Massive Change Requires Flexible Technology

Every PBX in existence suffers from shortcomings. No matter how fully featured it is, something will always be left out, because even the most feature-rich PBX will always fail to anticipate the creativity of the customer. A small group of users will desire an odd little feature that the design team either did not think of or could not justify the cost of building, and, since the system is closed, the users will not be able to build it themselves.

If the Internet had been thusly hampered by regulation and commercial interests, it is doubtful that it would have developed the wide acceptance it currently enjoys. The openness of the Internet meant that anyone could afford to get involved. So, everyone did. The tens of thousands of minds that collaborated on the creation of the Internet delivered something that no corporation ever could have.[5]

As with many other open source projects, such as Linux and so much of the critical software running the Internet, the development of Asterisk was fueled by the dreams of folks who knew that there had to be something more than what traditional industries were producing. These people knew that if one could take the best parts of various PBXs and separate them into interconnecting components—akin to a boxful of LEGO bricks—one could begin to conceive of things that would not survive a traditional corporate risk-analysis process. While no one can seriously claim to have a complete picture of what this thing should look like, there is no shortage of opinions and ideas.[6]

Many people new to Asterisk see it as unfinished. Perhaps these people can be likened to visitors to an art studio, looking to obtain a signed, numbered print. They often leave disappointed, because they discover that Asterisk is the blank canvas, the tubes of paint, the unused brushes waiting.[7]

Even at this early stage in its success, Asterisk is nurtured by a greater number of artists than any other PBX. Most manufacturers dedicate no more than a few developers to any one product; Asterisk has scores. Most proprietary PBXs have a worldwide support team comprising a few dozen real experts; Asterisk has hundreds.

The depth and breadth of the expertise that surrounds this product is unmatched in the telecom industry. Asterisk enjoys the loving attention of old telco guys who remember when rotary dial mattered, enterprise telecom people who recall when voicemail was the hottest new technology, and data communications geeks and coders who helped build the Internet. These people all share a common belief—that the telecommunications industry needs a proper revolution.[8]

Asterisk is the catalyst.

[5] We realize that the technology of the Internet formed out of government and academic institutions, but what we’re talking about here is not the technology of the Internet so much as the cultural phenomenon of it, which exploded in the early ’90s.

[6] Between the releases of Asterisk 1.2 and Asterisk 1.4, over 4,000 updates were made to the code in the SVN repository. Between the releases of Asterisk 1.4 and 1.8, over 10,000 updates were made.

[7] It should be noted that these folks need not leave disappointed. Several projects have arisen to lower the barriers to entry for Asterisk. By far the most popular and well known is the FreePBX interface (and the multitude of projects based on it). These interfaces (check out for an idea of how many there are) do not make it easier to learn Asterisk, because they separate you from the platform or dialplan configuration, but many of them will deliver a working PBX to you much faster than the more hands-on approach we employ in this book.

[8] The telecom industry has been predicting a revolution since before the crash; time will tell how well it responds to the open source revolution.