Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Asterisk Ideal for Small Biz? Not Without Help

Beware of journalists bearing glad tidings about the Next Big Thing.

Today I happened on another pitcher of open source kool-aid promoting Asterisk for small businesses. In a post on yesterday, Matthew Mckenzie says that Asterisk is one of the "truly exceptional [open source] success stories." I started to write a comment and it turned into an essay, so I'm taking the liberty to post an expanded version here.

Yes, Asterisk is one of the VoIP industry's greatest success stories, but before you elevate it to paradigm-shifting status I suggest asking the insurance company down the street about it. Dollars to donuts they never heard of it.

But even if a massive publicity campaign was mounted, there is a good reason why small businesses should be careful before jumping on the Asterisk bandwagon: Asterisk is notoriously difficult to use and implement. The Asterisk eco-system had its genesis in that fact (see my 2005 article Asterisk Breeds a Cottage Industry).

Enter the Asterisk-in-a-box solution. But the problem with many packaged Asterisk systems is that the only player who gets the open source benefit is the vendor, because many systems are as closed as the old style proprietary PBX.

Once you install them, you're locked into the vendor for upgrades, enhancements and equipment. Plus, typically users don't get access to the full Asterisk feature set -- which is what makes the open source PBX so attractive in the first place. So customers end up with the same old siloed communications problem when they want to do something that's not "in the box."

The argument for this limitation is simplicity. But the ultimate simplicity is not to have an on-premises system at all -- which is likely to be the preference of many small businesses. And here's the place where Asterisk may be most likely to play in the small and home office space.

Of course, that moves the Asterisk usability problem to the service provider -- who has other things on his plate besides becoming an Asterisk authority. And if Asterisk-in-a-box solutions are limiting for end users, they're doubly so for service providers.

One system that does deliver for service providers is Thirdlane Technology's PBX Manager. One of the first Asterisk management systems, PBX Manager is also the only one that supports multi-tenant installations. Further, Thirdlane uses standard Asterisk and Linux formats and tools so that it's extendable for unified communications. Plus it can be used with any IP phones so customers don't have to replace perfectly good equipment when they want to upgrade.

Bottom line: Don't believe all the snake oil you hear about open source. Check under the hood.


Anonymous said...

Thirdlane PBX Manager is definitely NOT the only multi-tenant Asterisk solution...I suggest you search again.

Carolyn Schuk said...

I'm open - can you give me more information?