(Los Angeles CA) Asterisk, the open source PBX system made by Digium, is gaining ground with companies and governments alike. The cost savings over proprietary PBX systems can be substantial, but Mark Spencer, president of Digium, told TG Daily in a short interview at the Southern California Linux Expo, that “choice” is the main reason companies adopt Asterisk. “Customers have a choice in how they configure they system, in the hardware they buy or the graphical interface they want,” says Spencer. This choice also allows companies to add extensions or make changes in seconds compared to days with a traditional PBX.
PBX, short for Private Business eXchange, is a black box, literally and figuratively, that connects multiple incoming lines, provide extensions and dish out voice mail. Usually customers cannot modify or open these boxes because the telecommunications provider is the only one that can submit changes – often for a hefty fee. If extensions need to be changed or added, customers often have to call their provider and wait for a technician to either remote control or service the box personally.
Asterisk was introduced almost by accident. Spencer told us that the software was developed because he didn’t have the money to buy a normal phone system. “In 1999, I founded Linux Support Services with just a few thousand dollars. I had to build my own phone system, because I couldn’t buy one,” says Spencer. Afterwards, Spencer helped create Digium to sell a business version of Asterisk along with providing phone hardware cards.
Of course a Linux convention can be considered very friendly territory for Spencer because he was the original developer of GAIM, the open-source chat program. Linux users have a reputation for constantly making tweaks to text files and squeezing performance out of their computers which, according to Spencer, is what makes them potential users. Asterisk has its own extension language that lets other companies make graphical interfaces for the software. Developers can also use AGI, a language similar to CGI, or even C language APIs to add other features. “You can do anything you want with it. If you are a Linux geek, you can really dive into Asterisk,” says Spencer.
Unlike the proprietary PBX box, Asterisk can be installed onto almost any computer and users then connect the phone lines through hardware cards. The user then can edit text files to set up their phone lines and extension or they can either make their own GUI interface or purchase one from another provider. Spencer told us this degree of control has allowed some people and governments to do some interesting things.
“We had one guy run an Asterisk server at his house so that his daughters couldn’t get any phone calls after 11 PM,” says Spencer. He gave us another example of how Manchester, a small city in Connecticut, installed 1500 new phones with Asterisk. In addition to saving money, the new system allowed teachers to take roll by phone and then the PBX automatically called the parents of children who weren’t at school. “This feature is something you wouldn’t see at the top of Nortel’s list, but it’s something the customer wanted and could implement,” says Spencer.
Being able to tinker around with the internal workings with Asterisk also allows for changes to be quickly implemented. Growing companies need extra extensions and often play table roulette by shuffling people around to different offices. This means extensions have to be changed around to follow the employee. Spencer says this is fairly easy to do and would only take a few seconds. “If you are using a graphical interface that is easy and a fairly straightforward thing, but if you aren’t using one, you just edit a text file and add another line to it.”