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Digium preps Asterisk Linux distribution

Load on a PC and start talking

Asterisk, the popular open source PABX, is about to get even easier to install and configure with the imminent release of the AsteriskNow Linux distribution by Digium, the company that started it all.

In Sydney to promote Digium's software and products, founder and CTO Mark Spencer said the company's mission is to get Asterisk out to "the rest of the world" which may not have the technical skills to support it in-house.

One way of doing this is with the AsteriskNow Linux distribution, which is engineered to be an all-in-one package that removes the manual complexity of Asterisk with a user-friendly GUI.

Spencer said AsteriskNow is in beta 5 release now and is in the final stages of testing.

"We developed our own GUI [which is] similar to Trixbox [distribution], but the purpose of AsteriskNow is to provide a distribution built around Asterisk technology so people can use it without the GUI," he said. "The GUI is the same as the Asterisk Appliance that looks like a Linksys router that runs Asterisk and has analogue ports."

Spencer spoke about the early days of Asterisk, which started as a pet project to create a phone system during his days as an engineering student.

"I'd like to say Asterisk was a grand vision to change the telecom industry but the reality is that I needed a phone system for my Linux tech support business and I couldn't afford one, so I just made one," he said. "There were aspects of the telecom industry that made Asterisk well received. Everyone needs a phone system [and] Asterisk is very accessible, and as a technology did not come into existence with an agenda. It came in to be a universal communications platform."

Spencer believes VoIP is now beyond being a "technological mystery" and said as of last year there are more VoIP systems being deployed than traditional TDM, "so it's beginning to mature as a business".

"Open source is about having software that is free to use for any purpose, so instead of being a static thing, like a coffee pot, open source is a live changing entity that improves through the contributions of many people."

For businesses, Spencer said open source enables people to derive more value from the IP of the solution and the control of a system moves from the vendor to the customer.

"It gives you an unmatched level of flexibility from a business perspective," he said. "We also develop additional applications. On the plane over here I developed a solution to Sudoku so you could have Asterisk read the solution out to you but I haven't committed it yet."

"Open source is a mode of technology development and marketing model. BT, for example, uses Asterisk. There is no way I could call BT and say 'here is a phone system', but because it was open source BT engineering could solve an existing problem and then come to us. That said, not every customer is going to get it running themselves [so] there lies a role for the channel."

Asterisk itself supports a number of IP and traditional telephony protocols and allows "seamless" migrations from TDM key systems without having to do a complete PABX replacement.

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Today, Asterisk deployments range from bicycle-powered embedded systems for wireless phone calls in Africa to enterprise call centre and VoIP service providers.

Locally, Asterisk users include prepaid calling provider AlphaNET, the US American Express help desk (served out of Brisbane), retailer Adairs, the University of Queensland, marketing company Clear Blue Day, and "a large Australian airline" that uses Asterisk for IVR to allow people to check the status of flights.

"The commercial impact is easy to show with high ROI, convergence of infrastructure, and an open door for unlimited innovation," Spencer said. "A lot of these things at the edge seem silly today, like paying for parking with your phone, but the future of VoIP will depend on features, not just voicemail and conferencing."

When asked how many people from outside Digium are contributing to the open source Asterisk, Spencer said the scale ranges from active participants to direct competitors that don't give anything back.

"Some resellers have staff who are active in contributing to Asterisk [and] in the middle you have a set of people who are contributing because of their own need, not because they are excited about telephones," he said. "There are a number of vendors that take Asterisk and produce products around it and contribute in a variety of ways, not just source code. A lot of people just take it as well and don't give anything back but also compete with us."

Spencer said open source projects need to convince customers to "work with you" and since there is a range of contribution levels from different people "you just have to accept it for what it is".

"Others like MySQL and Sugar[CRM] rarely receive substantive outside feature contributions [and] they use open source as a marketing tool," he said, adding Digium is working on a program to sponsor more core Asterisk developers."

CEO of local telecommunications analyst firm Market Clarity Shara Evans said Asterisk has proven to be popular with local ITSPs, with some 40 already using it to carry customer calls.

The AsteriskNow project is online at http://www.asterisknow.org/.