They say that necessity is the mother of invention. In the case of the open source PBX that is absolutely true. The solution that forms the basis of most open source PBX software today, Asterisk, was developed by Mark Spencer in 1999 because he didn’t want to shell out $50,000 for a phone system for his growing Linux support company. There had been a few other open source phone system projects, but Asterisk really got the global population of communications geeks excited. As Mark worked on the core system, developers from all over the world began to submit new features and functions. Today there is a thriving developer community supporting and enhancing the Asterisk code and it has been used as the basis for many commercially available VoIP solutions.
There are many compelling reasons to consider an open source solution, including:
- It’s Free – (Who doesn’t like free?) Ok. It’s not exactly You still need hardware to run your software on, but a server that is sufficient to run Asterisk can cost as little as $600. You can obtain a downloadable version of Asterisk/Linux from Asterisk or any of several providers including elastix, PBXinaflash, FreePBX. Both free and paid support options are available.
- It’s Customizable – Because open source PBX software is IP based, it can be integrated with other applications like email, presence applications, CRM solutions, click to dial or any database.
- Community Support – Open source software is possible because of the community of administrators and developers that grows around it. They have contributed a wealth of information and are very active on related WiKi’s and forums. If you have a question, chances are that it’s been asked and answered.
- Interoperability – Open Source solutions can be used with almost every VoIP endpoint you can find including IP phones, ATAs, and gateways. It is all based on SIP protocol and SIP standards, so you are not limited to a particular phone model or manufacture and you can mix and match your desktop hardware.
- It works with SIP – The ultimate in communications cost control is the combination of open source PBX software and SIP trunking.
As you might be able to tell, we’re big fans of the open source options. However, it is absolutely not the right way to go for every organization. Digium, the sponsor of the Asterisk project warns,
“Asterisk is an application development framework. To build applications with Asterisk you should have basic understanding of Linux/Unix system administration, be familiar with the fundamentals of VoIP and/or legacy telephony, and be comfortable with the basics of script programming.”
Choosing one of the solutions like FreePBX or AsteriskNow that includes a GUI will make configuration easier, but this is likely not a good project for someone with no programming background.
So, is an open source PBX the right call for your organization? It may very well be if you have a knowledgeable resource with telecommunication skills available either in house or as an advisor. The savings are attractive, but it means taking on a responsibility that may be beyond the capabilities of your organization. There’s no single right answer, so carefully consider your specific organization before you decide.