Put Asterisk In A Starring Role

Updated: March 27, 2007

While the free, open-source version of Asterisk is still gaining plenty of notice - downloads are running at over 1,000 a day at the asterisk.org site - not everyone wants to roll their own IP PBX , and it's those users that Asterisk vendors hope to attract with all-in-one premium packages.

Chris Lyman, the chief executive at Fonality Inc., one of the leaders of the premium Asterisk market, sees a pretty clear goal for his company. The Linux-savvy crowd who are comfortable with downloading Asterisk and building their own systems from scratch are not his audience, but then he thinks only one in 10,000 potential Asterisk users are at that level.

"Most people download Asterisk, buy a bunch of phones and then run into a brick wall," he said. "Those ‘Asterisk rescues' are a lot of our business right now."

Going forward, he expects the large majority of customers for Fonality's PBXtra premium package will probably never have heard of Asterisk, but will be drawn more by the product's feature set and low price compared to competing proprietary products.

"We see our biggest competitors as companies such as Cisco and Avaya ," he said.

Digium , Inc., the principal developer of Asterisk and Fonality's current main competitor in the premium Asterisk market, sees the same potential for its Asterisk Business Edition. It has even loftier goals than Fonality, whose target customers Lyman says are companies with 500 seats or less.

"The larger the enterprise or partner then the more we think they'll be interested in Asterisk Business Edition," said Bill Miller, Digium's vice president of product management and marketing.

Both companies come at the premium market from different angles.

Digium's product is based directly on the open Asterisk version, and so depends on the broad community of Asterisk developers for additions and improvements to the Asterisk code and basic feature set.

To that, Digium adds its own regression testing to iron out any bugs in the code, provides full warranties and legal indemnifications for use of the software, 24 x7 support, and certified compatibility with a list of servers, phones, partner products and Linux distributions.

If necessary, Digium can provide a completely pre-configured hardware and software package.

Digium also offers an extended version of the Business Edition product which includes a commercial licensed version of Asterisk.

Under the GNU GPL license that other Asterisk distributions are covered by, users who make any changes to the Asterisk code have to freely pass on those changes to the Asterisk developer community. The commercial license is aimed at those companies who, for competitive reasons, don't want to publish those changes.

Miller said the company has just recently seen a lot of interest in that commercially licensed product.

While the guts of Fonality's PBXtra is also dependent on the basic Asterisk features, the company decided almost from the beginning that needed to add its own functionality and to eliminate upfront many of the problems users of the free Asterisk have in using the software.

Fonality has had some 25 engineers working on these issues for the last three years, Lyman said, and now there are more lines of Fonality code in PBXtra than there are of the original Asterisk code.

That Fonality code fixes various things in the Asterisk software which Lyman said are barriers to its use in certain situations.

Such as a module called chan_agent, which handles most of the processing for such things as call centers. Lyman said this module "is rotten to its core," is unscaleable and causes lots of problems. So Fonlaity "ripped it out, got rid of it and rewrote it to make it superscaleable," he said.

Another module called MeetMe handles conferencing, and this is also unscaleable and can cause CPU cycling if there are any more than five users in a conference, Lyman said. So Fonality wrote its own MeetMe module to replace it.

To these and other changes to the Asterisk code itself, Fonality added its own GUI called Heads Up Display (HUD), a Java-based desktop client which allows a user a one or two-click mouse control of all of the PBXtra call features. It also includes its own secure chat client.

The Asterisk-based market is still small. Fonality, for example, has just 50,000 phone users spread across some 2,000 sites globally, with just under 80 million calls made through its systems.

But its business tripled over the past year. With interest growing that fast, something Digium has also seen, both companies expect more demand in future to skew towards their premium PBX products.

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