Open source mobile telephony goes mainstream

While big business may be crowning open source as the king of server-based computing, most enterprise movers and shakers vehemently deny any such moves in telephony.

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Yet open source in telecom is long past its debut and is, in fact, already in play in much of the Fortune 500. So why is open source a legitimate option in enterprise computing but bastardized so much in telephony?

"Legacy telecommunications providers have spent a lot of marketing dollars on driving home the 'open source is bad' message," says Garrett Smith, director of marketing and business development at VoIP Supply. "Enterprises know that some of the public and the telecommunications community carry this world view and that their use of open-source telecommunications has the potential to cause 'damage'."

Given the souring economy, haemorrhaging corporate bottom-lines and the panic in many a shareholder's eye, will this "as advertised" fear hold sway much longer?

Not likely. "We're just seeing too many cases operating in open source for it not to go in the enterprise market," says Gerry Purdy, chief analyst mobile and wireless at Frost & Sullivan.

Certainly, signs of an upcoming wave of open-source telephony adoption in the enterprise market are everywhere.

In fixed telephony, open-source projects are spreading like wildfire, the majority of them in VoIP form rushing to replace the expensive and restrictive PBX systems. Most such projects are powered by or built upon Digium's Asterisk, the world's largest open-source telephony project, with 1.5 million downloads in 2008.

"Asterisk is free. We require no registration or anything so there is no concrete data on who's using Asterisk; but based on forums and other communications, my suspicion is that every Fortune 100 company is testing or using Asterisk in some way," says John Todd, open source community director at Digium.

Asterisk allows deployers to build new telephone systems or to gradually migrate existing systems to new technologies by blending traditional and VoIP services. Several members of the Asterisk community have reversed-engineered proprietary VoIP protocols by Cisco, Nortel and others, so that companies' existing (and expensive) phone sets and hardware work with Asterisk-based telephony projects. Such projects are then easily customizable so that phone calls and company data can merge to fingertip usefulness.

One pioneer in the open-source telephony space is Fonality which in 2008 recorded a record 3.3 million open-source commercial installations. "But the truth is that open source is only the first layer of our overall solution," explains Chris Lyman, Fonality's CEO. "We started with an [open-source] stack, using components such as Linux, Asterisk, Apache and Perl. But, on top of that, we layered 5 million lines of our own proprietary code."

"Because of the muddying waters, we have started to use the word 'open source-based' to be a more accurate description of what we and so many companies now do," he added.

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