With its third-generation release, out this week, popular open-source management interface FreePBX has taken a bold step away from its longstanding ties to Asterisk, to embrace the up-and-coming VoIP alternative FreeSwitch.
"There have been a lot of people asking for some time: When are you going to port FreeSwitch to FreePBX? Its either because FreeSwitch is the newer technology, or just because it is the shiny new object on the block. There may be a lot of reasons," said Philippe Lindheimer, FreePBX project lead with Bandwidth.com, corporate sponsor for the open source effort.
FreePBX has staked out considerable real estate in its five years of existence. It has been downloaded over 3 million times and counts approximately 300,000 active phone systems, according to Bandwidth.com. Targeted at developers, the new release aims to expand that base by broadening the tools possible interface partners beyond Asterisk.
In fact, the third-generation effort will debut with only FreeSwitch as its telephony engine, although Lendheimer predicts developers will be bringing Asterisk into the game within just a few months, as they transport successful features of Asterisk version 2.6 into the new environment.
Why will developers want to bring FreeSwitch into the mix, when the Asterisk environment seems to be serving so well? Lendheimer points to the question of scalability. FreeSwitch has been constructed with scalability in mind, whereas Asterisk has always been best suited for a smaller environment, he said.
Licensing issues also have raised concerns, with a small but significant base of developers reluctant to accept the notion of signing over certain product rights into the hands of Asterisk sponsor Digium. "Plenty of developers dont see an issue with that, but it is a real discussion out there," Lendheimer said.
For these and other reasons, some developers have already begun to work with FreeSwitch. The new FreePBX should help those efforts along by giving these developers a much-needed GUI to utilize.
That being said, those behind FreePBX say they are not looking to push users in one particular direction, but rather to open multiple doors. To this end the new FreePBX also incorporates a number of other ongoing telephony projects, including TCAPI (Telephony Configuration API and GUI framework) and a Bandwitch.com product called Phonebooth. (Both have ties to FreeSwitch.)
Among the other motivations driving the latest FreePBX iteration is the simple matter of housekeeping. Over time the existing Asterisk-based platform has become overly cluttered, Lendheimer said, with so many varied tools and so many diverse approaches grafted onto the underlying open source platform that documentation has become well-nigh impossible. Developers have been finding it ever more difficult to grab an end of the thread.
In crafting version 3, developers wiped the slate clean, redesigned the FreePBX stack from the ground up and building on top of a unified programming framework, specifically a standard MVC (Model-view-controllera software architecture that isolates the business logic from the user interface) Stack with MVC -components. This more standardized approach delivers cleaner interfaces as well as a closer alignment with Web 2.0. The new architecture also is more 'skin-able,' making it easier for resellers to brand the end products.
"It lets us use best of best of breed components so we can focus on the telephony part and not on the infrastructure," Lendheimer said. He further noted that the cleaned-up architecture should draw in an active user baser. "Now you have a higher likelihood of developers coming on board who are already familiar with the infrastructure."
As with any open source venture, the release of FreePBX version 3 comes with a set of unknowns. On the one hand, FreeSwitch "finally is at the maturity level where there is a lot of demand, and so we can realize the ambition of supporting multiple telephony engines, multiple alternatives," Lendheimer said. At the same time, it remains to be seen how quickly developers will migrate from well-known Asterisk into the somewhat less familiar FreeSwitch environment.
Lendheimer predicted the Asterisk-2.6-based version will fade away over time, as developers bring the best components over to the newer version. If all goes well, FreePBX will grow from a developer release into a full production version in about six months, he said.
"You will find developers tending to migrate to the new release because that is what open source developers dothey go to what is newand we will keep a close watch on the pulse," he said.