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Chris Lyman, CEO, Fonality

Chris LymanThe Asterisk IP-PBX has been turning the stodgy telecom market on its head since its 1.0 release in 2004.

Yet the Asterisk project on its own and its lead corporate sponsor Digium are part of a wider community of Asterisk-based PBX solutions.

One of the most popular Asterisk-based open source PBX solutions is Trixbox, which recently announced version 2.0. Trixbox adds a GUI as well as other ease-of-installation and use features on top of plain vanilla Asterisk.

The lead sponsor of Trixbox is Fonality, which also has a commercial offering called PBXtra, which is also based on Asterisk.

Fonality recently released a new version of PBXtra, which provides additional advanced call management features, such as calling groups and zone paging.

Chris Lyman, CEO of Fonality, has high hopes for his firm and the disruption it can cause in the PBX marketplace. Lyman recently chatted with internetnews.com about challenges and opportunities and his views on open source software.

Q: What do you see as the biggest misconception or myth about what Fonality offers?

Fonality is a true soup-to-nuts PBX product. It's hardened. It's feature rich because of our application layer. We've got more lines of code in it than Digium has written in seven years. We have 24-hour customer service and we send this thing out to you as a phone system.

That's the misconception in the Asterisk space. Digium says they're the open source PBX. Sure. It's like Apache saying they're the open source Web server. Ever try to run your own Web server? No. You need a hosting company.

The only myth that exists in the business space is the F.U.D, Fear Uncertainty and Doubt, from the terrified oligopolist dinosaurs who are going to be beaten into submission by the open source revolution that threatens their business that they've been so cozy in for the last 20 years.

Q: Do you need to have a VPN to ensure safe transport for branch office support?

Our solution works with or without a VPN. In the smaller side of the market, VPNs are expensive and cumbersome. When Avaya rolls out to 500 banks, yeah they're going to need a VPN. But most small businesses don't.

SRTP might be the fix.

RTP is the media path for SIP, and SRTP is the secure media path and it's starting to mature. So when we roll out SRTP you don't really need a VPN at all.

We're not anti-VPN. It's just that most of our customers can't afford them.

Q: Is basing your product and your business on open source working out as planned?

I've made an interesting discovery about open source. It's less about lower cost of development and more about lower cost of customer acquisition. It tends to virally self-brand. So people hear about it because everyone is using it for free.

At the end of the day the contributors to the Asterisk project have day jobs, so they're doing the work at night from their homes. I've got several rooms full of engineers writing serious telephony applications all day. There is no competition.

What there is, is a lot of good will and momentum in the open source space that you end up capitalizing upon, which translates into lower customer acquisition costs.

Q: Do you have any plans to directly support Trixbox in a commercial fashion?

We've been engaging with the community about their interest in paid support. So I will say that I'm looking closely at that right now.

Right now with Trixbox we're trying to foster as much innovation and integration as we can and not directly monetize that. We're trying to make sure that it's really easy to use and really stable.

Q: Does offering Trixbox for free in any way undercut or cannibalize your existing PBXtra business?

Ninety-nine percent of our customers are not sophisticated enough or at least not interested to roll a Trixbox. Trixbox is a distribution and PBXtra is a product. They are very different.

Trixbox is 10 times easier to use than Asterisk, and PBXtra is a hundred times easier to use than Trixbox.

Q: Where is the growth coming from now and where do you expect it to come from moving forward?

The "S" and the "M" in SMB are two of the most exciting places to be in telephony right now. The consumer market is cleaned up by the cable companies and Skype; the enterprise market is locked up with the Avayas and Ciscos of the world. But nobody is deploying an easy and affordable yet sophisticated telephony solution into the SMB market.

Q: What are the biggest challenges you face as the CEO of Fonality?

One of my biggest challenges is how to fight competition from the rear, the sides and the front all at the same time.

Behind me are the key system players that are difficult to configure but are affordable. In front of me is the legacy PBX giants with good systems that are feature rich but they are heinously too expensive.

I've got all these open source players, either people who think that Digium is a PBX company or people who are trying to monetize Asterisk or people spreading FUD about open source.

This is one of those businesses where you have to scan all the time because there are threats everywhere. It's a huge huge fat market ripe for the picking.