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Linux, open source power call center for Katrina, Rita victims

Open source software is at the heart of a new call center that helps reunite families separated by natural disasters.

As Hurricane Rita bears down on the Gulf Coast, there is at least one fear that can be put aside. If families get separated, they can quickly locate each other from any phone by calling Contact Loved Ones, a free service powered by an open source Asterisk PBX system and MySQL database running on Debian Linux.

Moved by the stories of families separated by Hurricane Katrina, Web development experts Dan Schoeffler and Yaakov Menken set up Contact Loved Ones (CLO) in a matter of days. Information about CLO and how to use it is now available in Red Cross centers throughout the Gulf Coast states.

CLO lets people leave messages that friends and family members can access via a call center. They can access the call center through local numbers set up especially for residents of Gulf states or the toll-free number, 866-78-CONTACT (6682).

Once a caller reaches CLO, he enters his home phone number and leaves a message. Another family member who enters that same home phone number can then listen to that message and leave one of his own.

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The technology behind CLO is a Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) voice mail system that is indexed by telephone number. Naturally, the dire need of Katrina victims made it imperative to get CLO up quickly. Fortunately, Menken and Schoeffler are well-versed in the open source components needed for this new type of phone system.

CLO's service currently runs on one MySQL-on-Debian Linux server on the back end and three Asterisk on Debian Linux servers on the front end handling calls. The service is hosted in the Baltimore data center of Level 3 Communications Inc.

Asterisk, in particular, helped Menken put the project in the fast lane.

"Asterisk, as an open source product, allowed us to use programming languages we already knew to interact with different applications," said Menken, CLO's chief technology officer and the CEO of Capalon Internet Solutions, a Web development services provider based in Baltimore.

MySQL also plays a key role in the call center. CLO has to provide fast data access to worried users, Menken said, and MySQL delivered.

"Although we store the voice messages as flat files, all of the call details and file storage information are stored in MySQL," he explained.

Menken said Debian Linux was chosen for the project because of its low cost and functionality.

"Linux is faster and more stable than anything that needs to devote resources to a [graphical user interface]," Menken said. "Only in rare cases do we undertake a development project on anything other than LAMP [Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP/Perl]."

CLO is not a one-shot deal.

"We'll keep it up so that people can use it anytime something of this nature happens," Menken said.

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