December 17, 2007

Open source telephony gives customers control, consultant says

Author: Tina Gasperson

Thomas Howe is a telecommunications developer and consultant who is passionate about the role of open source software in the telephony industry. He calls open source the "next generation" of telecommunications, and works with large enterprise companies to help them design phone systems that fully integrate with their business flow. "Only open source can do that," Howe says.

Howe says open code is the key to highly customizable phone systems that truly meet the needs of individual companies. "The telecom world has typically been a very closed environment. In terms of technology and deployment, they control every aspect of the experience. The idea of being open and allowing customers to have control is a radical thought."

But that is just what Howe is doing. Howe bases his custom communications solutions on Asterisk, the popular full-featured open source telephony engine that many companies are adopting as they move away from legacy phone systems in an effort to save money and gain more control over their infrastructure.

Howe has been in telecom since the late '80s, where he first experienced open source through the GNU C compiler (GCC). Over the years, he realized that open code could have the power to revolutionize telephony. "It made it easy for developers to develop without the help of the vendor."

Today, Howe says his customers "don't care" whether his solutions are open source or not. "They need solutions to be provided. There's no real customer resistance. As a small shop and as a consultant, using open source gives me the ability to make solutions rapidly that are custom. No one else can provide them. And as time goes on, open source is more viable than vendor-supplied technology, and it's more reliable."

Open source telephony solutions are more flexible, Howe says. "We can put together solutions very quickly, and we don't rely on third parties to deliver important functionality. For example, I was putting together a call center for a large public company. They had 10 call centers around the world, and one issue that came up very quickly was that if one call center went down due to a power failure or whatever, they didn't have the technology available to route the calls to the other call centers. It was a very straightforward solution to put in a proxy and do call routing, so that if one center came down you could pick up the load in the others. That issue came up at the last minute, and we were able to implement it in a few days' time. With a commercial vendor, it would have taken a month."

Howe says one of the challenges of using open source is that you have to be "technically deep. For us there isn't any fear of taking an open source library and integrating it -- it's a problem we can fix ourselves. I would caution anyone in this position to have a strong technical source they can rely upon. Otherwise, they're going to be in a tough spot."


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