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Open source PBX provider teams up with Intel

Digium -- provider of the open source private branch exchange (PBX) called Asterisk -- yesterday announced plans to support Intel Corp.'s NetStructure and Dialogic products in its Asterisk Business Edition.

Asterisk creator and Digium founder Mark Spencer says the move to support Intel -- a company that among other things is a highly established telephony card vendor -- will translate to more features and functionality for firms that use Asterisk-based telephony systems with Intel components. recently spoke with Spencer to find out a little more about this announcement and Asterisk, and to get his thoughts on the open source movement in general.

Spencer was 21 when he first created Asterisk and eventually realized that it could serve as a replacement for telephone switchboards, and that it could support VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) applications from phone calls to videophone. Today, Spencer's company Digium boasts over 200,000 Asterisk users, many of whom contribute new functionality to the system on a regular basis.

So, how's business?
It's been pretty active. Asterisk is kind of at the apex of a lot of different transitions that are kind of heavy right now like closed source to open source, [time-division multiplexing] TDM to VoIP, and even some of the other more periphery ones like centralized to peer-to-peer. All these areas are kind of hot right now, so at the intersection of all of them is an interesting place to be. Can you tell me a little bit about what this Intel announcement means for Asterisk users?
We're supporting the Intel product line and some of the Dialogic stuff in the business edition of Asterisk. We're working with Intel to jointly develop a channel driver [that is] an interface between their [media processing], as well as their physical line interface card. Now [customers will] be able to take advantage of some of the Intel resources in the business edition of Asterisk.

Dialogic has been in this space for a very long time. Dialogic being the division that Intel acquired that produces this stuff, and I think it's going to be a good thing in general in terms of giving people more choices. On the Asterisk side, it gives you a broader array of features and telecom approvals that you can have. You've claimed that "Asterisk can make any sort of enterprise hardware more effective because it turns it from just being a programming interface to an application environment." Can you elaborate on that?
Normally, if you have a Dialogic card, you would have to use their drivers to create your own applications. But Asterisk provides an application framework already. So not only can it out-of-the-box act as a PBX and support call queues and conferencing and VoIP 'gatewaying,' but it provides an environment where it's very easy to develop new applications using the AGI [Asterisk gateway interface], which is roughly analogous to CGI [common gateway interface]. Basically, anybody that can do CGI programming in whatever language they want, can do AGI programming – and do telephony stuff. It changes it from your having to be a telephony developer, to, if you're a Web developer, you can do this.

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Digium founder opens up about Asterisk

How do you respond to those in the industry who believe that the open source development methodology has yet to prove itself when it comes to creating highly customized business applications for enterprise users?
Well, I think that Asterisk is a demonstration of how open source really works. If you look at the telecom market, it has been really ripe for open source for a long time.

Here are some things, some general characteristics that make open source work:

First off, it helps to have a large market [that you're serving] and the telecommunications market is obviously a really big market. I mean it's huge, even compared to the operating system market.

[Another] one of the key parts of making open source is getting developers to develop on your project. That certainly helps. How do most of your customers go about implementing Asterisk?
Most companies out there are trying to create a completely packaged product. They want it to be some sort of a turnkey installation for their customers. Asterisk is really not that kind of a turnkey thing. Asterisk is components, a piece of software. Your [reseller] or distributor is typically going to do the integration of taking Asterisk and putting it on their server, picking their interface cards that they want to use and picking whose graphical interface they want to use and so on. We have resellers that have even done much more sophisticated things like creating their own message pathing systems to link servers together. All of this can be done because of the open source nature. That is what gives all this room for people to differentiate. Of the open source applications available today, which do you think will have the biggest impact on the IT industry?
Personally, I think that [] is going to be pretty critical. The reason I say that is that the barrier to entry for OpenOffice is very small. And the financial aspects, the cost savings of it are very, very large. I believe that OpenOffice will be one of the most compelling open source applications that is out there. I think that OpenOffice could be the stepping stone to getting people onto open source even right down to the platform. Once you've got somebody transitioned over to OpenOffice, getting them on to Linux is not as big a deal.

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