Open Source VoIP: What Your Smaller Business Needs

With its ability to lower the cost of voice applications and spur additional deployments, open source VoIP could be the solution smaller businesses have been looking for
The open source movement has taken hold in various market segments, with the Linux operating system's success its most noteworthy example. A small, but growing, number of vendors view it as a good fit with voice over IP (VoIP) switches.

PBX software has never been easy to design. Since its inception, vendors have relied on a hodgepodge of proprietary interfaces in order to add value and differentiate their wares. Also because of their antithetical foundations, the chasm between voice and data applications has been difficult to bridge. Even software powerhouse Microsoft has only had limited success in breaking down those dividing lines.

Because development has been so difficult, these products have typically cost a lot of money, in many cases more than small and midsize businesses could afford. Even though the advent of VoIP switches has lowered pricing, VoIP software is priced much higher than software in other market segments, such as office productivity tools.

Open Source Solutions Make the Difference
Open source solutions try to alter underlying software development dynamics. The proponents feel that the source code for any program should be made available to the public for alteration and improvement. In contrast to traditional software development, which is carried out by teams of highly paid software developers working feverishly at private companies, open source products are developed by anyone who has the desire -- and the ability -- to contribute to their improvement. Even though anyone is able to alter the source code, that doesn't mean that vendors can't build up viable businesses with this model. Suppliers typically focus on items, such as support, installation services, or delivery of applications on top of the open source software, and in some cases, now run multibillion-dollar operations.

A handful of open source movements, including Asterisk, OpenPBX, SipX, and PBX4Linux, have forged into the VoIP marketplace. The one that has gained the most attention is the Asterisk platform, which has been around since Digium, its parent company, developed the code in 1999. The software runs on a PC and functions either as a VoIP switch or a gateway between older voice systems and newer IP solutions. A number of applications, including voice mail, conferencing, and call distribution, run on top of it. Digium claims that more than 1 million downloads have been made of the software. What that translates into as far as end-user deployments is anyone's guess, but it does underscore the growing interest open source VoIP solutions have been receiving.

The Benefits to Smaller Businesses
The open source VoIP movement offers a couple of potential benefits to small and midsize businesses. As mentioned, cost can be a prohibitive factor in voice deployments. Open source software is available to customers for free, and many of these solutions include the voice functions that small and midsize businesses require. Also, the quality of these products is often very good. Because they are designed in open forums by groups of programmers extremely interested in the source code, the work is often very thorough. As evidence, many pundits view Linux as a better operating system than Microsoft's Windows.

To date, support of the open source VoIP initiative has largely been supported by startups, vying to establish viable businesses. That has been gradually changing. A few established companies that have been in the collaboration market, such as Polycom, have adopted open source solutions. In addition, voice-centric application suppliers, such as contact center vendor Aspect Software, have also jumped on the open source bandwagon. The open source approach also offers network equipment vendors a way to build up their businesses. Recently, 3Com, which has been moving away from hardware and toward software and services in order to stay solvent, unveiled its Open Services Networking ecosystem. The company is building its own application development platform and encouraging third parties to deliver applications on top of it. One component is the 3Com Asterisk IP Communications Platform, an open source VoIP solution.

In the past few years, VoIP solutions have gained acceptance because they are less expensive, have more capabilities, and can be more easily integrated with IP network than traditional voice applications. The open source VoIP movement has the potential to lower the cost of voice applications and spur additional deployments. Small and midsize businesses should take a close look at this option because it may be a good fit for them. Does your company use any open source software now? What have been your experiences with it? How much interest do you have in open source VoIP solutions?

Paul Korzeniowski is a Sudbury, Mass.-based freelance writer who has been writing about networking issues for two decades. His work has appeared in Business 2.0, Entrepreneur, Investors Business Daily, Newsweek, and InformationWeek.

Editor's Choice
James M. Connolly, Contributing Editor and Writer
Carrie Pallardy, Contributing Reporter
Shane Snider, Senior Writer, InformationWeek
Sara Peters, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek / Network Computing
Brandon Taylor, Digital Editorial Program Manager
Jessica Davis, Senior Editor
John Edwards, Technology Journalist & Author