Asterisk: More Than ‘Just’ a PBX Powerhouse?

TORONTO — Open source advocates have long pointed to Asterisk’s ascendancy as one of the movement’s great success stories. But for the founder of the open source PBX solution, Asterisk’s success is just the beginning.

In fact, even with growing demand and more than a million downloads under its belt, the full-featured, open source IP-PBX for VoIP is old news, according to Mark Spencer, the software’s original author, during his keynote here at the IT 360 conference today.

Instead, what’s exciting is the road ahead, said Spencer, who now serves as CTO of Digium, the chief corporate player behind Asterix.

While open source has made tremendous inroads over the last few years in telecom, thanks in part to Spencer and Asterisk, it still has a ways to go before mounting a real challenge to the business’s proprietary stalwarts, like Avaya and Cisco.

But Spencer said open source’s further success in telecommunications faces some lingering misconceptions. He said many view Asterisk as a PBX and an application — defined early on based on its core, traditional PBX features like call forwarding, voicemail and conferencing.

But Asterisk is actually a telephony engineering platform, he said. After all, it’s laid the groundwork for developers to create a slew of intriguing telephony apps, he added.

One such creation is SwitchVox, an Asterisk-based PBX geared toward small and midsized businesses.

SwitchVox, which Digium acquired last year, offers a user interface based on the familiar PBX design, making it easier for people to adopt, Spencer said.

Spencer said Asterix has been tapped for applications as diverse as a multimedia Times Square billboard, which uses the technology to pipe out streaming audio.

He also described Unwired Buyer, a phone-based interface to access eBay auctions as an Asterisk application with real business applicability.

But Asterix’s development community certainly isn’t without its whimsical side. For instance, Spencer mentioned the “Popularity Dialer” app, which places prescheduled calls to users — giving them a convenient excuse to, say, escape a bad date. (“Oh, sorry — that was the boss. I’m needed back at the office immediately.”)

Then, there are features like so-called “queue games”, designed to enhance the on-hold experience. Instead of simply having to suffer through hold music, users can play a pushbutton game that will either keep them entertained or even advance them in the queue.

“There are all kinds of clever applications that people have come up with to solve various needs they might have,” Spencer told the capacity crowd. “Most don’t have a revenue model.”

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Spencer also plugged “Live on the Net,” an Asterisk-based service that enables users to listen to sports games over the phone, while also talking about them with other participants. The idea, he said, is to create a living-room experience, where a bunch of friends all watch, enjoy and talk about a game together.

“All of these are examples of cool apps and applying Asterisk as an engineering medium to solve business processes for a wide variety of horizontal and vertical markets,” Spencer said.

Given the platform’s flexibility, it’s not surprising that Digium — which offers commercial support and hardware — also expects telecom carriers to become interested in Asterisk.

During a robust Q&A session that followed Spencer’s presentation he was asked by a member of the audience if Digium would be targeting Telecom Carriers for Asterisk deployment.

“Even from its earliest days, [Asterisk] had applications in the telecom space,” Spencer said, in response to an audience question after his keynote. He added that Digium is focused on the SMB PBX market, but has “an eye toward carrier operations, especially carriers where there is PBX functionally at the edge.”

However, one challenge Digium faces is the simple fact that it’s comprised of only 130 people, he said.

“It’s hard for us to be able to convince an enterprise or carrier with thousands of sites that we’ll be able to support the product,” Spencer said.

But, “there are carriers that have the technical expertise in-house and we can work with those guys to come up with solutions,” he added.

Spencer also said he believes Digium ultimately will be able to fully support carriers on its own.

In the meantime, however, Digium and the rest of the Asterisk community are concentrating on beefing up the offering.

Asterisk version 1.6 — its next large milestone release — will feature an event system that will allow the software to scale across multiple servers, according to Kevin Fleming, the project’s maintainer, who Spencer called on to describe details of its development.

Fleming said one potential use would be to have multiple Asterisk servers to handle voicemail distribution.

“Everything doesn’t have to be on one server,” he said.

Despite the ongoing work, Fleming agreed with Spencer, saying that Asterisk had become a fully functional PBX four years ago — and everything being added now is just icing on the cake.

“The exciting stuff is really all about how people are applying Asterisk, rather than just the traditional stuff,” Spencer added.

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