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Digium Strengthens VoIP's Ties to Collaboration

Open source VoIP vendor Digium is busy working both ends of its business. It's continuing to lead the open source Asterisk VoIP effort into new territory through integration with calendaring and instant messaging. But at the same time, the company is also rolling out its commercial Switchvox 4.0 VoIP IP PBX , with new unified communications features for customers.

While Digium plays in both open and closed source, the company's enhancements to Asterix and Switchvox share a common purpose: more closely tying in other services and software commonly in use in the enterprise.

The new platforms come as the latest effort by Digium to capitalize on enterprises' increasing interest in unified communications (UC), which offers to move features like voice telephony, video, messaging and collaboration services onto a single IP-based platform -- which ostensibly helps companies cut costs in the process. A recent studysponsored by Siemens, a UC vendor, reported that 53 percent of large U.S. companies are discussing, pursuing or implementing such installations.

UC has attracted all of the major players in enterprise messaging and VoIP. As for Digium, UC and integration with other enterprise software is becoming a key feature of both Switchvox and Asterisk, for which the company serves as lead commercial sponsor.

Asterisk, an open source VoIP PBX, has been making waves in the market since its 1.0 release in 2004. While the coming weeks are expected to see some incremental new features and bug fixes with the launch of its 1.6.1 version, it's the upcoming 1.8 version that will deliver several really slick features, Asterisk community manager John Todd told InternetNews.com.

One of them is the ability for Asterisk to merge the worlds of instant messaging and VoIP by using XMPP, also known as the Jabber protocol , as a mechanism for PBX notification and control.

"Every time I get a call in on my system, Asterisk can send an XMPP message showing caller information and location," Todd explained. "So the instant messaging system serves as alert system for my PBX."

XMPP could potentially used to control the phone system, as well. For example, a user could simply send an XMPP message to tell their voicemail to delete or forward a message.

Asterisk developers are also working on a new form of deep calendar integration. Todd explained that a new Calendaring API will enable Asterisk to read and write event information from common calendar formats, including Microsoft Outlook, CalDEV and iCal.

"You would be able to have Asterisk do dips into you calendar to see if you're busy and be able to interpret that and execute logic, so your calls could be routed differently depending on what your calendar says," Todd said.

Todd added that Asterisk will also have the ability to write into calendars for call history information. With that capability a user could go back into their own calendar and look at all their call history and information for a given day.

In addition to the mainline Asterisk releases, work also continues to push forward on the AsteriskNow product as well. While Asterisk is a standalone open source PBX application, AsteriskNOW is a full software appliance, including a Linux operating system and a graphical user interface (GUI) to control and manage the PBX.

Version 1.5 of AsteriskNOW is currently in beta, and Todd said a final release is expected in the coming weeks. When it debuts, it'll inaugurate a number of changes: The 1.5 release includes a new GUI and is based on the CentOS Red Hat Linux clone, while the 1.0 release had been based on rPath Linux.

Todd added that developers are also working on AsteriskNOW 2.0, which will further extend the features with integrated Skype capabilities. The enhancement would let AsteriskNOW use Skype, the eBay-owned VoIP platform, in the same way it uses a normal phone line as part of its PBX.

Closed source gets some attention

On the commercial front, Digium is expanding its closed source Switchvox PBX as well. Digium acquired Switchvox in 2007 and rolled out its last major update in June 2008. Switchvox is not itself open source, even though it uses Asterisk as its base.

The Switchvox SMB 4.0 release adds new fax, chat and video calling features as well as an improved Switchboard control center. The Switchboard is the key management interface in Switchvox and is a visual browser-based interactive application that put information at users' fingertips. Tristan Degenhardt, Switchvox product line director told InternetNews.com that even though Switchvox itself isn't open source, since becoming part of Digium there is a lot of code exchange with the mainline Asterisk project.

"There are still differences between us and open source Asterisk, but we have seen patches that we've done go back into the code," Degenhardt said. "There is a lot of exchange of code that would not have happened before, but now that we're all Digium, it tends to work out well."

Degenhardt added that Switchvox is not open sourcing all of its own code, but rather is instead making contributions to Asterisk.

"The code we put into Asterisk is a lot of the stuff that makes Switchvox 'Switchvox,'" Degenhardt said. "That is happening in a way that instead of opening Swtichvox, which is a tangle to be fair, and not useful to everybody. We're instead boiling it to its essence and getting it to Asterisk in a generic way that everyone can use."