What's So Great About Asterisk?

Updated: February 15, 2007

So, do you go with a proprietary or open source PBX? It's a question being asked all the time as companies that need to replace aging phone systems weigh the alternatives in their move to IP telephony and VoIP.

There's a lot at stake. Market analyst Dell'Oro Group recently projected total PBX revenues at over $7.5 billion in 2011, with IP PBXs making by far the biggest gains. Traditional TDM PBXs will have less than 5 percent of the market by then, a catastrophic drop from the 85 percent share they held in 2002.

In many ways the decision-making follows what's now a well-worn path. On the one hand, do you choose the large, stable supplier whose proprietary PBX has as many features as you could ever use and that you know will be well-supported? Or do you take a flier on the far-less expensive open source system that may not yet have as full a set of features and where the future support is much less certain?

Perception vs. Reality

No one is pretending that companies such as Avaya and Cisco feel threatened yet by the likes of Digium and Fonality , which sell Asterisk PBXes, or by SIPfoundry-based Pingtel .

Digium, the leading Asterix-based open source PBX provider, is still viewed as a "nit" in the overall scheme of the telephony and unified communications market, according to E. Brent Kelly, a senior analyst with Wainhouse Research. Though he also believes it could ultimately prove an able competitor.

For many potential users, the final decision may be one of perception. As it still is with more established open-source solutions such as Linux there's a cultural bias against open-source on the part of IT buyers at many companies.

Bill Miller, vice president of product management and marketing at Digium, admits that's a barrier for him. A lack of support for his company's products is not a problem in reality, for example, but he still has to struggle with the perception that it is.

"We are in the transitional period for businesses and enterprises to change their mindsets as they experience the differences [with open source PBXes]," he said.

Open Source = Support

To that extent it's incumbent on the open source vendors to provide solutions that will put the buyer's mind at ease.

The downloaded Asterisk software is community-supported through email and online forums and this works for many folks, Miller said. But for mission-critical businesses, he recommends using Digium's Asterisk Business Edition for a "fully regression tested" version of Asterisk that comes with 24/7 tech support and complete maintenance and support programs.

Large enterprises will also have to be convinced that open source PBXes, which so far have mostly been used in small and midsize businesses, will scale to the thousands of users they need the products for.

However, if credibility is a guide to the future for the open source PBXes, then the past year was a good one for the movement.

Pingtel scored a major coup in October, for example, when it announced a deal with Amazon for that company to replace a legacy PBX with Pingtel's SIPxchange Enterprise Communications Solution. Given that telephony is such a critical element of Amazon's business, that was seen as a major endorsement of Pingtel's product and open source in general.

Likewise, Digium also in October struck a multi-year deal with conferencing giant Polycom Inc. for that company to integrate Asterisk telephony features into its SIP-based desktop and phone products for sale to small and midsize businesses.


Open Source PBXes

Proprietary PBXes

Pros: Cheap, highly customizable, flexible

Pros: Feature rich, highly scalable, strong support

Cons: Sometimes questionable support, generally needs more in-house management resources

Cons: Expensive (can be tens of thousands of dollars for larger configurations), little customization capabilities



Smarter Packages

Going forward, Miller said there will be continuing enhancements to Asterisk to make it fit better with mainstream needs, such as solutions packaging that includes software and hardware appliances and integrated applications.

Does that mean open source PBXes will soon brush the proprietary versions aside? Unlikely, though as users get more comfortable with other open source solutions such as Apache, Linux and MySQL, which are in the mainstream now, they'll also get more comfortable with Asterix and other open source PBX solutions.

And it's not as if open source PBXes are lacking endorsements. Even while Wainhouse analysts see Digium as a pinprick in the overall market, for example, on a personal level they are impressed with Asterisk. One now uses it as the main communications PBX for both himself and a small call center.

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