Monday, June 27, 2005

Asterisk the Final Nail in the PBX Coffin?

Tom Keating - VoIP Blog

Brian McConnel has written an excellent article on Asterisk titled "The PBX Is Dead; Long Live VoIP". Brian and I go way back to the days when I wrote for CTI Magazine and Brian worked for Pacific Telephony Design/PhoneZone. If memory serve me, Brian was one of the biggest proponents and one of the authors of SCTP (Simple Computer Telephony Protocol). Nothing ever came of SCTP that I'm aware of, but Brian is one smart guy with lots of telecom experience I even have some of Brian's email newsletters from when he worked at Pacific Telephony Design/PhoneZone in 1997. (Yes I'm an email hoard!) Ah yes, the days of proprietaty, expensive, hard to develop CTI systems. Weren't those days fun? I still miss TSAPI and TAPI, don't you?

By pure chance I came across Brian's article today whre he both praises and critques the Asterisk open-source PBX. It was a fascinating read with some interesting insights about how he feels the "open" Asterisk platform is going to finally help to put the final nail in the proverbially coffin of "closed system" PBXs. But all is not roses when it comes to Asterisk as Brian claims that for him, Asterisk isn't quite ready for a production environment due to reliability concerns. His concerns primarily have to do with relying on the CPU for media processing. The example he gave was that the PC's CPU can have a processing spike due to say a cron job, which would affect the VoIP quality. I'm sure some Asterisk advocated would be to differ on whether Asterisk is ready for a production environment, so feel free to post a comment here.

Also, the article is too damn good not to put a teaser here. So read the teaser and then go check out the article:

The private branch exchange (PBX) has been the reference standard for business telephone systems for decades, but of late, its age has been showing. While the computer industry has changed vastly, telephone systems until relatively recently have changed only superficially. They are expensive, proprietary, and often so arcane that only factory-authorized dealers have the remotest clue how to manage them. This, coupled with the emergence of open source Voice over IP (VoIP) technology, leaves PBX on the verge of obsolescence. In this article I'll look at Asterisk, a Linux-based open source softswitch, and why it heralds the end of PBX.

In the mid-1990s, vendors began to introduce PC-based telephone systems, mostly based on Windows NT, although one vendor, NexPath, made a Unix-based small-business phone system. These systems were a great improvement over completely closed systems, offering more features for a more reasonable price, but fundamentally they were based on the same circuit-switched architecture as their predecessors. These vendors, AltiGen and Artisoft--two leaders in this space--have since reengineered their systems around VoIP, but they still depend heavily on proprietary switching hardware to handle basic telephony functions.

Enter Asterisk. It threatens to turn the business telephone system industry on its head, and in my mind, that is a very good thing. For years, I've been listening to clients complain about how overpriced telephone equipment is compared with other networking hardware, how difficult their systems are to manage, and how once they select a vendor they are locked in for life. Some systems are more open than others, but for the most part telephone equipment vendors really don't want customers to have the freedom to mix and match equipment from different vendors.


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