Sangoma produces telephony cards and writes drivers that work with open source applications such as Asterisk, Yate, FreeSwitch, and CallWeaver. Sangoma CEO and founder David Mandelstam says that before Sangoma started producing cards to work with Asterisk, the open source project was "kind of a toy for hobbyists."
Mandelstam launched Sangoma in 1984, at which time the company engineered data transfers using PCs. In 2004, Mandelstam noticed open source software. "As we grew, we found that technologies like Linux were natural partners. When you write applications, it is much easier to work in open source operating systems."
As Sangoma migrated toward telephony hardware production, Mandelstam saw the value of writing drivers to allow Sangoma's cards to work with open source projects like Asterisk. "Asterisk was kind of a toy for hobbyists in its early days," he says. "The original cards that were designed as part of the project were unreliable." People who liked Asterisk were happy to buy the hardware, but "it was not ready for prime time." Mandelstam says Sangoma's telephony cards brought a level of professionalism not seen before in the open source VoIP space. "We produced reliable cards that are compatible with all motherboards. That gave us a foothold in the market."
Entering the open source community hasn't always been a bed of roses, though. "Our biggest problem is that we are not the owners of the technology," Mandelstam says. "Digium owns the code and they issue the open source license. They keep control of their trademark and the source. You can't contribute to Asterisk unless you give your rights away."
Still, Mandelstam says, the benefits of providing cards and drivers that work with open source VoIP outweigh the challenges. "Open source [development] allows for very rapid growth in technology. If you're starting from a base of zero, with no money for marketing or PR and very little money for development, open source software allows you to get something out to the marketplace quickly." He calls it a "tradeoff" between money and fame for developers. "Most are happy with fame, and it can be converted to money if you're very good at it."
Mandelstam says the most important thing to remember when building a business rooted in the open source community is to give back. "The contributions can't always be in the form of code," he says. "But if you're making any money at all, you need to contribute to the open source project [in which you are participating]. A little money goes quite a long way. Projects can leverage very small amounts of money by giving bounties, by hiring students, and by arranging projects at universities. So you don't have to give $100,000, but those little contributions are the sort of things which keep the project alive, because they don't have other sources of income."