Open source telephony new star at TV producer

Open technology competes in proprietary PABX world

When TV production company FremantleMedia Australia had an opportunity to move to IP telephony during an office refurbishment, the open source Asterisk proved itself to offer everything required and more for the 150-plus handset deployment.

The company used a Samsung PABX for about four years and a replacement was driven by a merger, the refurbishment of an existing building, and a need for more handsets.

FremantleMedia's IT manager Alan Fear, said with IP telephony being "the buzzword", the team decided to evaluate the options.

"I knew about Asterisk and it seemed like an attractive proposition, but to give the organization a feeling of comfort we needed to get commercial support, especially as it is open source software," Fear said.

After searching the Internet Fear found local Asterisk integrator Digital Armour Corporation, which helped set up a 50-handset pilot.

"It was a little bit rocky to start with as it was a hardware issue," Fear said. "We were using a Digium card and the firmware was a bit funny, but once we got on top of that it was all okay."

When the refurbishment was complete, the Asterisk system was moved to the main office in an "easy migration" and now more than 150 extensions are available for the 120 staff.

The IP desk phones are mostly Linksys SPA942 four-line phones. During the testing phase FremantleMedia looked at units from Snom, Polycom and Cisco, and while "they all worked" Linksys was chosen as it was "good looking, functional, and easy to use".

"The previous system being proprietary gave us no scope to do anything other than what Samsung provided us so there was a distinct limitation," Fear said. "One of the biggest advantages of Asterisk is we can customize it to our needs with scripting on the server or by rethinking how you use the system. Take the integration of faxes, for example. You can do this with any PABX, but you need to bolt on another server. With Asterisk we can use 10 in-dial lines to deliver faxes electronically. That saved us about 30K by using Hylafax as our fax server."

Another in-house application of Asterisk is speed dialing to and from the security company, which Fear said was an easy way ensure direct communication.

"We now have an operator console on reception, that is a big plus for the receptionist," Fear said. "It's extremely reliable and a very good system."

Regarding cost, Fear said Asterisk cost about 50 percent of an equivalent system. The company looked at Mytel, and upgrading Samsung to IP and even with buying all new handsets it was still cheaper.

"On running costs we have saved money as we previously used an external conferencing company, but now use Asterisk's conferencing facility," he said.

The conference service was costing upwards of $1000 per month.

With voice and data on separate LANs, FremantleMedia has not had to purchase anything proprietary as the system comprises a HP DL380 box with 2GB of RAM, SAS disks running the Trixbox 2.2 distribution with FreePBX, and Linksys 24-port PoE switches.

"This means we can easily replicate our environment," Fear said.

The company bought 10 G.729 licences, but it is not using it as calls are not being placed over the Internet. External calls are serviced with Optus over the PSTN.

Asterisk also delivers voice messages to e-mail and redirects support calls to the OTRS helpdesk application.

"With the old PABX we were under maintenance and at the beck and call of Samsung, now we have absolute control over the same thing," Fear said.

Digital Armour CEO Maria Padisetti said FremantleMedia is a perfect example of how any business, big or small, can benefit from open source technology.

"FremantleMedia is a highly efficiency-driven business and if it can use Asterisk to its advantage with a proven time record of system performance, maybe it's time more companies evaluate this alternative for their businesses as well," Padisetti said.