Asterisk Breeds a Cottage Industry

The open-source PBX is popular, powerful and affordable. But setting up and maintaining Asterisk in its distributed form is a technical challenge for even the most accomplished of geeks. Now, more than 60 new companies, smelling a good business opportunity, offer simplified graphical front-ends for Asterisk. More are on the way.

When San Diego, CA-based custom software developer Fourloop Technologies decided to install Asterisk, the Linux-based open-source PBX, they encountered a migraine of epic proportions.

“Being computer folks, we decided we could set this up ourselves,” says Josh Stephens, Fourloop Technologies President and CEO. “In the process we realized that what we needed — and what other companies like us needed — was an interface designed to get the system up and running quickly.”

So Stephens and his colleagues developed Switchvox, a GUI front-end for Asterisk to facilitate the installation and maintenance of the powerful though difficult PBX. The company is selling Switchvox, in a variety of hardware configurations, directly to Asterisk users hungry for a simpler administration.

“We went from being a custom software development company to having our own product,” says Stephens.

“The problem with Asterisk today, is that the people who need an affordable PBX are exactly the people without the resources to set one up,” says Stephens. “If you can set up a Linksys router to work with a cable modem, you can set up Switchvox.”

Fourloop is just one of many companies — more than 60 at last count — at the core of what has become a fast-growing VoIP cottage industry: User interfaces promising to simplify the management of Asterisk.

The new products come in many different shapes, sizes, and, of course, prices. Fourloop sells a complete system, including the actual computer Asterisk resides in, starting at $1,000. Other Asterisk front-end developers sell their wares on CD-ROM or via digital download, designed to be installed and administered by technical personnel with some knwoledge of Linux and Asterisk, but providing a GUI-based alternative to Asterisk's tricky command-line interface.

Steve Sokol, co-founder and producer of Astricon, the only trade show and conference devoted exclusively to Asterisk, agrees that the PBX can be difficult for many. “Asterisk is an extremely powerful product,” Sokol, who is also the CEO of IPsando, which will be debuting its own Asterisk user interface sometime this summer, says. “That isn't to say that it does anything easily out of the box.”

“Asterisk is not designed for non-technical users to sit down and configure,” says Sokol. “You need an understanding of Linux and some ability to do Linux commands as well as an understanding of how Asterisk works.”

At voip-info.org, a popular and comprehensive Wiki covering Asterisk and VoP hardware, more than 60 applications are listed in the Asterisk GUI category focusing on specific functions like billing, configuration, manager interfaces and status viewers. The field includes providers who follow the free software distribution as well as companies like Fourloop who sell their implementation as a turnkey solution. Many deliberately limit the available feature set to make management as simple as possible.

“Because Asterisk is widely used in call centers,” says James Thompson, co-founder of VoIP wholesale integrator CommPartners and creator of www.voip-info.org, “many of these solutions focus on handling calls in progress and rely on other software to handle configuration.”

Most of these systems, like SwitchVox, had their genesis in an effort to implement Asterisk.

One of the better-known interfaces, the Asterisk Management Portal (AMP), was born when Coalescent Systems founders Jason Becker and Ryan Courtnage formed a company to sell an Asterisk-based, turnkey PBX for small businesses.

“We looked for an Asterisk GUI and all we found were thin wrappers for Asterisk configuration files,” explains Coalescent CTO Courtnage. “These interfaces still required an understanding of Asterisk. We wanted to provide an interface for non-technical users. We realized we were better off to build it ourselves.”

Becker and Courtnage decided to offer the AMP as open source to accelerate adoption and evolution of the software. The software has been available since October, 2004 and the company has just released version 2.0.

Another freeware solution — although not presently open source — is IPSwitchBoard, which grew out of a large scale Asterisk implementation project. Developer Thorben Jensen got the idea for the application when he was implementing Asterisk for a large Scandinavian telecommunications company.

“We needed an operator's panel and there really wasn't anything available,” says Jensen. “So I started to develop one.”

A beta version of IPSwitchBoard, designed, Jensen says, to provide the functionality of a standard enterprise PBX switchboard, is currently available.

Asterisk's flexibility and extensive functionality make it a challenge to create a user interface.

“Asterisk is chameleon-like in its ability to present itself in many different roles,” explains IPSando's Sokol. “To one person it's a PBX. To another, it's an Internet access device. To another it's a feature server sitting behind a soft switch. That makes it hard to encapsulate in a straightforward user interface where you just 'point and click' and make it run.”

Alex Epstein, CTO of Third Lane Technology, the supplier of Asterisk PBX Manager, learned this when the company began, like Coalescent, building an Asterisk-based PBX product for small businesses.

“We wanted to provide a turnkey PBX — hardware, software and management tools,” Epstein says. “We found it was hard to come up with a standard configuration. The smaller the company, it seemed the more specific the feature set that was needed.”

Available since August 2004, Asterisk PBX Manager provides a Linux-style Webmin management interface in two “flavors” — one for experienced Asterisk users and one for a non-technical office administrator. In January, 2005 Third Lane announced Release 2.0 of the software.

Bicom Systems took a somewhat different route to its Asterisk-based products, choosing the platform specifically for the extensive functionality and flexibility that makes implementation challenging. The company's founders, Senad Jordanovic and Steven Wingfield, had previously run a company specializing in content management (CMS) and customer relationship management (CRM) applications.

“We saw an opportunity to create high grade commercial solutions by combining these applications with Asterisk,” says Bicom President Wingfield. “Asterisk had by far the best portfolio of functionality and promised to continue its development because of its open source nature.”

Bicom currently offers two Asterisk-based products, PBXWare — a PBX and integrated office platform designed for businesses with 20 or more employees — and SWITCHWare — designed for broadband telephone service providers.

PBXWare 1.0 will be released next month and Wingfield anticipates SWITCHWare's anticipated release in early summer. Wingfield reports that the company has already received inquiries from ISPs that want to include VoIP in their service offerings.

With Asterisk rapidly gaining acceptance in the business community, all of these suppliers have a solid market opportunity, says CommPartners' Thompson.

“We have talked to several business interested in Asterisk who are looking for consulting services to configure the system. They don't want to build an internal support team for the system. They are looking for support alternatives.”

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