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Astricon 2011

Last week was Astricon 2011, which took place just outside Denver. It is fascinating to watch both Astricon and its sponsor Digium mature. Astricon started as a venue for developers to discuss how to make open source telephony more powerful. But the current Astricon is much more than that.

Digium, with about 160 employees, has had a relatively major impact on telecommunications. The company has three distinct personalities. First, it plays guardian to a community of highly technical people that are collaborating on open source telephony. Originally, this was Digium's entire identity and thus it's still the most mature of its personalities. Asterisk is 12 years old now, and it is amazing how many industries, countries, and product categories the product penetrates.

Nor is its progress slowing; new ideas of where to take the PBX continue. Xorcom previewed a product that integrates a PBX with health care resident monitoring. Residents communicate both actively and passively with the server via Zigbee wireless devices. The system monitors residents and can uses its Asterisk core to alert staff when a pattern deviates or when a resident presses a button. This type of functionality is typically found outside the PBX and integrated via analog lines--now it's one platform optimized for a specific vertical.

On a related note, Digium awarded Clarity, a division of Plantronics, the annual Innovation Award. Clarity uses Asterisk in its call centers in association with ClarityLogic, which allows agents remote visibility and control into Clarity amplified telephones and assistive listening devices. "If it weren't for Asterisk and the Asterisk community, we would not be able to deliver the level of customer support that we are now capable of providing," said Doug Kilgore, systems engineer, Clarity. "Thanks to Asterisk, we simplified the customer support process, minimized user error and dramatically reduced the number of product returns."

But there is more to Asterisk than community, Digium also has a business side to open source which involves hardware, support, multiple editions of Asterisk, and various professional services including training. An impressive ecosystem around a free core offering. This aspect of Digium is less developed, especially at Astricon. The company offered little insight into its offerings and plans. No keynote presentations, and relatively minor announcements were made at Astricon.

Then comes the newest side of Digium, its commerical PBX side. Digium acquired Switchvox, an Asterisk based turnkey PBX, in late 2007. Switchvox has Asterisk internals, but it is not open source. The Astricon conversations about Switchvox are aimed more at resellers than developers, but its growing catalog of APIs pose an alternative for customization and extensibility. Switchvox 5.0 was released last May, and attendees got hints of what might be coming in 5.5 (1Q12). Based on the clues, one might expect Exchange integration and IMAP are coming.

These three personalities result in an unusual mix at Astricon. For example, direct competitors to Digium hardware were exhibiting. Competitors simply don't exhibit at other vendors' events, but Digium fosters its community first. Asterisk and Switchvox attract just about everyone that makes a SIP phone, including competitors Cisco and Aastra (which respectfully only demonstrated SIP phones). Asterisk attracts developers (consultants, application providers, and end users), and Switchvox attracts resellers (premises and hosted). Not to mention, Asterisk has strong international appeal too. To put it simply, Astricon attendees represent a diverse group.

The announcements were light this year, but it is clear Digium has news up its sleeve. Most likely the development efforts just didn't coincide with the event. Even the big announcement that was made (Asterisk 10) wasn't ready--but coming soon. More announcements are expected, probably in Q112.The areas to watch are Switchvox and Asterisk SCF.

The biggest news at Astricon was the imminent release of Asterisk 10. Trivia question: What release came prior to Asterisk 10? Answer: Asterisk 1.8. Based on the old plan, the new release would have been 1.10, but Digium likely felt a new convention was necessary to properly reflect the maturity of the product. Besides its numbering, the big changes in 10 are a major update to its media engine, giving Asterisk far broader codec support, including a new trunking codec for SILK, the Skype codec. Other big changes include an updated conference bridge (now supports multi rate participants), T.38 gateway support, text message routing improvements, improved video support, and more.

Digium offered a status update on Asterisk SCF which was announced last year. The first public beta of SCF is expected next month, with a planned first release in Jan 2012. The expectation set is for a simple yet extraordinary product. SCF continues to be primarily developed by Digium, but community contributions have started and are expected to accelerate after the beta release. SCF includes support for IPv6, fail-over, and fully documented APIs.

One of the highlights of each Astricon is the Fastest to Dial Tone contest. Here, Asterisk-savvy participants race the clock to configure Asterisk into a working system--less than 5 minutes is highly respectable. Digium is now a year into Fastest to Dial Tone on SCF, and the clock is still ticking. It isn't clear yet if SCF will become a new personality for Digium (new development environment, new mission) or blend into its existing Asterisk personality and revenue models.

Dave Michels is a frequent contributor and blogs about telecom at PinDropSoup.