Like many VoIP telephony companies, Junction Networks uses Asterisk and other open source software to provide its customers with highly customizable VoIP service. Junction has been able to migrate its business model from a conference bridge service provider to a full-fledged telephone services company largely because of the flexibility and lower capital requirements of open source. "We're a completely bootstrapped company," says Mike Oeth, founder and CEO. "We were never locked into a business plan that was sold to investors." He says Junction is successful because it has been able to follow its customers' desires with open source.
Oeth is no stranger to open source. In the early '90s he started Interport Communications, an ISP that eventually became the second largest in New York City. In that business he got "very familiar" with Apache Web servers and a host of open source tools. After he sold Interport, Oeth was looking for another business. "Knowing all the advantages of open source, we saw a lot of similarities between Apache and Asterisk. We knew we could install this, get a conference bridge up and running, and have the cheapest one out there."
Oeth says the VoIP conferencing service did pretty well, but in the meantime he noticed a trend. "What was really happening was that after we installed these Asterisk boxes for the conference bridge service, our customers were asking us for a way to do outbound calls with them. [Eventually] we opened up a back door on our conference bridge server. And that's the business that ended up taking off. So we shut the whole company down and brought ourselves back up as a PBX gateway provider."
But even that wasn't enough evolution for Oeth. To keep up with the industry, he developed a hosted PBX solution, called onSIP, that takes most of the work out of setting up an Asterisk-based PBX. "The unique thing about this is that, because we wrote all the software using open source tools, we're not paying license fees. So we offer the product with no per-seat license. You don't pay for extensions, you pay for usage and the software we wrote. We're trying to be more like a software company."
Oeth says open source software makes it easier to fix bugs quickly. "Having the source right there for you to see how it is working lets you fix problems when they come up." And, Oeth says, the community development aspect of a project like Asterisk benefits everyone involved. When Oeth's developers fixed a problem inside the Asterisk code, they were able to convince the community to include the revised code in the next official distribution of Asterisk. "The last thing we wanted to do was to have our own branch of Asterisk," Oeth says. "Getting our changes in was very important. We wanted to give back, but we also didn't want the nightmare of having our own fork."
Overcoming the challenge of learning how to coexist in a large community was worth it, Oeth says. "Now that we've got some karma there, the next time it should be a little bit easier. [Asterisk developers] are bright guys and we like hanging out with them."
Oeth says recognizing the community aspect of open source software development is vital. "It is a community and you have to have give and take. You can't just take all their advice, you have to be willing and able to add something to the community and have the resources there to do it."
He says that the community paradigm infiltrates other areas of the company, leading Oeth to more of an open standards perspective. "Having a company based on open source software, you end up doing other parts of your business plan in more of a community-based manner." He disagrees with the "walled-garden" approach of most VoIP companies that prohibits, for example, Skype users from calling Vonage unless they leave the Skype VoIP network and use the publicly switched telephone network (PSTN). "It's like Gmail users sending a email to Hotmail users and having to use the postal service. That's silly. You can add any phone number from any other provider into our system."