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Businesses are still finding VoIP and unified communications strategies challenging. Find out why Asterisk's open source communication server was not a viable solution for one organization with limited in-house expertise and resources; what this company could have done differently to achieve anticipated results; why so many organizations are struggling with their VoIP and UC deployments and how to resolve those issues; and learn more about Digium's Asterisk and Switchvox telephony platforms.
For so many organizations, deploying VoIP and unified communications (UC) can be likened to the Gordian Knot
In a recent case study, Failed open source VoIP deployment leads to hosted VoIP strategy, John DeRudder, vice president of CuDerm Corp., was puzzled with the same problem many organizations are struggling to unravel: Successfully deploying VoIP and unified communications (UC) yesterday on an always freshly cut budget.
Deploying VoIP and UC has always been an arduous undertaking for the uninitiated. Trying to shepherd the unbridled evolution of communication and collaborative technologies under the lingering cloud of the weak economy has emboldened IT and network managers to cut the Gordian Knot.
As I discussed in a previous column, IT managers are shouldering the load of developing and executing solid VoIP and unified communications (UC) strategies, often while staying the weight of their day-to-day responsibilities.
IT and network managers have to negotiate:
- Increased responsibilities
- Lack of expertise
- Reduced IT spend and support resources
- The complexity of identifying pain points across the breadth and depth of an organization
- Becoming and staying versed in the bounty of available UC tools and applications to address those pain points
- Integrating multivendor UC applications and IP telephony solutions with existing legacy equipment and hardware
- Proving short-term ROI (usually within 12 months)
"[UC applications] are unlike any application most network managers have dealt with before, and there's only a couple ways to get that experience," explained Zeus Kerravala, a distinguished research fellow at Yankee Group. "I always maintain you should never do your first UC deployment on your own."
A lesson learned the hard way by CuDerm Corp., a Dallas-based skincare marketing and promotions company, which eventually abandoned Asterisk (a free, open source telephony platform) for a hosted VoIP solution.
Though John DeRudder, vice president of CuDerm Corp., thought his choice of Asterisk, was well founded, he now understands that Asterisk was beyond the scope of his company's limited in-house expertise.
"I have learned that you must partner with people who do this stuff for a living or else risk a lot of heartache [disappointment] … and dollars," DeRudder said.
Would more upfront research have helped DeRudder craft a better VoIP/UC strategy? Sure. Could he have salvaged the Asterisk debacle? Absolutely.
However, like so many IT and network managers, DeRudder and his team were under extraordinary pressure to make quick, manifold decisions with limited resources. Not so different from Alexander the Great, DeRudder tried to untie the Gordian Knot.
But under pressure to solve an intractable problem, he sliced through the knot instead.
Asterisk: Free is good, if you know what you're doing
Free and open source software (FOSS) communication engines, such as Digium's Asterisk (credited as being the most widely deployed open-source telephony platform) may sound like the perfect fit for budget-strained organizations looking to transition from traditional TDM-based telephony to IP telephony -- but beware. Promoted as the "telephony glue" that ties VoIP to TDM, Asterisk can be especially beguiling to companies looking to gradually migrate to VoIP by combining legacy PBXs with IP PBX servers. But take heed.
To harness the power of Asterisk and exploit the platform's near boundless capabilities, you must have the in-house expertise to do so, or at least bring in a well-vetted Asterisk consultant.
"Asterisk is more of a toolkit for telecom developers than a ready-to-run PBX," explained Steve Sokol, director of Asterisk Advocacy for Digium. "It was built by telecom developers for telecom providers and can be crafted into almost anything you can imagine." That is if you have specialized expertise in Linux/Unix administration, traditional and IP telephony, and script programming. An added measure of hands-on custom integrations experience wouldn't hurt.
"Even those who are fully versed in all of these disciplines will need to overcome something of a learning curve to create a working system," Sokol added. "Once the system is up and running, you will need someone on staff (or at least on call) who knows how the system works and how to handle any moves, adds or changes (MACs)."
"My first expectation was that once it was set up, we could walk away from it," DeRudder confessed. "Quite possibly, someone with a PhD could [configure and maintain the system] very easily, but even our own IT/systems [staff], who weren't necessarily phone-dedicated resources, had difficulty making it work."
Asterisk runs on off-the-shelf hardware, including existing hardware, so there's little to no up-front investment. Since Asterisk is open source, interoperability issues with proprietary extensions are eliminated, meaning organizations are no longer relegated to certain telecom service providers. They can shop around for the best deals. Here is a very concise primer on how Asterisk works minus the history lesson.
DeRudder of CuDerm, for example, chose Asterisk "because it required a custom-built server but no other dedicated hardware for the phone system." Though this wasn't an automatic green light for DeRudder, it bolstered his confidence to cut the puzzling knot of collaborative, real-time communications. Sokol said CuDerm is a classic example of a mismatch between Asterisk and companies that really need a point-and-click communications environment.
DeRudder and his team eventually invested the capital expenses they'd hoped to save with the open source platform by bringing in an independent Asterisk consultant. "Even after the consultant finished his work, problems persisted for another six months," he said.
If you do not hire a well-vetted consultant with proven expertise, you'll just be throwing good money after bad. Digium, for example, has an authorized reseller and distributor channel for companies that lack the necessary in-house expertise to configure and manage an Asterisk-based telephony solution.The user-friendly Asterisk: Switchvox
CuDerm opted for hosted VoIP services, which despite a few tradeoffs, have proven to be a better fit for the company than the complexity of coding, configuring and managing Asterisk. Though hosted VoIP services are a viable option for companies like CuDerm, Digium has an open source telephony platform for companies (like CuDerm) with restricted resources – Switchvox.
Digium's Switchvox was specifically designed for companies that want an in-house, turnkey unified communications system (IP PBX). Switchvox replaces complicated custom scripting and raw configuration files with an easy-to-use, intuitive graphical user interface (GUI), Sokol said.
In one of his blog posts, Sokol explained the differences between Asterisk and Switchvox and offered a very accessible explanation of what Asterisk is and how it works.
A big difference between Asterisk and Switchvox? Switchvox is not free, but it does offer a cost-effective route to VoIP and UC while still providing the rich functionality, features and flexibility of Asterisk.
According to Sokol's blog, Switchvox IP PBX systems include all of the standard features of a phone system plus UC capabilities like advanced voice messaging, instant messaging, desktop fax, drag/drop call control, multi-party conferencing and advanced IVR -- features that would cost thousands to bolt onto a traditional phone system.VoIP/UC strategies: Lessons learned
Perhaps DeRudder could have invested more time and resources developing a VoIP strategy. Perhaps he could have hired a vetted consultant sooner in order to salvage the deployment. But under mounting pressure to find an economical VoIP and UC solution, DeRudder cut the knot and tried to solve an intricate problem with an unconventional solution. Impetuous? Reckless? Courageous? Enterprising?
However you classify it, DeRudder has earned valuable insight -- translatable wisdom he is sharing with others. And a free and open exchange of knowledge is the true value of networking and collaboration.
While one person hesitates because he feels inferior, the other is busy making mistakes and becoming superior.
Henry C. Link