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Open source telephony is go

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asterisk logo Larry Ellison has his super yacht, Bill Gates has his humanitarian fund. For Mark Spencer, the symbol of his success is a hot tub.

It may not be the most expensive trophy, but Spencer’s achievement may well prove to be just as revolutionary - turning the world of enterprise telephony on its head.

The tub, now installed at his Huntsville, Alabama home, was bought for him as a token of gratitude by 150 software developers who work on the platform he initiated - Asterisk, the Linux-based IP private branch exchange (PBX) software.

Spencer started work on Asterisk when he was running a Linux support company. “I was still a college student,” he says. “I wanted a phone system and I wasn’t going to buy one for several thousand dollars.”

In 2001, he decided that the open source PBX business would be a better bet than the support game, and decided to refocus the business around it.

His company is now called Digium. It provides Asterisk-based PBXes and telephone hardware, and sponsors the Asterisk open source project. He is competing in a world of office telephone hardware dominated by the big telephone equipment players, such as Nortel, Alcatel and Siemens.

Reliability is key

Running free software on a generic server is obviously much cheaper than buying dedicated PBXs, which typically sell at high margins.

However, in the telephone business, reliability is key. The traditional PBX companies have decades of experience of making telephone systems, and many companies are prepared to pay a premium for the reassurance that their systems won’t fail.

However, the shift towards voice over IP is altering the traditional balance of power in the PBX market. IP PBXs are increasingly becoming the default standard.

This has allowed new players into the market, notably Cisco. And it may open the door for the open source movement.

There are various contenders in the marketplace, such as Pingtel, but Asterisk has established itself as the number one contender. It has taken off quickest amongst companies which are already comfortable with Linux.

“The direct customers tend to be people that are fully Linux savvy,” Spencer says. “If someone knows how to configure an apache web server that is the level of sophistication they need to be able to configure Asterisk.”

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