Cisco Opens Up To Open Source

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Image © Victor Gregorio

Networking and telecom hardware giant Cisco Systems is now squarely aiming its product line at the Asterisk PBX market segment and other open-source products, apparently ending a long-standing unspoken strategy of exclusive support for proprietary telecommunications systems.

Cisco officials now openly say support for standards used in open source communications software — such as the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) — is a good business strategy for the company.

Asterisk, the popular open source package developed by Hunstville, AL-based Digium, Inc., for example, now owns more than 15 percent of the North American PBX market, concentrated in the SMB end, but making inroads with enterprise too. Perhaps it’s only a coincidence, but in the wake of Nortel’s collapse, Yahoo has decided to embrace open source and is working with Digium to deploy Asterisk throughout Yahoo’s global communications net, using Cisco SIP end points on the desktop.

“The small business technology group is focused on new broadband voice products like the WIP310 cordless WiFi phone and SPA525G desktop phone, as well as solutions for unified communications, security and network storage,” a product manager inside Cisco’s small business technology group told Voxilla.

And that’s great news for open standards.

“These devices seemed to be orphaned within Cisco,” John Todd, Open Source Community Director at Digium told us. “There seemed to be an almost palpable reluctance by Cisco to improve these phones significantly with different software that had more features,” he says, noting, “in the last few years that has changed slightly, [with] the acquisition of Linksys and their Sipura brand lineup.”

The implementation of SIP by Cisco actually began in 2005, when the company’s Linksys consumer/SMB communications hardware unit purchased Sipura, one of the most influential companies to develop the open standard SIP protocol for voice over IP.

Deploying a Cisco endpoint on an Asterisk system once required a frustrating trip through through arcane ftp/telnet provisioning hoops. New products — like the Cisco Small Business Pro IP Phone SPA525G, a 5-line IP phone with color display that supports bluetooth headset and WiFi connectivity, and is easily provisioned through a web-based GUI — are leaps ahead of Cisco’s former inscrutability.

“The SMB market will always demand well-built devices that are installed on the desktop regardless of the software running on the back-end server,” says Todd, who nevertheless remains wary of Cisco’s long-term strategy.

“I wouldn’t say I’ve seen a ‘sea change’ in Cisco’s VoIP strategy towards open-source, other than their adoption of SIP, but certainly the shift to SIP is a tacit admission that interoperability is more important to customers than stories of how a single vendor would somehow be an advantage.”

For its part, open source seems well-positioned to gain even more attention in an economic downturn, as vendors and users alike look for ways to cut costs.

A company can start using an open source PBX such as Asterisk, or implement one as a component to expand their existing phone system for a fraction of the cost of implementing a proprietary solution today. Once they discover how amazingly capable open source is, they’ll build new tools, integrate their business logic, and grow into the platform as a vital component of their business delivery capabilities.

The costly process of doing that with a proprietary system has buttered Cisco’s enterprise bread for years, but it might be too late – at least bad timing – to make the approach work in the SMB space.

We’re seeing new doors opened due to cost advantage becoming more important,” says Todd of Digium’s perception of the market, “but we really think the flexibility of Asterisk will be what cements open-source Asterisk in the SMB and Enterprise markets.”

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  • Aamir Durrani

    its really amazing news that cisco is now become in the open source race. Great effort. U know in propritery software all is copyright but here in open source everything is copy left. Cheers

  • Phill Rogers

    Very interesting when you consider the other recent news that Cisco are moving in on the big hardware server vendors.