Open source IP PBX saves serious cash for Michigan CAT

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."

McCrae 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, McCrae 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.

Laffey says his first task was to familiarize himself with the Avaya system and how it was used at the seven Michigan CAT sites. He spent a couple of months learning that and the interoperability between the Avaya system and Asterisk so he could plan the cutover, and set up project management tools to help break down the transition into tasks.

He also worked with the firm's network manager to identify infrastructure needs to support VoIP as the old TDM phone system was shut down. That required upgrading to power-over-Ethernet switches to run the Polycom phones the company bought to support Asterisk as well as an IOS upgrade to Cisco routers to support a voice virtual LAN and quality of service.

He also laid in HP ProLiant servers provisioned to support Asterisk, as well as PRI and FSX cards to connect to phones and the old PBXs.

He then went about configuring Asterisk to emulate features of the Avaya system that were essential such as routing of calls by auto attendants and setting up voicemail.

In purchasing Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) trunks from Sprint to replace traditional AT&T T-1s, individual lines and Centrex services that made up the old phone network, Michigan CAT discovered bandwidth was over-provisioned. By replacing the AT&T connections with equivalent sized SIP trunks, the company is saving 40% right off the bat because SIP trunks cost less.

But he could get an additional 5% to 10% savings once the links are sized appropriately for each site, McCrea says. Some of the company's phone traffic is seasonal, so tuning the SIP trunk contracts to allow bursting may further savings, he says.

The total hardware cost of the Asterisk project came to $150,000, which includes phones, network upgrades, servers, trunk cards and line cards. Even with Laffey's salary tacked on, McCrae projects an 18-month return on investment based on reduced costs.

Beyond savings, Asterisk is already providing richer features than the aging Avaya system it replaced. Call records are more detailed, making it possible to keep track of how many calls go unanswered for a certain period and then to design routing schemes to distribute calls to different sites if the wait is too long. "The goal is to make everybody more efficient and diminish call waiting times," he says.

That monitoring will also let him know if a site's phones go down, and he's arranged with Sprint to automatically switch calls to other sites when they do. If the problem is with the Asterisk server, the company has preconfigured standbys that can be driven to the downed site to get it back online.

This is a step up from the old system where outages generally resulted in finger pointing between AT&T and Avaya for half a day. Someone had to call to have inbound calls to the downed site rerouted to company headquarters in Novi, Mich. "This gives us a much better plan than we had," McCrea says.

Receptionist workstations display more information about calls than was available via Avaya receptionist consoles, and the new system distributes visual voicemail as e-mail notifications with audio attachments.

Down the road, the company plans to integrate the phone system with its ERP system. That will give contact center agents screen pops of customer histories as calls come in and enable the routing of calls to the same agents that customers talked to the last time, he says.

At the moment, Laffey is an indispensible cog in Michigan CAT's telephony machine, but over time it will cross-train other IT staffers so they can step in when Laffey's not around, McCrae says. Already, some staffers have components of his skills, he says. Alternatively, the company could hire a third party to fill in if the need arises, he says.

In hiring Laffey, McCrea says he purposely chose someone with good people skills to ensure attention to training and fast responses to calls for help. He also regards the time Laffey spent familiarizing himself with the business and the uses of the phones as an investment that will pay off as he adds new features that will improve productivity.

CAT distributorships are generally family owned and the IT departments in different states share experiences, McCrea says, including knowledge about their phone systems. Most of his peers use Cisco phone systems, but he's looking forward to showcasing to them what he's done with Asterisk in Michigan.

"When I told them, I got a lot of cross-eyed looks," he says. "We've shown you can get this done fairly inexpensively and without fear."

Read more about lans and routers in Network World's LANs & Routers section.

This story, "Open source IP PBX saves serious cash for Michigan CAT" was originally published by Network World.

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