Connection Telecom among VoIP's stars to rock Vegas

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Article source: ITWeb

Voice over IP (VoIP) is now widely adopted in the enterprise, and Asterisk, the open source software (OSS) telephony application, dominates this market. Hence, the 11th annual AstriCon conference, held in Las Vegas recently, was very much a big deal. Connection Telecom was there, celebrating 10 years in business and coming back as the winner in the first Astricon Hackathon.

Founding director Steve Davies says the conference gave pause to reflect on the simultaneous rise of VoIP, Asterisk and the telcos that backed both over the past decade.

VoIP triumvirate

"Going back 10 years, PBXs were dedicated, expensive, and proprietary boxes. When Asterisk came onto the scene in 2003, it was laughed off by the incumbent PBX vendors, but since then, it has led the charge in VoIP's steady ascension to virtual world dominance," says Davies.

Aside from cold statistics, the sense is that Asterisk is everywhere. "Even in proprietary IP PBXs you might find it routing calls or doing call centre queuing or voice mail," he says. In fact, it is so widespread that you've probably interacted with it without knowing. Every time you hear the iconic voice of Allison Smith on a telephone interaction, you're most likely interacting with Asterisk. Smith is the voice of Asterisk (samples here: http://theivrvoice.com/demos/.

The VoIP connection

In perfect synchronicity, the story of Connection Telecom began around the same time. Davies and long-time friend Rob Lith co-founded Connection Telecom in 2004, partly as a distributor for VoIP solutions, from Digium – the commercial custodian of Asterisk.

At the time, Davies was actively involved in contributing code for the Asterisk platform (he still develops, though more low-key). "Rob and I attended the first Astricon in Atlanta, where I did Digium's DCAP certification." His DCAP number, 1013, signifies being the 13th certified DCAP developer in the world. He was also Africa's first.

Ever since then, the company has emulated Asterisk's fortunes on local soil. Today, it rules the South African hosted enterprise VoIP market, according to BMI-TechKnowledge's 2013 Emerging Voice Systems research.

With growth, maturity

After 10 years, Connection Telecom has evolved and matured along with the VoIP market and technology.

Besides getting in on the ground floor, the company's success and maturation has been due to ongoing investments in reliability, security and performance.

Meanwhile, the VoIP market graduated from an enterprise-focused proposition to one that telcos could also employ, thanks to regulatory relaxation.

And at the same time, solution architectures mutated. The on-site PBXs of the early days were replaced by on-site hosting and management around the end of the first decade of the new millennium, in turn replaced by cloud-based hosting in 2012.

"All this change was clearly evident at Astricon," says Davies. "Asterisk is still at the core of most solutions, but there's a subtle change: it's not just a PBX anymore, but a telephony engine – the foundation of doing more innovative things in unified communications."

New adventures in VoIP

The current version of Asterisk – 13 – contains tweaks, fixes and optimisations of Asterisk 12 features. (Following a similar release policy as Ubuntu Linux, every other release of Asterisk is a long-term support release rather than a feature release).

V13 improved fairly long-standing conferencing features, including video conferencing, and adding users to two-way conversations more seamlessly. Much work continues to support higher and higher quality audio; Asterisk 13 supports audio codecs that can deliver "hi-fi" calls.

One very talked-about feature that has been given the evolutionary treatment is the project's SIP stack. "It had become unwieldy and difficult to maintain, so a new stack, built around the external open source PJSIP Project, was adopted," says Davies.

Another headline-grabbing feature, enthusiastically exploited by delegates, is ARI (Asterisk RESTful Interface), a new application programming interface connecting Asterisk elegantly into the world of Web 2.0-style software.

And just as big is the just-minted link between Asterisk and the Respoke Project, which uses the WebRTC feature in popular browsers to enable real-time voice, video, chat and application-level communications inside the market-leading Web browsers. "Web developers can integrate communications via Asterisk right into their Web applications using JavaScript. No clumsy plugins are required," says Davies.

One conference keynote presenter, Craig Walker, spoke about the UberConference concept, built around the latest Asterisk refinements, Davies reports. "UberConference reimagines conferencing with beautiful integration between a Web service and underlying Asterisk conferencing, and is a great example of what can be done with the modern Asterisk."

Another presenter spoke about unifying browsing history into telephony management with ARI. "If you can see someone has been browsing your Cartier watches and looks hot to buy, you may want to move them to the front of the call centre queue when they call in, and make sure they speak to your best agent. This is possible thanks to the new interface, and can work even better using Respoke," he says.

Reigning hackathon kings

In the same vein, Davies and his co-hacker (and flying instructor), Tony Russell of business partner Clarotech, won two categories of the inaugural Astricon Hackathon.

"We had a day to build, from scratch, an application from an unrealised concept. We decided to tackle the queueing system in Asterisk call centre applications. A challenge faced in large call centres is how to handle a queue so large that it exceeds the capacity of one single Asterisk server. Our alternative version uses ARI to create a queue that works independently of the individual Asterisk servers. We also integrated Respoke so that callers and agents can use the queue right from their Web browser. With the help of the Meteor Web development framework, we also showed a live view of callers waiting in the queue, and agents and their availability. We were awarded the prize for ‘Best use of Respoke', and we were delighted to also win the Popular Choice award – awarded by votes from conference attendees."

Way forward

Davies says Connection Telecom is excited about taking Respoke and ARI inspiration into the new year for its hosted contact centre and PBX customers.

But basic demand for telephony continues, he says. "In this regard, we will make an effort in the mobile solution space in 2015, and also look at Respoke-based conferencing, focusing on broadening our Web-based delivery."

On the whole, the Asterisk project is very healthy, and will certainly remain at the core of Telviva's engineering. "Asterisk architecture has been improved by leaps and bounds. The development team is doing a great job of constantly improving it. Capacity and reliability is going up all the time. Asterisk systems are everywhere, with 1000 concurrent calls on a single Asterisk server now routine, and with Asterisk servers running smoothly for months on end. What an impressive result for a little open source project that started when Mark Spencer decided that he couldn't afford a proprietary PBX for his new company!"

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