August 27, 2003

Bayonne bridges open source, telecom

- by Anne Donker -
The telecom market is traditionally so steeped in proprietary systems
that it makes Microsoft seem like a fraternity for free
software fanatics. David Sugar is on a quest to disrupt that
status quo. Sugar is development leader for GNU Bayonne, a
telecommunications server project licensed under the GPL. To
support the project, Sugar founded Open Source Telecom Corp. (OST), a profitable business selling products and services based on GNU Bayonne.
GNU Bayonne is a customizable telecommunications application server that can
be used for a variety of telecom applications such as interactive voice
response systems and telephone system administration tools. It facilitates the creation of telecom applications
that can be directly integrated with traditional scripting languages
and tools commonly found on free software platforms such as
Linux. It also offers a wide degree of telephony hardware support
and a modular architecture through plug-ins.

Using commodity PC platforms running Linux and multi-line telephony
hardware available from numerous vendors, GNU Bayonne creates and
deploys commercial voice applications that work with the public phone
network. GNU Bayonne, says Sugar, gives corporations telephony
services based on free operating systems.

Requiring skills common to any system or Web administrator, and using
existing and familiar tools including Perl, gateway execution, and
Bayonne server scripting, a GNU Bayonne server (along with a supported
analog or digital telephony card) can be used to produce commercial
application services. This ease of development and easy
integration with existing Free Software components opens, says Sugar,
telecom development to a wide audience of users and developers without
requiring special skills or proprietary APIs. Successes so far
include common business telephone features such as intercom dialing,
call transfer, hold recall, parking, call forwarding, speed dialing,
scheduling, and call coverage.

"Our initial goal for GNU Bayonne was to make telephony services as
easy to program and deploy as a Web server is today," Sugar says. "We
chose to make this server easily programmable through server scripting.
We also wanted it to be highly portable, and allow it to integrate with
existing application scripting tools, so that the entire platform can
be used to deliver telephony functionality and integrate with other
resources like databases."

Not even five years old, GNU Bayonne is already widely used in every
part of the world. Users range from commercial carriers in Russia
to state and federal government agencies in the United States.
They include many enterprises that are looking for either specialized
telephony-enabled Web services such as Web integrated voice commerce or
a platform for enterprise applications such as customer relations
management systems.

One of Sugar's favorite Bayonne applications is not commercial at
all. When on a trip last year to promote free software in the
Republic of Macedonia, he was approached by local Linux developers who
were looking for "something socially useful they could do with Bayonne."
Sugar's suggestion they should develop applications for the visually
impaired, resulted in the birth of GNU Alexandria,
a free software project to develop GNU Bayonne as a platform to help
the blind access electronic content on the Web using the public
telephone network.

Making money from Free Software

While Sugar might be driven by lofty ideals, he also provides evidence
that you can achieve a high level of innovation without intellectual property protection while
simultaneously making a decent living.
Not only is he core development leader for GNU Bayonne, he also serves
as chief technology officer for OST, a five-year-old company that
sells telecom hardware, software, and services based on GNU Bayonne and
other open source Software. OST, a privately held company, has more than 300 customers ranging from medical dictation companies to municipalities to corporate giants such as Sun Microsystems.

OST and Bayonne are just Sugar's latest telecom creations. A veteran
of the telephony industry, Sugar has been developing telephony systems
for years. In the '80s, he decided to become involved with
telephony after one day he discovered you couldn't plug a modem into a
phone line. By the mid-'90s he was working for Fujitsu,
setting up large Linux-based PBXes and commercial voice mail for, among
others, the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Sugar wrote one of the first
pieces of Linux software for telephony systems. He says he knew he
wanted the software, a server he intended to integrate with a
Panasonic Digital Business System phone system, to become freely available, so he developed
it under the BSD license.

At this time Sugar met Rich Bodo, now managing director at OST and co-founder of the company, who was working for a proprietary telecom software
developer, Martin Clinton. When one of Clinton's ventures, Ingate,
went out of business, Bodo and Sugar convinced him to GPL its source
code, thereby creating new business opportunities for others.

Sugar said they realized that free software had filled many
voids in the enterprise infrastructure, but it had not addressed the
needs of telecommunications. Telecommunications, they found, is
not only a part of the infrastructure of every business, but also an
often overlooked part of the desktop user's experience.

If corporate telecom systems already existed, they were always proprietary, and
if they weren't, they were either hard to program and generally very
expensive. In the proprietary systems of the telecom world, adding
even the most basic services took forever, even
after Judge Greene's decision to break up Ma Bell's monopoly.
Services like call waiting and call forwarding took years to implement
as carriers held onto proprietary technologies and fought over
standards.

Bodo says he and Sugar agreed that in today's telecom environment
there was no time for such nonsense. Together, they started a project known as
Adjunct Communication Server writing free code for telephony applications. A few years later, in late 1999,
its architecture served as a foundation for Bayonne's development.

"The ACS architecture had limitations," explains Sugar. "It was
based on the idea of building a server directly bound to the telephony
card. This meant separate servers had to be compiled for each card
family, and a lot of code was being duplicated needlessly."

So Sugar changed tracks, and GNU Bayonne (named after a New Jersey
bridge
) was born.

Flexibility, openness are keys to success

Sugar is convinced that a key to Bayonne's success is its
flexibility. When Sun Microsystems needed an in-house enterprise
support call center, it chose OST's Bayonne-derived architecture over
other Linux-based platforms such as Asterisk and the Cisco-sponsored
VOCAL system, as well as proprietary competitors such as Intel's
Dialogic.

Sun wanted a large menuing system that could make extensive use of database access and text to speech. "We needed a very flexible scripting language, and Bayonne offered that," said Alex Goff, Sun's program manager for the project. In addition, Goff said Sun was impressed by other OST/Bayonne components such as its interface, its strong integration with database access, and its text-to-speech engine, and Sun particularly liked Bayonne's scalability and media-independence. Sugar says the other Linux-based systems, Asterisk and VOCAL, had none of these.

OST's project for Sun required Sugar to make several additions to GNU
Bayonne, which all, of course, ended up licensed under the GPL.

Sugar says he turned to the GPL after he discovered years ago that
giving away free software was not without its pitfalls. If users are
granted total freedom, they can sell it as a proprietary package with no
copying allowed, and negate one of the key points of free
software. Of course, Richard Stallman created the GPL to avoid
that situation.

Just as open source has lowered the entry point for
providers of applications for, say, the Internet, Sugar says free
software is poised to do the same for telecommunications.
Sugar is a staunch supporter of the GPL because he believes it ensures that the best version of an application is always the free version. And although it might seem counterintuitive, he says
releasing code makes sense for a business model, too. "I realize it is almost level playing field if your core product
is GPL," Sugar says, "But it is not quite level, because you did the
initial work, you are the maintainers, you are the developers, you are
the experts. And for a consulting model for example, it's a very
simple equation: it's beneficial to both your product and your
customers."

Using Linux for your telephony applications has clear advantages: It
supports customized applications, is extremely crash-resistant, and has
lower hardware requirements than many other operating systems. Still,
despite low entry costs, even Sugar concedes that the total cost of
ownership may vary depending on the application. A business
using Bayonne might still have to purchase expensive hardware if it
needed to bridge the dichotomy between its in-house VoIP system, which is
data oriented, and the old-fashioned, voice-oriented public switched
telephone network. Tackling this hurdle might be Bayonne's biggest challenge yet.

Anne Donker is a consultant based in San Francisco.

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