Is Open Source IP PBX Right for Your Call Center?

By Gary Barnett

Why are more and more companies looking to forego their traditional Private Branch eXchange (PBX) systems and are now opening their eyes to new Internet Protocol (IP) technology? The increased adoption of Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) and standards-based technology point to open source as a viable option in the contact center. Early adopters of this technology are drawn to the low cost, as well as the greater control and flexibility that open source telephony offers companies. However, as with any new technology, it is important to examine the needs and capabilities of the contact center to determine if open source makes sense for your organization.

Many companies are deploying Voice-over-Internet Protocol (VoIP) in their contact centers to help them gain a competitive advantage and increase flexibility. VoIP enables companies to combine networks and simultaneously transmit voice, data, and video over one “pipe.” This convergence allows companies to save on network and administration expenses, increase agent productivity and enjoy tight integrations with other solutions, thus providing a consistent experience across all communication channels.

If you’re considering deploying VoIP in your contact center, you should also be thinking about implementing an IP PBX. An existing PBX may effectively manage voice communications, but it cannot handle VoIP calls — an IP PBX can support both. An IP PBX enables companies to move to IP at their own pace – either immediately or via a gradual transition.

While the survivability of open source projects has been of concern to some, the phenomenal success of certain high-profile endeavors, such as Linux and Apache, should put those fears to rest and deliver proof that open source is here to stay. Open source is continuing to gain traction and is now taking hold of the contact center industry. For example, Asterisk, an open source IP PBX, has been downloaded 750,000 to one million times, with 250,000 reported installations since its first release in 1999. With approximately 350 developers contributing code to the Asterisk community, there are now roughly 300,000 Asterisk IP PBXs in production. The viability of open source, particularly in the contact center, is definitely valid – many IT groups feel that open source has the potential to bring value to their organizations and are therefore opening the door to an open source IP PBX system.

What Are the Benefits? Open source IP PBXs are architected to be as reliable and scalable as any closed source IP PBX. They present a fresh, new option for demanding enterprises, while delivering these benefits:

  • Cost-effective — An open source IP PBX can be implemented for one-third to one-half the price of proprietary systems that are on the market today. There are no associated software costs, as it can be downloaded for free and low cost SIP phones are readily available. There are minimal expenses relating to installation, depending on the expertise of your IT staff.
  • Vendor neutral — Using SIP and other telephony standards, open source IP PBXs can be easily integrated with applications from multiple vendors as well as existing TDM infrastructure to ensure seamless interoperability with the contact centers throughout your organization, whether they are open source or proprietary systems. These IP PBXs are specifically designed to help companies avoid being “locked-in” to specific vendors or products, resulting in better pricing and greater choice and flexibility.
  • Customizable — While typical open source IP PBXs offer more than 100 standard features, including all the expected capabilities, the number and scope of possibilities are infinite. Since the source code is readily available, companies can control and add an unlimited range of features and functionality to meet their unique and evolving needs, instead of spending money on and waiting for customized features to be developed by an outside vendor.
  • Rapidly developed — Proprietary systems use a pyramid model, where a few at the top of the pyramid are empowered to design the software while the rest of the IT team helps with the development process. This hierarchy process for technology development is generally slow and inefficient. On the other hand, open source telephony is powered by a large community of programmers. A multitude of users with collaborative development, real-world experience, and vested interests means that new capabilities can be quickly added and brought to market, and upgrades are timely.
  • Stable and secure — While it is not possible for any software to be entirely secure, open source enables constant peer review, which results in rapid identification of security breaches. Because a large community of users has access to the code, multiple people can be simultaneously developing bug fixes at no cost. And because open source is open in terms of both code and philosophy, there is no motivation for hackers to try to “crack the code.”

Is Open Source Right for You? As with VoIP, open source telephony isn’t the right choice for every company. Today’s early adopters of open source telephony include contact centers that are ready to fully or partially launch an IP strategy. They have reasonable yet dynamic business needs, but use vendors that are not able to offer the flexibility to meet those needs. They have relatively competent IT staff and some experience with software development, licensing and intellectual property policies.

Some industry experts have acknowledged that installation and ongoing support of open source IP PBXs remain the biggest obstacles to widespread adoption. Companies considering this technology should search for a solution with a packaged product offering post-deployment support and interoperability with other applications. This will allow companies to take advantage of the benefits of open source without worrying about potentially disrupting service to their customers.

Making the Leap to Using the Technology: The first step in implementing open source in the contact center is to identify the areas that require a more flexible solution and offer a high potential return from open source telephony. It may be wise for companies to initially focus on less ambitious projects to gain a better understanding of capabilities and potential pitfalls before tackling larger implementations. It is recommended that companies fully assess open source software for interoperability with other applications prior to implementation. It is also important that before deployment, companies gain a thorough understanding of the internal and external resources that are required to install, maintain, and continue development of an open source IP PBX. Lastly, identify IT staff and outside resources that are willing and able to provide active support.

Careful research and planning can help managers more fully appreciate all that open source telephony has to offer. Companies looking to make the leap to open source IP PBX will find that it is an extremely cost-effective platform that can provide a new, fresh options for increasing choice, flexibility, and control in the contact center.

Gary Barnett is chief technology officer and executive vice president at Aspect Software, a provider of contact center products and services.

[From Connection Magazine October 2006]

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