The Joy of Asterisk

By Deane Barker on April 7, 2008

Dial D for Disruption: A good article about Asterisk, the open-source phone system.

Spencer is the inventor of Asterisk, a free software program that establishes phone calls over the Internet and handles voicemail, caller ID, teleconferencing and a host of novel features for the phone. With Asterisk loaded onto a computer, a decent-size company can rip out its traditional phone switch, even some of its newfangled Internet telephone gear, and say good-bye to 80% of its telecom equipment costs.

We use Asterisk at Blend and it’s been a dream. We spent $2,000 (75% of that was on really nice handsets, which you could buy cheaper) and created a 9- or 10-node phone system that companies were trying to sell for ten times that. We run it off a commodity white-box computer with a $400 card in it (and this is only for POTS — if you went pure Internet-phone, you wouldn’t even need this).

We have had virtually no problems with it, and we have all the features of some of the really high-end office phone systems:

  • Changing the hold music consists of dropping MP3s in a directory
  • When we get a voice mail, an email gets sent with the message attached as a WAV
  • We have a Web interface for voice mail, which shows us all the messages with their originating numbers, date, time, and length so we can asynchronously browse through our voice mail.
  • We have a VRU for off-hours (“Press 1 for Deane, press 2 for Joe…” etc.)

While this all may seem very mundane, try paying for it sometime — the costs will surprise you.

We’ve had such a great experience with it that we briefly flirted with the idea of spinning off a company to implement these systems in Sioux Falls. We figured we could mark systems up two or three times our cost and still come in way, way under the larger outfits.

Alas, we quickly realized that phone system support would be a different animal than we were used to. If someone’s phone system goes down, you need to be sure you have a truck, a ladder, and a human to drive over there pronto. The investment of capital and stress was more than we were looking for.