If your business is like most businesses, your phone system is a vital resource. But, as with most businesses, the chances are it's an area in which you're always looking to save money.
With voice over IP (VoIP) popping up in so many segments of the consumer telephony market, you probably have some idea of the advantages it offersespecially operating cost-savings. But replacing a phone system is an intimidating prospect, conjuring up images of armies of technicians invading your premises and large bills arriving in the mail.
But it doesn't have to be that way. Sure, there are lots of commercial vendors who'd love sell you their solutions. But there's an alternativea free, open-source IP PBX product called Asterisk. (Why Asterisk? Because the asterisk, or star key, on your telephone keypad is the first character in phone commands.) Not only is Asterisk free, it worksand there's a large community of resources that's grown up around the basic software package, that make it safe and simple to make the move.
Is rolling your own PBX a far-fetched notion? Not at all. Thousands of businessesof all sizesare running Asterisk PBXs today (just as many businesses are running their company websites on Apache, the free, open-source Web server).
Asterisk, risk-free path to the future
Asterisk is a software application that is free in two ways: free of cost, and licensed under the GPL. It is both a development toolkit, and a fully-featured telephony server. Asterisk is your risk-free path to the future.
Because Asterisk supports multiple protocols and integrates PSTN with VoIP, allowing you to mix and match analog, digital, and IP phones, you can migrate away from your existing PBX at a comfortable pace. Or, if you prefer, build a brand-new system, adding features and capacity at your own speed. With Asterisk you are not held hostage by a black box that requires expensive techswho may or may not be interested in meeting your needsto do everything.
Asterisk gives you complete control of your telephony. You can run your Asterisk PBX yourself, or hire help, or purchase a commercial implementation. If you have the programming chops, you can even modify the source code to fix bugs or add new features. So no matter what happens to any vendors you are working with, you'll always be completely in control.
Free doesn't mean stripped down
Don't be put off by the free price tag. Asterisk is at least as sophisticated and feature-ful as most commercial PBXs, and often more so.
If all you want to do is replace your existing PBX and duplicate its functionality, Asterisk will do the job, and likely do it better and more easily. Voicemail, adding/removing users, send voicemail to email, conferencing, interactive voice response, call queueing, distinctive ring, user monitoring, and dozens more features are included.
Want free long-distance? Suppose you have a remote branch office that you're racking up big phone bills to talk to. Put an Asterisk server at each end and you can talk all you want for free. Strictly speaking, it's not freeyou need a broadband Internet connection to make it work. But if you already have one, or even better, have a nice dedicated high-speed WAN, it's an easy choice.
Want to build a sophisticated call center for cheap? Maybe I shouldn't be encouraging the proliferation of call centers, but if you really really want one, you can build one with Asterisk for the cost of PC headsets, the Asterisk server and other networking hardware, and your bandwidth.
It is unwise to rush out and start ripping out your existing PBX equipment. Telephony is complex, so you'll want to start slowly and take small steps.
For one thing, Asterisk runs on Linux, BSD and MacOSX, so you'll need to be familiar with one of these operating systems.
Want to build a nice Asterisk test lab with a minimum of hassle? Get Asterisk@Home. Don't be misled by the name, because it's not just for home users. Asterisk@Home is a complete Asterisk implementation with an excellent graphical management interface, so you can be up and running in less than an hour. A three-PC local test lab and an Asterisk installation at a remote location will let you test most of Asterisk's functions.
Next week in Part 2 we'll take a bird's-eye view of some different ways to implement Asterisk. We'll also look at bandwidth management, when to use a commercial VoIP provider, and VoIP hardware. In the following weeks we'll get into some nice detailed how-tos.