By: David Mandelstam
Open-source telephony is a system supporting all types of telephony applications such as PBXes, call centers, interactive voice response systems, chat lines and many other types of voice technologies. They are all based on universally available, free and open-source telephony software such as the Asterisk project. OST runs on standard PC servers rather than proprietary boxes. The only nonstandard components are telephony boards that are used to connect to the standard PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network).
OST has matured from a hobbyist’s toy to a stable, full-featured enterprise-level tool over the past few years. The improvements have been driven by customer experience and demands, and the availability of high-reliability telephony hardware that is compatible with the entire range of motherboards.
There is a significant cost advantage to using OST on generic hardware as opposed to proprietary systems. You get the advantage of a low-cost central PBX (roughly a 70 percent cost saving), plus the ability to shop in the open market for nonproprietary phones, which saves even more. Surprisingly, for most users, ongoing support costs for the system are also lower, due to the fact that OST is supported by people with very generic skills.
The biggest payoff in OST versus proprietary hardware is not the cost savings but the power and feature sets that only the OST offerings present. Because the voice and call control streams are manipulated by ordinary PC software that can be easily modified, extraordinary power is readily available to perform unified messaging. For example, Caller ID incoming calls can be extracted and fed to online databases in real time to harvest information that can be automatically fed to a CRM (customer relationship management) system. So, for instance, before a real estate agent answers an incoming call, her CRM database can already be populated with the customer information including the caller’s name and address, credit rating and other demographic information.
OST can also give you almost unlimited control of your telephony and unified communications universe and save a lot of money to boot. But, as always, there are pitfalls of which to be aware.
Five Things to Know
Five Things to Know Before Considering OST for Your Company:
You need to understand the nature of open source. Open-source projects are never complete when compared with projects involving proprietary software. For example, features that are brand-new or little-used have often not been tested that well. Avoid bleeding-edge features for your production systems.
The biggest single factor in the success or failure of your OST project is the skill and professionalism of the VAR supplying the system. Budget part of the capital savings on your system purchase to invest in consultation, planning and highly professional execution. Make sure that your VAR has showed you some reference installations. Talk to the owners. Make notes of what features have been implemented and how well they work. And make sure that your VAR will be available for support when you need it. A good VAR or consultant will keep your system built on solid, well-tested foundations.
Don’t skimp on hardware. A 50-user system will have around $10,000 or more invested in phones, and less than $2,000 in the PBX server. It is not wise to use anything but the best hardware available for the PBX host, including the server itself and the telephony card. You can continue to work normally for weeks with a phone out of commission, but telephony card problems are sure to keep you working through the night.
Rely on experts for system integration and support. You might be tempted to integrate your own system without the assistance of a VAR. After all, you have Linux-savvy programmers at your disposal, and you have successfully got a model system running in your lab.
Think very carefully about being your own expert. The system may indeed run trouble-free for long periods, but one day (or more likely, night!) you will be faced with some baffling behavior. The person who set up the system has left or moved on to other duties and cannot remember what he did six months ago. In any case, changes have been made that he knows nothing about. Crucially, he has lost contact with the OST community and does not know where to find the answers, or who to turn to for help. And in the meantime you are without a functioning telephone system.
By contrast, someone in the business who is looking after many systems is always up-to-date, immediately skilled in troubleshooting and has a good network of contacts who can help. Chances are they can fix the system almost immediately because of similarities to other installed systems. It is likely they have seen these issues before.
Plug-in OST packages are available if you cannot find the right expertise locally. You or your staff can install and administer these packages from a Web interface. The best of these are so intuitive and self-documenting that you can get your phone system working the way you like it within an hour or so of opening the box. They come complete with preconfigured VOIP phones that can be slotted right into your existing LAN. Of course, these systems are more expensive than roll-your-own versions, but you have the security of knowing that the system as a whole has been thoroughly tested and that only trouble-free features have been included. These systems also come with technical support to back them up.
David holds a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa, a Master of Science in aerodynamics from the Cranfield Institute of Technology in the United Kingdom and a Bachelor of Commerce from the University of South Africa. He can be reached at [email protected].