IP PBX: A natural Linux workload?

Every now and again, I read something or hear something quoted in the media that just doesn’t ring true. The latest was an assertion that voice over IP (VoIP) and IP Telephony (IPT) solutions are fine for larger organisations but are not ready for smaller businesses, with a suggestion, even, that lots of small businesses are putting VoIP/IPT solutions in place then ripping them out a few months later for reliability reasons. Such scare-mongering is great for generating headlines, but is misleading and can easily put people off looking at VoIP/IPT who would otherwise gain significant business benefit from it.

This was a prompt for us to conduct a community research study to get to the bottom of what is really going on out there in VoIP user land. I am still crunching the numbers based on feedback from about 1,500 organisations with experience of VoIP/IPT, and will write up and publish the results over the next few weeks. Suffice it to say for now, though, that VoIP is alive and well in the SMB sector where satisfaction with quality of service, functionality and especially overall return on investment is actually higher among smaller organisations than their larger cousins. So don’t be put off if you are looking at VoIP for your business – it isn’t perfect, but stories of widespread disaster are wildly exaggerated.

Watch this space for more details of the research, including thoughts from participants on what to look out for, what to avoid, and how best to move forward to maximise the chances of success.

Meanwhile, something really interesting came out of the freeform anecdotal feedback gathered during the study that was a bit of a wakeup call for me, namely the popularity of the open source IP PBX solution Asterisk. Now I don’t want to create the impression that it has the same penetration as solutions and services from commercial market leaders, but it does seem to be filling an important niche for low cost but highly functional IP PBXs among the more tech-savvy contingent. Here are a few representative comments that are typical of the feedback on Asterisk we have received:

“We use Asterisk PBX, running on refurbished hardware, and using a Sangoma A100 to terminate an ISDN30e line. Phones are Atcom AT-530, using SIP. This was the only way the charity project could afford a PBX on the funding available.”

“Using Asterisk really does give back benefits in terms of not being tied to one hardware manufacturer for phones. It’s a system that will do most if not anything you ask of it. Now looking at global deployment.”

“We use Asterisk as our IP PBX running on custom hardware. VoIP itself is an excellent solution, with Asterisk being the best of the bunch.”

“By using Asterisk we don’t have to pay extra licensing just to have a redundant backup.“

“It’s the great functionality that we love – e.g. a single DDI per employee, no matter where they are. We use an Asterisk server and have 6 staff connected to the server using Nokia E61/E70 phones.”

“We are a Microsoft Windows consulting firm, but have found Asterisk to be the killer app that has us using and promoting Linux.”

This last comment is particularly pertinent at the moment given Microsoft’s current campaign to drive VoIP solutions into the market, though I suspect MS is targeting quite a different audience.

Anyway, thought I would share this discovery of a Linux workload that I have not seen discussed that often before (though it may be that I just wasn’t looking). It is also interesting to identify another credible open source solution that appears to have genuine appeal to smaller businesses, at least those with an IT department capable of setting up and managing their own IP PBX solution. Asterisk won’t, of course, appeal to or even be accessible to everyone (skills sets, IT bandwidth, and so on) but those who use it are generally doing so very successfully.

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