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A Night with the Stars: The Future of Asterisk and Open Source Telephony

We recently had an opportunity to spend one of Charleston’s coldest nights with David Duffett and Mark Spencer solving most of the world’s problems. For those of you that don’t know, Mark was the creator of Asterisk® and the founder and current CTO of Digium® while David is the Director of the Worldwide Asterisk Community which means he’s never seen an airplane he didn’t like. As it happens, Mark shares a passion for aviation, and we’ll get to that.

Mark and David flew into Charleston’s "international airport" on one of my favorite airplanes. It speaks volumes about our small aviation hub when there are only a handful of reserved parking places and the names of two car dealers and Darius Rucker appear on three of them. Welcome to Charleston. For those that are airplane buffs, if you haven’t heard of the Very Light Jet revolution in commercial aviation, take a look at this article and then go talk to your boss about ditching commercial aircraft travel. "The variable operating cost per hour of the Eclipse 500 (insurance, maintenance, fuel, and replacement parts) is estimated at $372." That’s less than 25% of the typical operating cost of most private jets. To give you another point of reference, the Eclipse made the trip in one hour and one minute. The 500-mile, 8-hour trip from Huntsville to Charleston in a rented SUV is over $200 a day. One-way, refundable commercial airfare from Huntsville to Charleston is $842.10 per person and takes roughly four hours. Life’s too short! Now where were we?

Our reading of the tea leaves suggests that the days of using copper for communications are coming to a close which means the sales of analog cards for PSTN connectivity will continue to diminish. Since this has been Digium’s bread and butter for many years, we were curious about the future direction of the company. To his credit, Mark was smart enough to appreciate early on that being a great programmer doesn’t necessarily provide the skill set needed to manage a technology business. That responsibility has been turned over to Danny Windham, who has done a terrific job in positioning Digium for future growth with a broad mix of products. In the hardware department, Digium’s new line of high-end "smart" phones and failover appliances are a big hit. Digium’s commercial unified communications system aka Switchvox has perhaps the best graphical user interface of any commercial product on the market at a fraction of the cost. Then there are new cloud offerings including Respoke which brings communications to your web site with zero hardware costs. And finally there is Digium’s new SIP trunking which offers extremely competitive pricing for commercial enterprises. Whew!

On the open source front, Digium continues to lead the Asterisk charge with the release of Asterisk 13 last month. To its credit, Digium was smart enough to appreciate its development limitations even though Matt Jordan and his team have done a masterful job advancing Asterisk to a whole new level. The kludgey SIP days are officially over. Unfortunately, what was left by the wayside was Mark’s open source Asterisk-GUI which was incorporated into AsteriskNOW for many years. The latest releases now include a rebranded version of FreePBX®.

When Mark inquired about what we had been up to lately, we couldn’t help but chuckle in acknowledging that we’d been playing with Asterisk-GUI. While we don’t typically dig up bones in the graveyard, Asterisk-GUI is a little different. It’s a product that was dropped from the Digium lineup not because of its technical shortcomings but because of a lack of resources to properly support and further develop it as a Digium-funded open source product. Other companies have wasted little time incorporating Asterisk-GUI into their commercial PBX offerings. That includes Grandstream as well as Yeastar and ATCOM. And, of course, Digium’s AA50 also uses Asterisk-GUI. We’ve been looking at Asterisk-GUI as a low overhead alternative to FreePBX that could better support hobbyist platforms running Asterisk: the Raspberry Pi, BeagleBone Black, CuBOX, and even old Pogoplug hardware.

What’s different about Asterisk-GUI compared to FreePBX is its memory footprint and performance. Reloading FreePBX after making changes in the GUI is a laborious process on these tiny devices. On the other hand, reloading Asterisk-GUI is virtually instantaneous. Is it as feature-rich as FreePBX? No. Do most hobbyists and SOHO businesses need the product sophistication of FreePBX? Probably not.

Our focus with Asterisk-GUI is to develop a secure hobbyist platform which others then can embellish to keep the product current in the traditional open source manner. We plan to start with Asterisk 11 and see how it goes. We also plan to encourage participation by lots of current Asterisk-GUI development partners including Grandstream. Technical assistance still could be provided through the existing PBX in a Flash Forum for those that want to participate in development or just like to play. We got into open source telephony to experiment as a hobbyist, not to make money. We have been enormously successful… at least with respect to our financial objective.

To make a long story short, we sent Mark and David packing with Pogoplugs in their bags. So who knows what the future holds? Perhaps it will rekindle the development spirit that first led to Asterisk and Asterisk-GUI. And, whether it does or not, suffice it to say the Asterisk-GUI is an impressive software product and one we hope to tame in coming weeks for use with some of our favorite hardware.

In the meantime, Mark is busy bringing his open source enthusiasm to the aviation world. But, as I joked to Mark, there are a lot more telephones in the world than there are airplanes. So we’ll see what we see. One thing is for sure. We all can expect great things in coming years from Mark. He remains one of the most talented and prolific programmers in the country, and we’re looking forward to spending some time with his next creation regardless of the platform.

Continue reading Chapter 1

Originally published: Wednesday, November 19, 2014

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1 Comment

  1. i hope with this new start incredible pbx will include from beginning the german or european needs from beginning.

    in freepbx was so much to change that at least you just use a rudimentary system.

    [WM: We’re working on it. Tell us specifically what you’d like, and we’ll try to include it. Having said that, it will be much easier to make adjustments. All of the dialplan settings are sitting in one place so it’s very easy to do a global search and replace. Thanks for keeping us honest. 🙂 ]

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