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Asterisk – a star of the future?

Open source telephony is go

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Some analysts argue for companies without Linux skills in-house, the costs of buying support on the open market may outweigh the up-front savings on licensing fees – an argument which rages about other open source systems too.

“The difference is you have a lot more capability to shop around," says Spencer. "Anybody can do the service, not just the original vendor. That is what kills a lot of companies that go with the big vendors.”

He has known companies replace a proprietary PBX with Asterisk just to avoid the extra cost, Spencer says.

However, cost isn’t the only reason why a company might wish to switch to Asterisk, he says. It’s an open source system, so anyone has access to the code and can do what they want with it.

“If you bought a PBX from a major vendor, and you wanted the features to behave differently, you don’t have the ability to make that change,” says Spencer.

“The vendor is the only company that can change that. With Asterisk the customer is in control. That is a very compelling argument.”

As voice over IP takes off, companies will increasingly look to use the PBX as more than just a thing to link their telephones to the public call network. It becomes a platform for building voice telephony into other applications, from email to customer relationship management software.

The more open the platform is, the more ISVs and companies themselves can develop on top of it.

Some of the big PBX vendors have realised which way the wind is blowing. Avaya, for example, is moving towards a more open platform in the next few years.

Community platform

It’s still early days for Asterisk. It has won some impressive supporters, including Wall Street Electronica, a US brokerage firm, and the local government of the city of Pforzheim, Germany.

Of course, Asterisk is not just a platform for business. It could be a useful platform for a community ISP to add telephone access to its service portfolio. South Witham Broadband in Lincolnshire is doing exactly this.

Jon 'Maddog' Hall, president of Linux International, has predicted that open source telephony will be bigger than Linux.

Other watchers are more measured, but still on the lookout for big things.

“We are watching it, but I am a little bit sceptical,” says Steve Blood, research vice president at Gartner. “However, if it really is feasible to do VoIP for $10 (£5) a user, which is a twentieth of licensing revenues from a conventional PBX vendor, then it could massively disrupt this market.”

Spencer calls his company “the smallest company in telecoms that matters.” It certainly does matter – but Asterisk may not remain small for long. ®

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