July 16, 2007

Asterisk opens one company's eyes to open source

Author: Tina Gasperson

American Fiber Systems (AFS), with headquarters in Rochester, NY, provides fiber optic network services directly to enterprises and to carrier resellers. Bill Ciminelli, vice president of network development and services for AFS, noticed that internal communications were becoming increasingly difficult because the number of mobile company workers like field technicians and salespeople was growing so fast. With an old-fashioned voice messaging system separate from email and other collaboration tools, AFS workers had to manage communications from cell phones, laptops, office workstations, and company phones. Ciminelli began looking for a solution that would move AFS into the 21st century. To his surprise, he found it in Asterisk, an open source product.

One of the most important factors that led Ciminelli to choose Asterisk was its price. "When we were working on trying to put together a plan to upgrade our internal phone system, one of the things that struck me was that in a company our size, we have to be very tight about how much money we spend," he says. "We went to the traditional vendors like Cisco, Avaya, and Nortel, and the costs were just out of line with what we felt we could commit to." Not only that, but the prepackaged systems that the big commercial companies offered weren't customizable. Ciminelli wanted the flexibility to be able to customize prompts, greetings, and options on the fly, as well as perform system configuration changes without having to wait for a technician to show up. To make things more challenging, Ciminelli needed to be able to integrate the phone system with the company's existing Microsoft Exchange environment.

Ciminelli was beginning to see some interesting movement in the open source world, so he decided to call in Adomo, a Cupertino, Calif., telecom solutions contractor, to show him what they could do with an Asterisk-based solution. "They came back with a bundled solution that would integrate with Exchange," he says. Adomo's Asterisk solution had many optional features and was easily customizable because of its open source nature. Not only that, but it was about $140K cheaper than the alternatives. "I had my eyes opened about the economics and then was able to gain confidence in the product," Ciminelli says.

Coming from a proprietary software background, Ciminelli says he had never trusted open source software. "In my history of being involved with software development, I found [open source] to be a difficult process to put out quality products. And I had a high threshold of expectation to deliver a quality system. I was reluctant to trust my company's telephone infrastructure to that. But as I looked at the improvements in Asterisk and saw the performance ... it's basically been a matter of setting aside my preconceived notions and looking at the advantages."

AFS runs the Asterisk phone system on two Linux servers -- one in Rochester and another in Atlanta -- using the Inter-Asterisk Exchange (IAX2) protocol to connect the two via a VPN. If the VPN goes down, the system is designed to immediately begin using the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN). The failover system that the commercial vendors offered was less elegant and cost much more, Ciminelli says.

Ciminelli says his experience with open source has gone so well that he is now looking for other opportunities to use it. He recommends that other IT directors look at open source with an "open mind. Take a smaller project and build some confidence in the approach. Use that as a way to maximize the economics for your company. I was able to implement a system across my entire company for about 10% over what I had budgeted to do just one office. Now we have a single way of communicating across the entire company. We all speak the same language."

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