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Is open source ready for VoIP?

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Open source in the enterprise is most widespread where end users don't see it - on specialised systems where the system only has to do one thing but has to do it well.

The best example is the Apache web hosting system, which has just under 70 per cent market share - but Linux is also widely deployed as an operating system for specialised security appliances.

There's one specialised device in an almost every office with more than a couple of staff - the private branch exchange or PBX, which handles incoming telephone calls, and distributes them to telephones on workers' desks.

These have typically been built on proprietary operating systems, from large companies such as Alcatel, Avaya, Nortel or Siemens. The arrival of IP-based PBX systems has allowed new entrants such as Cisco into the market. But a market already undergoing one revolution could well be fertile ground for another - the switch to open source.

The premise is certainly attractive. Instead of an expensive piece of proprietary hardware, you can get a generic server running a standard distribution of Linux such as Red Hat, and run a free open source PBX program, with no licence costs whatsoever.

The best-established open source telephony system is probably Asterisk, an open source initiative sponsored by Alabama-based company Digium. Another open source initiative, SIPfoundry, sponsored by Pingtel, was launched in Europe in May. The system costs around two-thirds of that for a proprietary PBX, at around £4,000 for a 20-user system. The major saving is in handset costs, just £50 for the Grandstream handsets.

As Eliot Robinson, executive vice-president of Sterling National Bank, says: "We knew we were interested in running voice over IP, and we were interested in open source because, obviously, the price was right."

The early adopters of open source telephony have certainly shaken things up. Last year Linux advocate John 'Maddog' Hall predicted that open source VoIP would be bigger than Linux, at least in revenue terms.

There's still some way to go before this comes true. But the arrival of such flexible, open and low-cost systems in a market dominated by high-margin proprietary products will certainly shake things up.

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