Last year, my department was granted the auspicious task of handling the campus telephony services at Westminster College. The existing phone system is a Nortel Meridian switch. The system is rock solid and has a good feature set, but it’s not inexpensive at all to maintain or extend. Lately, the PBX has become the roadblock for some initiatives due to the need for expensive upgrades. I should note that we are far from behind on maintaining this unit. Just last year (before IT formally took over), we made a major investment to bring the switch to a current hardware and software level.

Our voicemail system is currently the only component that’s seriously out of date. In fact, it’s so out of date that it’s completely unsupported. If we crash, well… it’s going to be a problem. Over the past year, I’ve learned the hard way that smaller Nortel accounts aren’t handled in the same way as larger ones, so I’m considering (considering is the key word) options.

Unless you’re a Harvard or a Yale, private colleges aren’t generally rolling in the dough. So as I look at these kinds of services, cost is always at the forefront of the equation. As things stand now, if I do anything new with voice services, it needs to fit within the existing budget. That budget includes the maintenance on the existing phone system, which I can leverage into a five-year financing program, meaning that I basically have five times one year’s maintenance to spend on a new solution.

I’ve previously considered Pingtel, Shoretel, and Mitel as possible replacements for my Nortel switch. Shoretel and Mitel came in very high on pricing, which honestly surprised me. Although Pingtel’s pricing was good, their references didn’t exactly jump up and down and say, “YEEHAW!” To be fair, their references weren’t negative, but they did not inspire confidence, either. I’m also close to landing the plane on an Avaya IP Office solution that fits my budget and technical needs. That said, I still have some concerns about the solution. At the end of the day, if nothing else jumps out at me, I will probably go the Avaya route, but I am looking at one last option before I take the plunge: open source Asterisk.

To say that I’ve read a ton of forums regarding Asterisk lately would be the understatement of the year. Opinions run the gamut from, “No way, no how” to “It’s better than grandma’s apple pie” and her apple pie is darn good! I suspect that reality lies somewhere in the middle and that the overall customer experience probably has as much to do with customer choice as it does Asterisk shortcomings.

Depending on your perspective, my project is either large or small, but it’s probably middle-of-the-road as far as Asterisk is concerned:

  • 200 IP phones
  • 350-400 analog devices
  • 2 PRI’s (incoming calls)
  • 20 SIP trunks (outgoing calls)

Here’s a summary of what I’ve learned thus far:

  • Asterisk’s feature set is quite rich and extending it is not rocket science if you know what you’re doing.
  • It’s not an “out of the box” experience. Someone with deep Asterisk knowledge will need to be involved.
  • Asterisk itself can support what I need.
  • You get what you pay for. If you cheap out on the analog/IP gateways, PRI gateways, servers or phones, your experience will be less than stellar. Of course, “You get what you pay for” could also be used to say that I should buy a commercial platform.
  • If the person implementing Asterisk has no clue how it works, the experience will be less than stellar.

So, here are my questions for you, dear reader:

  • Do any of you have experience with Asterisk in a larger installation?
  • How is overall stability/reliability?
  • How is overall voice quality?
  • Regrets?
  • Opinion

As I indicated, my main solution right now is the Avaya IP Office, but I’d kick myself if Asterisk could fit the bill and I didn’t at least look into it.

If there’s enough interest as judged by the comments, I’ll write a follow up.