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Publisher's Outlook
January 2004


Rich Tehrani

Open Source Telephony... The Next Big Thing

BY RICH TEHRANI


Sun has been chewed up and spit out by Linux. Tasks that used to need high-powered Sun servers are now routinely being performed by banks of Linux servers. As Intel and AMD keep pumping out chips with ever-increasing performance levels at lower prices, Sun will continue to take a beating. Microsoft too is feeling the competition from Linux. (Disclosure: I have owned Microsoft stock for a few years now). And although Microsoft has a much broader product base than Sun, including desktop software, which has been heretofore immune to the Linux onslaught, it is not impossible to imagine Linux invading the desktop in the next few years.

Budget Conscious IT Spending
IT budgets were slashed to the bone a few years back and as a result, technical people in companies had to scrounge to be able to roll out new applications and services. This slashing of budgets coincided with a wealth of available PCs that used to belong to now laid-off personnel. So while Linux adoption was once just a fad for Microsoft haters, the number of Linux servers in companies is ever increasing. This is especially the case as Linux runs comfortably on older computers that the latest MS OS can�t even install on! IT people generally love Linux and for good reason -- aside from the cost aspect, Linux boxes are rock-solid and have to be rebooted only a fraction as often as most Microsoft operating systems (if at all). Linux also suffers from less virus attacks than Microsoft operating systems (although they are certainly not immune from attacks).

Database on the Cheap
Applications are another area where open source solutions are taking root. An example is the database business, which is being challenged by products like MySQL, Firebird, and PostgreSQL. Oracle, IBM, and Microsoft will feel the ever-increasing pressure of competing with open source databases.

Why Open Source Will Be Playing In An IT Department Near You
The reason that open source is doing so well, aside from it being free and customizable, is that open source products can be as reliable as their commercial counterparts. There are still benefits to owning commercial database software but open source is good enough for the majority of deployed applications. It is very tough if not impossible to compete against free, more customizable and sometimes more reliable software. Open source will wreak havoc in every market it touches. This process won�t happen overnight but look to Sun as the first casualty in the open source versus commercial war with others to follow.

The Open Source PBX
One of the next frontiers for open source is telecom. It is here, in this space, where a company called Asterisk is making a name for itself by offering an open source Linux PBX including voice mail, IVR, auto attendant, overhead paging, call parking, VoIP, PRI compatibility with many CO switches, SIP, H.323, and many codecs including GSM and G.729 (commercial license required) to name but two.

Currently you�ll find Asterisk (or * as it is referred to frequently on message boards) in corporations where the IS staff is enterprising enough to set this type of telephony server up. You will also find it in numerous CLECs that won�t share this fact with anyone as it is a significant competitive advantage. I had a chance to ask some questions of Greg Vance of Digium (see Q&A to determine the relationship between Asterisk & Digium):

RT: How long has Asterisk been around?
GV: We have been in development for four and a half years. Most of the development has been in the past two years since announcing hardware. We have nine full-time people, and we have about 90 Asterisk contributors.

RT: What is the relationship between Asterisk and Digium?
GV: The president of Digium (Mark Spencer) is the author of the Asterisk open source software.
 

RT: Describe the company�s growth.
GV: We�re growing very fast, in fact we grew 300 percent over this time last year.
 

RT: How do you compete with GNU Bayonne?
GV: We are a PBX/IVR gateway platform they are mostly an IVR switch. Bayonne is written in c++ , Asterisk is written in C. Vovida is also another project written in C++ which is a softswitch.

RT: Are there any other serious open source PBX companies that keep you awake at night?
GV: NO.
 

RT: What has been the reaction of Avaya and Cisco to all of this talk of an open-source PBX?
GV: We haven�t had any reaction from them. I think we are under their radar at the moment. However, the users are very enthusiastic. We have many who want to eliminate their Cisco equipment or interoperate with Asterisk. When they look at the price of these systems versus Asterisk, it�s a no brainer. We know that both Avaya and Cisco have Asterisk running in their lab, but we have not had contact with either company in a formal way.

RT: Does your revenue come mostly from hardware and consulting?
GV: Mostly from hardware. Consulting is a growing portion of our revenue and we expect this to increase significantly next year.

RT: So are you the manufacturer of the Wildcard line of products?
GV: Yes.

RT: How can I get a link to success stories using asterisk?
GV: We are going to have a success story link on our Web site soon for people to add their stories but, we do not have one at the moment. Also, check the mailing list archives (on our site).

RT: Can you please elaborate on IAXtel.com?
GV: This network is sponsored by Digium to other Asterisk users to allow for the interconnection of * servers around the world for anyone. The IAXtel server resides in Huntsville, AL containing an interactive phone book that keeps track of phone numbers and user info. Users sign up for an account and get a 1-700 phone number, user name, and password. They can take their * anywhere in the world and connect to other * users.

RT: Is it as successful as you planned?
GV: We really have not planned a strategy. Whatever success or strategy there is was born out of the Asterisk community. It was created to help the Asterisk users communicate.

RT: Where is the take-up in your distribution? Can you say how many enterprise customers you have and how many service providers?
GV: We have a network of resellers who serve their local communities for Asterisk PBXs. Others create products such as gateways or IVR platforms. Our distributors stock products and serve the reseller market. I will say we have thousands of enterprise customers. No way to knowing exactly but based on the hardware we have sold it is in the thousands.

Digium Founder To Present Session at INTERNET TELEPHONY Conference & EXPO Miami 2004

Mark Spencer, President of Digium and the author of Asterisk, will present the following session on 2/12/04:

12:45 - 1:30 pm
Opportunities for International Business Development
Moderator - Marcelo Rodriguez, Editor/Publisher, Voxilla.com
Ravi Sakaria, President, CEO and co-founder, VoicePulse
Mark Spencer, President of Digium and the author of Asterisk

IP Telephony is truly a global phenomenon -- and the opportunities to be successful with an innovative product or service span the globe. Unfortunately, anyone who has navigated the murky and sometimes turbulent waters of selling products and services in a foreign land knows the many challenges that awaits a company looking to expand into International markets. Items on every company's expansion checklist include certifications and distribution, locating appropriate corporate digs and staffing, finding reliable suppliers and dealing with shipping and fulfillment � the list goes on and on. Luckily, there are ways to minimize the uncertainty and learn (and profit) from the mistakes of others. Attend this session to discover the techniques and strategies for managing a successful international expansion.

The open source PBX concept is just beginning to catch on. It is not generally well known� Until now that is. The word is out and I expect it to slowly begin to take share away from other players in the market. I plan on following up this article with success stories at a future date to see how open source telephony solutions work in the real world. One thing is for certain� Commercial telecom companies are going to have to produce even better products to compete against open source solutions and customers are going to have more and better choices when choosing a telecom solution.

VoIP 911 Issues Now Solved
The FCC is up in arms about VoIP service not connecting to 911, and they are right to be concerned. There is no universal solution to this problem and there should be. I recently came across and witnessed an impressive demo from a company called Netfabric that may have solved the problem for many of us. Their Cashmere line of routers is an amazing series of products designed to allow you to have all the benefits of VoIP without losing the benefits of the PSTN.

In other words, you use IP telephony for the majority of your outbound phone calls but if the quality of service (QoS) decreases below a preset threshold or there is no data connection, the device immediately switches all subsequent phone calls to the PSTN. Yes, you will have to have PSTN lines but what you will have is the best of the IP and legacy worlds and you can benefit from the best each has to offer. Another benefit of this solution is the ability to retain your current telephone number. This isn�t always possible with IP telephony.

Other benefits of this product line include the ability to take a key system unit (KSU - a typical small phone system) and allow it to integrate with CRM packages allowing call logs and screen pops. There is much more to this device� You can enjoy the features of a much larger phone system such as being able to look at call logs over the Internet and blocking calls to 800 numbers, 900 numbers, long distance, etc. You can even block a single telephone number from being called if you like (perhaps the local headhunter?) You can also share a single voicemail system with multiple lines using this device.

There will soon be an XML interface allowing Web-based applications to tell you things like the average number of rings, call duration, abandon rate, and other vital details. Although you can gain access to this data over the Web with the currently available software, it will be a lot smoother with XML.

Pricing for this device is extremely reasonable and at these levels a no brainer for any SME. A four-port or 2x2 system (two lines x two trunks) costs only $295. Eight ports will set you back a mere $495. A T1 and 8x8 versions are in the works. The company believes the ROI on the box to be in the neighborhood of a few weeks or months. I agree that that is easily within the realm of possibility for any corporation using the phone a moderate amount of time.

The system works with any VoIP service provider and is being trialed currently by VonTek. VonTek is an alliance partner with Vonage. VonTek is focused on the VoIP market for small and medium-sized enterprises, which is why they have aligned with Netfabric. For the resellers or the small business that wants the benefits of VoIP and none of the drawbacks, the Netfabric/Vontek solution is perfection pure and simple. Every problem that VoIP has from the potential for poor quality to 911 issues is now solved. For those of you sleeping until VoIP advances to the next level before you adopt it, here is your wake up call.

Tehrani�s IP Telephony Dictionary:
We are being overwhelmed with the response to this resource. This is the newest and most up-to-date dictionary covering converged communications. I receive weekly calls from happy customers. This is the only resource you need to understand all the acronyms and terms in the confusing space of voice, video, fax, and data convergence. See what the buzz is all about at www.tmcnet.com/it/dictionary.htm.

IP Telephony Killer Apps
I wanted to let you know that we have spent hours improving our Internet Telephony show to make this the best show you can attend to learn about VoIP. Aside from the best speakers you will see anywhere -- such as Mun-Yuen Leong, Chief Technology Officer for Avaya, and high-level speakers from Microsoft, Siemens, Cisco, Alcatel, MCI, Lucent, AT&T etc. -- we have launched Tehrani�s IP Telephony Killer apps, which will be the most productive hour you will ever spend learning about VoIP. This will be a showcase of live demonstrations of the hottest IP telephony solutions on the market. I hope to see you there. Remember, the show is being held February 11-13, 2004 in Miami. Check out www.itexpo.com for details.

[ Return To The January 2004 Table Of Contents ]



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