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The Momentum Builds for Open Source Telephony

By: Erik Linask

It seems like ages ago – and in today’s telecom terms, it was – that Rich Tehrani (News - Alert) wrote a column in the January 2004 issue of INTERNET TELEPHONY called, “Open Source Telephony… The Next Big Thing.” For the column, Rich spoke to Digium’s Greg Vance, who explained that, at the time, while interest was growing in Asterisk, the open source platform was not on the radar of the major PBX (News - Alert) manufacturers.

How the Times Have Changed

To date, there have been nearly 1.5 million downloads of the Asterisk (News - Alert) software, including a 33 percent increase in 2009. According to The Eastern Management Group, in 2008, open source PBX installations overtook any single proprietary PBX vendor’s deployments, totaling 18 percent of the total PBX market. Digium (News - Alert) CEO Danny Windham also noted at AstriCon 2009, that Asterisk-based endpoints make up 15 percent of the market in the United States, adding that developers are joining the Asterisk community at a rate of 60 percent per year.

Certainly, cost is a key consideration, particularly during these past years, with executives and IT departments having to consider more carefully than ever how they spend their budgets. But, according to Bill Miller (News - Alert), vice president of product management at Digium, the success of Asterisk – and open source solutions, in general – is even more importantly a function of product maturity and reliability. While businesses are looking for cost-effective solutions, where they previously might have looked past open source alternatives, today the focus is on getting a high- quality product at a good price – regardless of whether is comes with an “open source” label or not.

The adoption rate among SMBs continues to be high, and in the enterprise market, Miller says what he calls the consideration continues to climb.

“When it’s time for an enterprise to upgrade or expand their solution, they are now considering open source as an option,” he says. “Open source solutions are now very often included in enterprise RFPs. There are usually three options: the incumbent, one of the latest proprietary solutions, and an open source alternative.”

It’s clear that interest is growing, and Miller believes it will continue to do so, with more options, more applications being developed, and more full-fledged enterprise-class solutions, including contact center and speech applications, two of the biggest areas of discussion at AstriCon 2009.

In fact, as the economy stabilizes, Digium firmly believes that the momentum the open source community has gained will continue. After all, though the recession helped boost the open source space to its current market position, the growth of the open source community and the stability of open source platforms (Asterisk is a decade old now) have helped create a new market dynamic that is driving interest in alternative vendors, including those in the open source community, as well as Skype, Microsoft (News - Alert), and others.

Skype, in fact, recently officially introduced its Skype for Asterisk module, which allows businesses to connect Skype (News - Alert) accounts to their Asterisk IP PBXs to enable both inbound and outbound Skype calls via the PBX. It’s the first Skype-sanctioned development effort in collaboration with a PBX vendor. From a percentage standpoint, says Miller, Skype for Asterisk is the fastest growing individual item in the Asterisk inventory, and many competitive Asterisk-based solutions also are beginning to integrate it, recognizing the value of the variety of applications that can be developed leveraging Skype.

More definitive recognition of open source as a viable communications technology comes from the handset vendors, which are increasingly looking to ensure interoperability with Asterisk and other open source platforms. Polycom (News - Alert), snom, and Aastra are already Digium partners, along with AudioCodes, which launched its line of HD VoIP handsets at ITEXPO East 2009.

Siemens (News - Alert) recently announced an agreement to certify its phones with Asterisk; Panasonic and Cisco were both present at AstriCon; and Digium is in discussions with what Miller says is the only top-six independent phone vendor left, Grandstream.

In fact, wideband audio is one of the major trends of 2009 that will continue into 2010. “If you have HD on both sides, the connection is crystal clear, and that’s what everyone wants,” says Miller, and new wideband codecs are being added to the list of those supported by Asterisk regularly, including Skype’s SILK, which he believes will have a significant impact in 2010.

“You are seeing more and more adoption and understanding that the major players need to leverage open source in some way; that is really legitimizing this business,” adds Miller.

Other Open Source Projects

Of course, all this attention open source telephony is receiving, driven not only by Digium and the Asterisk community, but by the research conducted by The Eastern Management (News - Alert) Group as well, has paved the way to success for other open source projects as well.

Back in 2004, Vance told Tehrani that there were no other serious open source companies that “keep him awake at night.” While Windham, Miller, and other Digium executives may still not be losing sleep over them, there are certainly other open source solutions that have found success.

Asterisk has been the only game in town for a long time now, and it still maintains a growing developer and user base but, as is often the case, other players have been smart enough to leverage the marketing efforts put forth by Digium, The Eastern Management Group, and other sources, promoting open source telephony.

For instance, the FreeSWITCH platform was released back in 2006, the founders of which came from the Asterisk project. The company, a subsidiary of Barracuda Networks (News - Alert), has organized five ClueCon events, bringing together its own following of open source developers and users, and has produced its own commercial product, the Cudatel Communications Platform, a standalone appliance that features FreeSWITCH as the core platform, along with Sangoma hardware for both TDM-enabled and VoIP-only models.

FreeSWITCH Solutions president Anthony Minnesale explains that the idea behind the project was to offer an alternative open source solution to Asterisk. While he has contributed a number of features to Asterisk himself, Minnesale was looking to develop some features that he felt could not effectively be handled by the Asterisk platform. The basic difference between the two, he explains, is that FreeSWTICH is a softswitch, while Asterisk is a PBX.

“We spent several years perfecting the first release,” he says. “If we could build a stable core, then, as we build on top of that, we will be able to produce more and more features without having to go back to fix internal problems.”

Another open source project – among those leveraging Asterisk as the core engine – is Elastix (News - Alert), which was designed to extend the capabilities of the Asterisk PBX to provide a complete unified communications solution, bolting communications products from other vendors onto the Asterisk platform, as well as several others developed by the Elastix team.

According to José Luis Landivar, founder and chairman of Elastix creator PaloSanto Solutions, the company has seen more than 600,000 downloads of its software in more than 150 countries (though it is only now beginning to engage the U.S. market).

“Asterisk is the core of the system,” says Landivar. “We use it for doing the regular phone system functions and complement it with other features to get the best of the open source community and integrate it in a very easy to use and stable way to create a complete PBX solution.”

These are only two of the open source projects on the market today, but they are indicative of the success of open source as an alternative to proprietary solutions and, as Minnesale wrote in his blog back in 2008, “There is plenty of room for both applications among the other open source telephony applications.”

Continuing Momentum

Just as we saw in the proprietary space, the growth of the open source community will drive innovation and spawn more competitive solutions and more products that will offer greater choice in the communications market.

“Some of the other open source projects around the world are starting to pick up steam, and many are competitive to Digium. But that shows that, like in the traditional phone space, there is a lot of opportunity,” says Miller. “We have picked up so much momentum that other projects, many of which are based on Asterisk, have as well.”

For Digium, the momentum continues with Digium|Asterisk World, collocated with ITEXPO (News - Alert) East, which sold out its booth space not once, but twice, and will include three full days of conference sessions devoted to and building on the trends discussed at AstriCon in October. Miller also says that, along with announcements from many of its partners, Digium, itself, will be making several major announcements around its Switchvox (News - Alert) product and Asterisk Exchange.

“There is always something exciting going on here, and none of us is afraid to say open source is ready for prime time,” concludes Miller.

The times have, indeed, changed. IT

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