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Open source IP PBX saves serious cash for Michigan CAT

Open source Asterisk replaces Avaya system

By , Network World
December 02, 2010 07:05 AM ET

Network World - In a move that might send shivers down the spines of mainstream IP PBX vendors like Avaya, Cisco and ShoreTel, Michigan CAT has deployed an open source Asterisk IP PBX to handle its phone calls and contact center at half the cost of what commercial vendors would have charged.

Also read: Asterisk preps assault on unified communications

Even the CIO in charge of the decision was a little nervous about whether the free software could support 300 phones across seven sites, but with the urging of his CEO – an open source fan – he went ahead with the project anyway.
The software itself was free, but network prep, peripherals and a tech to handle the project full-time all came with a price tag. Overall the savings vs alternatives and the flexibility to add new custom capabilities over time make the choice seem obvious in retrospect, says Scott McCrea, CIO for the firm, which is a statewide dealership for Caterpillar heavy equipment

"I'm proud of our decision," he says. "They say nobody ever got fired for choosing IBM or Cisco. That can be true about choosing Asterisk."

McCrea may be a pioneer by choosing the open-source platform, but it's hard to say. The down economy hit PBX sales hard – down 25% in 2009 - says Matthias Machowinski, an analyst with Infonetics, and they have yet to recover. The crunch likely pushed more businesses to at least consider free alternatives.  "Open-source has been driving down prices," he says.

Measuring the number of CIOs like McCrea who are willing to download, learn, deploy and support the open-source PBX code is hard because the only number tracked is downloads. They've been steadily growing, according to Digium, the company that oversees the free version of Asterisk and sells enhanced, supported versions. But downloading the software doesn't mean it winds up in production networks.

A controversial report last year estimated Asterisk and other open-source PBXs held an 18% marketshare among PBX vendors in North America. The study by Eastern Management Group projected that use of open-source PBX software would grow by 40% this year.

Still it's not easy to make the leap away from communications platforms by solid vendors like Avaya, Cisco, ShoreTel, Siemens that have products and migration plans in place for customers to transition from traditional voice to unified communications that blends in video, chat, e-mail, conferencing and collaboration.

McCrea says his major concern was whether Asterisk could scale large enough to meet Michigan CAT's needs, so he initially bypassed it and spent six months evaluating IP phone systems from Avaya (the company's incumbent PBX vendor), Cisco, ShoreTel and Siemens.

Cost estimates came in at $300,000 to $400,000, and in January of this year McCrea's CEO Jerrold M. Jung pushed him to take another look at Asterisk. The company was already developing an ERP system based on open-source components, and he thought an open-source IP PBX might prove to be a good fit, McCrea says.

Talking to other Asterisk users convinced him Asterisk would scale, so he had to decide whether to hire a third party to deploy the system or hire someone to shepherd it through and stay on to expand its capabilities over time. He decided on the latter because he wanted ongoing support and development. He hired John Laffey in April.

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