Is Asterisk Channel Finally Ready For Its Close-Up?

If you're a solution provider, vendor, developer or technologist with a vested interest in open-source PBX and VoIP, particularly Asterisk, your time is now.

That was the resounding theme of last week's Digium Asterisk World conference in Miami Beach, where a number of open-source devotees said the opportunity to push Asterisk platforms further into networking and infrastructure is pronounced like never before.

Enterprises are listening. So are SMBs. And the ongoing makeover of traditional networking and infrastructure channels has at last made room -- a lot of room -- for open-source PBX and VoIP, they say.

Open-source PBXes now account for 18 percent of all PBX sales in North America, contended John Malone, president and CEO of The Eastern Management Group, which studies the expanding open-source PBX market.

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Presenting findings from recent Eastern Management Group studies at Digium Asterisk World, Malone noted that open-source PBX systems have costs 25 percent to 50 percent less than many proprietary systems but also have significant value-add opportunities for solution providers, given the GUIs, PBX appliances, gateways, VoIP trunking, installation costs and other elements needed as part of that system.

Eastern Management Group has also found that the majority -- 55 percent -- of open-source PBX sales are repeat customers, many of whom are acquiring larger and more expansive systems as their businesses grow. More specifically, first-time open-source PBX customers install 63 percent of the systems with fewer than 10 phones, but returning open-source PBX customers claim 92 percent of all systems between 500 and 1,000 phones.

That, Malone suggested, is bad news for dominant enterprise players like Avaya and Cisco, and good news for VARs that have staked their businesses on the growth of open-source PBX in enterprises and SMBs alike.

Ruth Bridger, vice president of marketing at Xorcom, an Israeli manufacturer of Asterisk-based IPBX and channel banks, said 2010 will be the year Asterisk and open-source options finally go head to head with telephony and VoIP giants.

In a presentation, she tracked the growth of Asterisk and open-source over the past decade, saying that in 2005, the market made noise, then subsided a bit due to hype and unclear business models in 2006, then began to sprout anew in 2007 thanks to early enterprise adopters and venture capital infusions in open-source PBX and VoIP companies.

It was at that point, Bridger said, that enterprise customers began to experience fear, uncertainty and doubt around open-source PBXes and Asterisk -- discouraging for some observers, maybe, but actually a good sign, she explained.

"The instant you get FUD, that means you're alive. You exist. Someone has recognized you," Bridger said. "The economic downturn has turned into an accelerator for open-source solutions. You can't do without telephony in your system, and yet, if you want to make any changes, that comes with a price tag. The open-source PBX has reached a maturity level -- a flexibility -- where you can get a system based on open source and provide all of the telephony interfaces you need."

Bridger cited further Eastern Management Group research suggesting that 50 percent of the enterprises that end up choosing open-source PBX solutions consider between two and three (2.24 on average) proprietary systems first.

The open-source PBX and VoIP communities have never had a foot in the door like that before, she emphasized. Many enterprises are also more attuned to key benefits, like the ability of open-source platforms to support hybrid systems -- that is, a combination of VoIP and, say, time-division multiplexing (TDM) -- and thus make upgrades easier.

"[Customers] know they can demand systems that are lower-cost based on open source," Bridger said. "They are aware that there is an alternative and that the gap between the channels and the standards is shrinking. The whole infrastructure, ecosystems and interoperability standards -- they go hand-in-hand with open-source IP PBX."

Some observers said it was only recently that Asterisk and open-source networking began to pop up in unexpected places.

Chad Barth, vice president of business development for SmarTech, described how the Republican National Committee (RNC) used an Asterisk back-end call management system to streamline call centers in five states during the 2008 presidential campaign.

Collaborating with Brookline, Mass.-based IP specialist GrandStream Networks, SmarTech used an Asterisk platform that incorporated a Foundry ServerIron load balancer, Dell rackmount servers, Juniper ISG firewalls and VPN concentrators, and used T1, cable or DSL modems, Juniper firewalls, Linksys routers and GrandStream GXP 2020 handsets.

What was once a cumbersome hardware operation consisting of call sheets, bubble sheet scanning and a garden of analog telephone lines, Barth explained, was boiled down to single handsets running on Asterisk back-end call management.

"Basically it was a call center in the cloud, being VPNed back to our data center in Tennessee, and that was the hub for all these phones," Barth said. "You could also do realtime monitoring and examine which states were performing and which weren't."

The RNC, Barth suggested, ended up with 6,000 phones deployed in 229 locations, but through more efficient data capture and call traffic management, realized thousands of dollars in operational savings.

He said it was a testament to Asterisk's flexibility and would work just as well in fund-raising offices or other massive call center operations that rely on temporary, but high-volume, setups.

With elections, Barth said, "operations tend to be transient, so they'll find an overpriced local solution for their office phones. In this case, we couldn't find something that did everything we wanted, so we went out and built it on Asterisk."

Solution providers skilled in Asterisk have greater and more flexible opportunities than ever. The shift, many say, is in a change in end-user perceptions and the rise of key Asterisk vendors.

Next: Digium Takes The Wheel

Digium certainly isn't the only game in town when it comes to open-source PBX and VoIP. Neither is Asterisk itself, for that matter. Emerging vendors such as Fonality market their own IP PBX architecture and are looking to nibble at Asterisk's relative heavyweight status.

But as the dominant channel presence among open-source IP vendors, Digium has taken the lead. Digium's channel reach goes back to 2007, when it unveiled its first formal reseller partner program behind Asterisk VoIP products and later that year acquired SMB-focused Switchvox.

After that came faster channel growth. In October 2009, Digium signed its 500th reseller, and then a month later, unveiled a new Affiliate level to its Authorized Reseller Partner Program to attract entry-level Digium resellers without a minimum annual revenue commitment.

Those moves had Digium partners telling at the end of 2009 that the company finally had earned its channel stripes.

All the while, Digium has continued to add to its channel team and made moves to pump up the visibility of both Digium and Asterisk, including last week's announcement of Asterisk Exchange, a Digium-owned marketplace that isn't an e-tail shop but a catalog of Asterisk-related products for which users can list commercially available Asterisk products for a fee paid to Digium, or list them free of charge if the products themselves are free to download.

Prominent Digium solution providers said during meetings at Digium Asterisk World that Digium's channel strength is no joke. Same goes for Asterisk's potential in both the SMB and enterprise spaces.

"Companies that are moving into new office spaces or that had annual expensive support contracts are able to achieve a big ROI going with a Switchvox type of system," said Rana Dutt, CEO of Softel Solutions, an Aberdeen, N.J.-based solution provider. "Opportunities definitely exist."

Switchvox is based on the freely distributed Asterisk but is positioned as a value-added, preconfigured package for SMBs strapped for both PBX features and cash. Digium's most recent upgrade, 4.5, was released by Digium last week, and 10-user systems start at $3,390.

"In the SMB space, it's not so much open source that's important," Dutt suggested. "Switchvox is a compelling set of features for the price. A lot of people buy Cisco simply for the name, and they're [Cisco] very aggressive. It was only when we came in and offered it at 30 percent of [Cisco's] price and maintenance that we won."

Corey McFadden, managing partner at Infradapt, an Easton, Pa.-based solution provider, said both Digium and the Asterisk community as a whole would benefit from a perfect storm: the emergence and acceptance of open-source PBXes coupled with an economic squeeze that's forced many businesses to consider alternatives.

"Everyone who never got fired for buying Cisco or Avaya -- they can't just rubber-stamp that renewal anymore," McFadden said. "Digium and Asterisk present the most compelling argument, especially with the turnkey, self-managed solution for Switchvox. The early adopters of Asterisk beat a path for everyone else and now you see the channel really starting to embrace it."

Recent industry developments like the bankruptcy of Nortel Networks and the acquisition and channel integration of its enterprise business unit by Avaya, are a golden opportunity to preach Asterisk religion to new converts, McFadden said, calling the Avaya/Nortel turmoil "prime fodder for alternatives."

That might translate to enterprise gains for Digium, too, and Switchvox.

"It's going to push higher into the enterprise," insisted Tim Halleran, president of Secure Datacom, a Sunrise, Fla.-based solution provider. "It's playing well in the 'S' of the SMB market, and some of the 'M.' But we've seen the product improve tenfold since we started selling it, and Digium takes the channel seriously. They take things to heart."

Next: Asterisk's Strategic Vendors

A number of networking and infrastructure vendors have made Asterisk and the Asterisk channel an essential part of their own growth strategies, and have allied themselves with Digium as a result.

Skype, for example, introduced Skype for Asterisk in 2008, and Skype executives say Asterisk availability is going to be crucial as the popular consumer VoIP service elbows its way into the enterprise and architects a channel program.

"The reason why we reached out to Digium and Asterisk is because of the fact that they are doing the disruptive telecommunications technology just like Skype is doing on the Web," said Matthew Jordan, enterprise business development manager at Skype.

Native Skype capabilities in Asterisk have been hungrily embraced by developers, Jordan suggested.

"The developer community and the user community are very much do-it-yourself-type folks," he said. "We're able to offer big value to the business and developers can make Skype very exciting to specific use cases."

It isn't just upstart vendors, either, that are throwing support behind Asterisk. Polycom, for example, is a long-established supporter of Asterisk and Digium specifically, and Switchvox 4.5 is fully compatible with all of Polycom's handsets, save for a scant few older models.

Executives told at the conference that Asterisk support would be crucial as Polycom looks to revamp its own channel program and go head to head with the newly combined Cisco-Tandberg and other IP and unified communications rivals.

"Everything we do is based on open standards to align with a community focused on that as well," said Tim Yankey, Polycom's director of product marketing. "We have a vision for unified communications that leverages and easily manages all different modes of communication. I think that's a vision we share with Digium and also with resellers who use both Polycom and Asterisk solutions."

"We have very productive partnerships with a number of platform vendors, some more prepackaged than others," added Polycom co-founder and CTO Jeffrey Rodman. "What's important about this one is that every component is negotiable [to developers]. This whole idea of creating these applications is very powerful to them. There is no UC vendor out there that has the deep understanding necessary to cover everything."