In the last few years the communications industry has been taken by storm through the invention of an open-source communications platform named Asterisk invented by Digium (www.digium.com) founder Mark Spencer. An article written for the January 2004 issue of Internet Telephony magazine by yours truly was titled, “Open Source Telephony. . . The Next Big Thing,” predicted open-source communications would become a huge phenomenon and it has perhaps exceeded everyone’s expectations of growth.
Digium is headquartered in what seems at first to be an unlikely place. . . Huntsville, Alabama. In fact if you drive far enough away from the company’s headquarters you might imagine there is no technology in the area but instead an entire economy dedicated to farming.
As it turns out, a close look at some of the buildings in the Huntsville area shows a preponderance of these edifices are devoted to jet propulsion. Rocket science it seems is big business in Alabama and could explain why your rocket science jokes don’t go over too well in this part of the south.
Another telecom company makes its home in Huntsville. Adtran (www.adtran.com) is located nearby and has been an integral part of the networking industry for a few decades. Mark was working at Adtran before he decided to launch Digium and Adtran is in large part to thank for funding Mark’s idea.
Recently, the company brought in Danny Windham to become the CEO of Digium leaving Mark to focus on the technology as CTO. What better opportunity I thought than to make a trip down to Huntsville and interview the pair. Asterisk is being used throughout the world in service provider and enterprise environments and the global vision of Mark and Danny could have impact across a number of sectors and technologies.
Our lengthy discussion started with Mark and Danny telling me that the fact that Danny is working at the company signals that open-source has gone mainstream and the goal now is to have the organization cross the chasm to the mass market where customers will not care if their solution is open-source or not.
Danny explains the culture at Digium is more like that of a west coast company and this is not something he plans to change but he is adapting to it. What he does want to do however is to ensure that he puts the proper business face on the organization.
When asked about the people working at Digium, Danny answered quickly that they were intelligent and striving for technical excellence. He continued, “They are interested motivated, passionate and driven about developing code.”
“The company has to be best at something,” he continued and finished the thought by saying they are the best at building open-source communications platforms.
When asked how they find the people they hire, Mark responded that many people seek them out and could be friends of others already working at the company. He continued by saying employees need to buy into the vision of what the company can be.
I naturally asked Danny to describe this vision and he explained that his best friend is a pastor who happened to be having lunch at a local restaurant and was discussing Danny’s proposed career change to Digium. At this point a person at the next table became intrigued with the conversation and a cross-table discussion ensued wherein the person at the other table mentioned that Asterisk has the potential to change the world.
I must admit some of the meaning of the conversation is lost in the written word but suffice it to say the enthusiasm in which this information was conveyed to me was pegged at a ten out of ten.
Danny continued saying Digium wants to be the de facto company for support of Asterisk and they want to offer all things Asterisk such as documentation, cards and turnkey solutions. The goal is to allow the mass market to benefit from the open-source model.
I asked what the biggest threat was to Danny’s goals and he responded, “The open-source product itself.” He pointed out the open-source version of what they produce is available free of charge and this fact forces the company to always add value and to be good at what they do. Areas where they add value are currently service and support.”
Windham continued by saying customers can see what individual components cost and as such this takes the “proprietary” business model apart. By this he was referring to the ability to lock customers into purchasing high-priced components from your company once they have purchased a core system from you.
At this point Mark Spencer added to the conversation by saying, “Customers are not trapped.” He continued, “We must execute correctly to retain and recruit their business.” Mark went on to explain his company works hard to get changes into the software while other companies in the space pick a narrow piece of the market to play in and don’t necessarily contribute back to the community.”
To this, Danny added that his company can be viewed as having a church and state relationship where Asterisk is the church and the state is Digium. The church needs to be protected and when making business decisions the company has to be cognizant not to alienate them.
I asked for an example where there was alienation and was told the community does not have a big monolithic personality and it is not possible to live and breathe without alienating someone. The goal is to not alienate the core.
Danny mentioned some in the community weren’t happy with the release of Asterisk Business Edition. Mark explained that some complained but the reality is that contributors to Asterisk cannot place restrictions on where the code is used and this protects the sanctity of the code.
He continued that Digium has the freedom and flexibility to integrate these improvements into other code. If this were not the case there would be limitations in what Digium could do like integrating certain stacks for H.323 support or adding speech codecs. Why? Because not all software is compatible with GPL or the General Purpose License.
I asked Mark for his thoughts on the GPL3 debate as the open-source community has been concerned that this latest version of the General Purpose License would force companies using open-source software to make their services available as open-source. In other words, if Google were to use GPL3 code as the basis for its services, they would have to provide their search services as open-source back to the community.
Mark says his company hasn’t made any decisions on whether to release the code under GPL3 or not. He went on to say licenses are not retroactive. . . Other people can fork the code and go in another direction.
I then asked about Asterisk Now and Danny explained it consists of Asterisk, the Asterisk GUI and everything needed to run Asterisk and develop on it. Danny said, “It is Asterisk for Danny. Mark can install Asterisk as it exists. Danny can install Asterisk Now as it exists.” Danny went on to say it is the software appliance of Asterisk and gives the best of both worlds as changes in the GUI find themselves in the appropriate configuration files, allowing Mark and Danny to manage the same server with no limitation as to how changes will be made.
Both Mark and Danny both see this product as bringing Asterisk to the mass market as it reduces the need for Linux expertise.
As it appears that the company is walking a customer tightrope of sorts, focusing on launching profitable products and services on the one hand and keeping the core of the volunteer force happy on the other. . . I asked them what they want the Asterisk community to know about the company’s future direction.
To this, Mark responded, “We are working hard to build more infrastructure to support the developer community,” adding, “More developers make the process smoother for contributors.”
Danny added the company is making a plan to allow companies to sponsor programmers at Digium. In other words, your company sends a programmer to Huntsville and Digium will in turn manage them.
He further went on to say they are interested, concerned, motivated and committed to fostering and growing the community to be successful.
Windham continued saying some people contribute code to the community as it is fun but most are contributing to help solve problems. He continued, “The value that we add such as code review, integration and enhancing features, make it worthwhile to contribute to the community.”
Danny exclaimed, “These programmers are the lifeblood of the product.”
From there, I thought about the future and asked where the company sees Asterisk in the next five years in the broad communications market.
Danny’s goal is to allow Asterisk to penetrate the mass market, become easier to use and become a leading choice in the deployment of communications infrastructure. Mark mentioned that Asterisk today is a technology with a broad feature set that can address a number of different telecom markets, from home users to carriers. Mark wants to see Digium and its partners support all the markets he feels Asterisk is capable of serving.
As the interview got close to wrapping up I felt compelled to ask about a market research report the company is working on. I had caught wind of this report being in the works a few months earlier. Thankfully, Digium’s VP of Marketing Bill Miller was there to answer this question. He told me that, on many market research reports, he believes Asterisk is the largest deployment in the “other” category of corporate communications solutions. This category is typically 12%, meaning that the company makes up the majority of this 12% of deployments.
From there we started a discussion on how the company prefers to only announce deployment numbers which they are sure to the best of their ability to be accurate. My final question centered on the working relationship between Mark and Danny, the “dynamic duo” of open-source communications.
Danny started out by saying that Digium is still a small company and he is having fun. He elaborated by explaining there was a point in his life when he wrote software but this is something he wants to do.
He likes to figure out how to build a business model for the situations the company is in and he feels this is something Mark doesn’t want to do. He finished by saying, “We can each do what we want to do. The relationship is very good and hopefully stays that way for a very long time.”
Mark chimed in by saying it has been amazing. “I had to run the technology and business side.” He went on to say, “I reached a point where I wasn’t doing a good job at either.”
Danny was brought on as someone Mark could trust to run the business side of the operation. The two worked together for seven years as Danny used to work for Adtran and sat on the Digium board.
Mark couldn’t think of anyone he would rather have as CEO and subsequently no longer worries 100% about every aspect of Digium.
At the end of the interview we proceeded to a tour of the new building the company is constructing. So far, concrete has been poured and you are able to see the framing for the offices and rooms. I was able to see where the software and hardware developers will work as well as where the management team will reside. The company has ambitious growth plans as they have purchased enough land to build two more buildings and can house the better part of a thousand people at this location.
Not only was this the first time this editor has ever had a tour of a building before it was finished in the course of an interview, it is also the first time a company founder told me that I had to take a ride in their car — without a specific destination in mind.
Mark has a car which is affectionately called “The bucket”, a term for a specific kind of hot rod. It is a mix of American components and looks like a retro 50s or older hotrod. It had been totally rebuilt, Mark tells me, and as I climbed in by stepping on the rear wheel and over the space where another car maker might put a door. . . Mark told me how old the car was but a short circuit in my brain kept me from remembering this detail. I surmise my brain overloaded temporarily when realizing we were about to go on a joy/thrill ride in a car that may have been driven at one point by Henry Ford I.
I stepped off the rear tire and squeezed in the cockpit next to Mark, who when I glanced over — just inches away, was smiling from ear-to-ear. Mark smiles often and as he drove off and we got to talking I didn’t realize we were ultimately greeted with a very smooth stretch of pavement. It was at this point Mark came to a stop for a moment.
I knew what was coming and I took a deep breath. . . As I exhaled, Mark let loose on the accelerator and the car hit triple digit speeds in what had to be supercar-speed territory. But we weren’t driving a BMW or Ferrari. . . It was a car that had been rebuilt from the ground up by a local mechanic with parts from a number of suppliers.
But this car differed greatly from exotics of today as the drive in such an open-air machine is more visceral than in that of the more civilized cars being produced these days.
The acceleration Mark and I experienced is analogous to what Digium and Asterisk have done to telecom. They have taken a 100 year-old industry and rebuilt it with components from around the world and in the process have made a company which is accelerating as fast as “the bucket.” The only difference is that while the bucket will remain true to its roots as an open-air roadster, Danny has been brought into Digium to add a roof, ABS, traction control and other niceties and necessities.
In other words, a company may need an infusion of traditional corporate essentials to race to the next level. Just as it is not easy to add new technology to a car not designed for it, it will be a challenge to keep all of Digium’s strengths as it expands ever further.
Danny certainly has his work cut out for him. His integration into the corporate environment seems to be going smoothly and as long as the company can continue to come up with new revenue generating ideas without alienating the core of Asterisk developers, they are in the pole position to keep this growth engine roaring for years to come.