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Asterisk: A playground for 'neat ideas'

Mark Spencer, Digium Inc. president and the creator of Asterisk, an open source PBX, is a big fan of "neat ideas." And he hopes the first revision of Asterisk in more than a year will spark continued revisions down the road.

Last month, Huntsville, Ala.-based Digium rolled out Asterisk 1.2. The new version boasts more than 3,000 improvements, upgrades, fixes and additions, which Spencer said will better the overall performance and efficiency of memory usage. Asterisk is also billed as a highly cost-effective approach to voice and data transport over TDM (time division multiplex), IP and other architectures.

Some key features of the new Asterisk, which runs on Linux, BSD and Mac OS X, include improved voice mail, the addition of the DUNDi (Distributed Universal Number Discovery) protocol, a real-time database configuration storage engine and improved Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) support. recently caught up with Spencer to talk about the marriage of open source and VoIP, the benefits of such a pairing, and how an open source PBX can change telecommunications. Here are some highlights from that discussion.

What are the benefits of an open source VoIP product?
Open source and VoIP are related in that they both facilitate the ability to do new things. When you move voice to IP, there are fewer limitations. You've got it in a format that can carry it across data networks; you can change your infrastructure to suit your needs.

In a similar way, with open source, we're giving people access to the intellectual property they need to customize and change things that need to be changed based on their specific requirements.

With an open source VoIP product, you have additional control over what your needs are, which is something telecom managers want. Asterisk is able to provide features targeted at specific customers. [For example, Spencer said the town of Manchester, Conn., recently began using Asterisk as its PBX. The public school system had it customized with specific features, such as calling all parents when school is cancelled or alerting them to a school-wide emergency.] You're talking about the ability to differentiate your products. How is open source changing telecommunications?
I think it represents an important shift in the way [telecom is] deployed and in the way it's used. Being open source, by nature, you're allowing the integrator to add a lot more value to the service.

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You've got lots of little applications that people add at the edge or are creating [on the fly]. These can be one-offs or packaged products. How about for companies that are migrating to VoIP. How does Asterisk ease that transition?
Asterisk, in part, has a lot of advantages for that kind of scenario because it is a true hybrid TDM/IP system. Asterisk can be deployed as a traditional TDM application, but if they want to migrate to VoIP, they're ready. The idea is it can fit anywhere in your mix. It can make that transition a lot easier because you don't need to forklift if you decide to switch from TDM to VoIP in phases or all at once. Being an open source product, what are some innovative Asterisk customizations you've seen?
Someone contributed an alarm receiver. Now asterisk can monitor and receive signals from an alarm panel.

A lot of it is creative applications. I've heard of how Asterisk is used to modify your voice, that's a creative application.

It's all about neat ideas. What is drawing organizations to open source products, either VoIP or otherwise?
A lot of the allure is being able to create features suited for your needs. Resellers can develop something that's actually useful to the [specific] customer.

It's enabling people to create more products. You can do what you want to do. You're creating a product that's never existed. And if you are very technical, you can do the Asterisk integration yourself.

It used to be that when you had a network, you had to go to someone else [for additions or upgrades]. Now, there's that option of 'OK, I'm going to go to Best Buy and do it myself.' Now it looks like that's going to be an option for voice.

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