interface cards, how is it that a partnership could grow with Aculab?  The answer is that Aculab are able to cover a couple of key areas that Digium have decided not to – and this means that Aculab products complement those provided by Digium, not compete with them.
 
I guess, before I finish, you would like to know what those two key areas are – wouldn’t you?  You would – that’s great, here goes.
 
Aculab is the global leader in primary rate (T1/E1) signalling protocols.  This means your Asterisk-based system can be deployed virtually anywhere – giving you world-wide deployment potential.  In fact, Aculab’s protocol firmware is available (via a cost-free licence) for instant download from their website – and you can mix any of the supported protocols on one card, making it possible to have T1 and E1 connectivity using a single card solution. 
 
Secondly, Aculab cards have a high degree of on-board processing power which can, again, complement Asterisk, which inherently does everything on the host chassis.  Conferencing and echo-cancellation are quite processor intensive things to do, so taking the work load off the host processor and giving it to the telephony board could prove very useful for the smooth running of Asterisk.
 
Couple these advantages with Aculab’s excellent reputation for long term reliability in business-critical applications and you have a compelling proposition.
 
This kind of functionality does come at a cost, and will therefore be more relevant to the second group identified above – who may be pleased to know that Aculab compatibility has been built into the Business Edition of Asterisk.
 
So, not only can Open Source and the traditional business model be buddies, they can positively thrive together.
 
For more information and downloads visit www.asterisk.org.  Aculab’s website is www.aculab.com
 
 
See you next month.
 
David Duffett
 
David Duffett, TMCnet's columnist for "The Voice of IP," is a Chartered Engineer and has been in the Telecoms sector for over 14 years with experience spanning air traffic control communications, wireless local loop, mobile networks and computer telephony. At Aculab for 5 years, David has global responsibility for customer training through the Aculab Academy.
 




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