Open Source Phone Systems: The DIY Approach to Business Communications

A fully effective communications network is crucial to the success of any business, regardless of its size or market niche. But enterprise-class phone systems often come with a hefty price tag, and for a small or emerging business that can sometimes be cost prohibitive. Enter the open source phone system, a do-it-yourself approach to business communications. These software-based phone systems can offer a cost effective alternative to more traditional, hardware dependent, and communications networks. Properly installed and maintained, they can deliver all of the features expected from an enterprise-class phone system at a fraction of the cost. They are an elegant solution to the problem of cost conscious business communications. That being said, there’s more to open source phone systems than meets the eye.

What is Open Source?

An open source phone system is, at its core, a software-based PBX (Private Branch Exchange). In short, it is the brain and nervous system of your office communications network, and it allows multiple phones within the same business to share the same phone lines and to connect with each other and the outside world. The leading proponent of this technology is Asterisk, a firm that began developing open source phone technology in 1999. Since then, their basic software has been adopted, and adapted, by a number of different service providers, including:

  • Trixbox
  • Elastix
  • FreePbx
  • PBX in a Flash
  • OpenVBX

All of these operating systems are based on the original Asterisk code, but being open source (and free for the public to modify) they each offer different features and user interfaces. This is an important point to consider, because the core of an open source phone system is its code. The Asterisk operating system is highly efficient, but it is also highly technical. True, it is (mostly) free to use and adapt, and that is its chief selling point. However, if you do not have a fairly high level of computing skills you will want to find an open source provider that delivers a user-friendly interface. Otherwise, the installation, modification, and ultimate day-to-day operation may prove to be something of a challenge.

Open Source Equipment, Installation, and Cost of Operation

Because open source phone systems are software-based, they dispense with most of the hardware costs associated with more traditional PBX set-ups. Basically, there are three major components to the system – a server, a LAN connection, and the telephones themselves.

  • The Server: Because open source phone systems are software-based, they can be installed on any suitable computer, and managed through a Graphical User Interface (GUI). For smaller businesses, running no more than 20 phone lines, a PC with a 1GHz processor and 1GB of RAM should be sufficient. For best performance, the PC should be dedicated to the single task of maintaining the office phone system. This, aside from the cost of phones, is the largest expense associated with an open source phone system. Of course, the better (and newer) the PC the less likely you are to run into any performance issues, but anything in the $700 to $1200 price range should suffice.
  • The LAN: The LAN, or Local Area Network, is what connects all of your business’ computers to each other and, ultimately, to the internet. Open source phone systems exploit VoIP technology to process calls, so your office’s LAN will become the conduit for all of your business’ communications, including both voice and data. Asterisk, and its many variations, has no specific requirements concerning the LAN, but one must be in place for this software-based system to work.
  • Phones: Finally, there are the telephone endpoints to consider. Open source phone systems are compatible with all VoIP phones, and these are available from a host of manufacturers. Depending on the style and features provided, these can cost anywhere from $50 to $250 per unit. You can also opt for so-called ‘softphones’, where a compatible operating system is installed on a mobile phone, laptop, or tablet. Open source phone systems can be made to accommodate standard non-VoIP telephones; however, this requires the addition of an SIP trunk service which will increase the costs of installation and operation.

It’s important to remember that an open source phone system relies on the internet to process calls, and as such your monthly data usage will be greatly increased. Depending on your internet provider, and your service contract, this may increase the fees and charges associated with your account.

Installation and Configuration

Installing an open source phone system can be a complicated business, despite its apparent simplicity. At its most basic, it is much like installing an operating system on a personal computer, which, depending on your skill level, can either go fairly smoothly or bring on a great deal of frustration. Again, it’s worth stressing the value of choosing a system that has been packaged with a strong user-friendly interface. Installing and configuring an open source phone system can get complicated, and the better the user interface the less likely you are to run into trouble. Alternatively, you might consider hiring a professional to install and configure your phone system, but that will, of course, add to the total cost of your investment.

Once the system has been loaded onto the server/computer, it’s time to set up the specific features and functions you want for your office communications network. This highlights one of the great advantages of an open source system, as they are, by their very nature, highly customizable. Using the Graphical User Interface (GUI), you will have access to all of the settings that govern your office phone system. Here you can assign phone lines, dedicate numbers and extensions, and activate the features and functions you desire.

Choice of Open Source Features

While cost is a major selling point for open source phone systems, it should not overshadow the availability of those features and functions that small business owners need to make their enterprise a success. Because these systems are based on open source software, they can support any features for which compatible code has been written. As we have seen, all open source phone systems are based on the original programming created by Asterisk, and software developers are free to adapt and add to that code free of charge and with no licensing requirements. That gives you a great deal of flexibility when it comes to configuring your office phone system, essentially allowing you to pick and choose only the features you need to support your business model.

Most prepared open source phone systems (such as the aforementioned Elastix, PBX in a Box, and TrixBox) offer a suite of basic features. These can vary somewhat depending on the designer and the service provider, and it is always wise to compare vendors before choosing a phone system. That being said, most prepared open source phone systems offer the following basic features:

  • Auto Attendant
  • Call Queuing
  • Call Recording
  • Call Forwarding
  • Conference Calling
  • Support for Bluetooth Enabled Devices
  • Voicemail

Additional features are, of course, available as open source modules which can be loaded onto your server to enhance and expand your office communications network. Many (but not all) of these modules are free for use, and can be downloaded directly from the software developers. However, it’s worth pointing out that free open source modules may not have been fully tested, and if your own computing skills are limited you may run into difficulties attempting any DIY upgrades. An IT specialist will come in handy here, but, again, will add to the cost of your phone system installation and configuration.

Is an Open Source System Right for Your Business?

Open source phone systems are a cost effective alternative to primarily hardware-based networks. They can be an ideal solution for small to mid-sized businesses working to a strict budget, and without the need for an extensive communications infrastructure. While, technically, an open source system should be able to expand to support a larger organization, the need for additional dedicated servers/computers and more specific and complicated code would likely defeat any potential savings. Generally speaking, an open source phone system is best suited to smaller businesses with less demanding communications needs.

Do-it-yourself phone systems have much to offer the small business owner, and the availability of open source software makes them highly cost efficient and remarkably flexible in the right environments. That being said, there is a definite learning curve involved in setting up and maintaining an open source office phone system. The benefits are clear, but the downsides cannot be ignored. If you lack the necessary computer skills and understanding, you may find it difficult to install and configure a reliable phone system. Of course, if you (or someone on your staff) is has the technical know-how, an open source phone system can not only save you money, but it can deliver the enterprise-class communications network you need to take your business to the next level.