Is Asterisk Channel Finally Ready For Its Close-Up?

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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.

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

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