Asterisk replaces Cisco CallManager

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Randy Savicky
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Asterisk replaces Cisco CallManager

If you recall, back in March, I talked about how Cisco was embracing the SIP standard, i.e. "Cisco is fully embracing the SIP standard on their desktop phones. I interviewed Cisco last week and they told me that I was the first journalist or analyst to have a "first look" at this major announcement." The March article explains in detail about Cisco's Unified Communications strategy and the impact embracing SIP will have on Cisco and the VoIP industry as a whole.

I wrote back in March, "Perhaps I misread the tone of the Cisco representatives during my call, but they initially seemed to downplay the significance of Cisco's embracing of SIP in favor of focusing on the entire Unified Communications platform. But in my opinion, Cisco embracing SIP is just as big news as their Unified Communications system..." This "big news" and impact on the VoIP industry will be explained in just a bit, but you probably figured it out already from the title of this article.

When I spoke to Barry O'Sullivan vice president and general manager of Cisco's IP Communications Business Unit back in March, he told me, "Our strategy is to put as much intelligence onto the network to allow applications whether our applications or others applications to take advantage of that intelligence. So call processing intelligence, presence intelligence, and rich-media applications. Our strategy is to be open and extensible. In other words, we have embraced SIP and built in natively into our platform and we'll make these capabilities available to third party applications and phones as well as our own applications and phones".

The "SIP support" exclusive that Cisco gave me caused my eyes to open wide with excitement since open standards will help drive the VoIP industry's growth. I knew what this news meant. Cisco, now offering SIP firmware for their phones and support for 3rd party SIP phones to connect to CallManager was huge.

But it also got me thinking how this could hurt Cisco. Cisco IP phones aren't cheap, and they run Cisco's proprietary Skinny Call Control Protocol (SCCP, or "Skinny"), so you are stuck with these Cisco phones and using Cisco CallManager once you buy them. Before Cisco embraced SIP back in March, you are locked into being a "Cisco shop". Now the beauty of SIP phones is that if you want to upgrade to a different IP-PBX that supports the SIP standard, it's a relatively painless upgrade to swap out the one and in with the new. Of course, it doesn't even have to be the same IP-PBX vendor. Sick of Cisco CallManager? Go with Asterisk. Sick of Asterisk? Go with Pingtel or another IP-PBX vendor. Point being, you get to keep your investment in the SIP IP phones without having to shell out ~$200-$300 per VoIP phone per workstation. Are you seeing where I am going with this? Nobody was ever fired for "going with Cisco", but IT managers are now seeing that they are paying a premium to use Cisco gear when they can just as easily use a less expensive open-source solution such as Asterisk.

So it came as no surprise to read my first application story today from Network World about somebody that was using Cisco CallManager and Cisco IP phones running the Skinny protocol that decided to switch the firmware to SIP and then dump CallManager in favor of a third-party IP-PBX - in this case, an open-source IP-PBX from Asterisk. Sam Houston State University (SHSU) is moving 6,000 students and faculty off Cisco to the open source Asterisk IP-PBX.

The main reason for this migration was cost, according to Aaron Daniel, senior voice analyst at Sam Houston State University. "We thought that it will be more cost effective in the long run to go with an open source solution, because of the massive amounts of licensing fees required to keep the Cisco CallManager network up and running," says Daniel. According to the article, each phone attached to the CallManager required a separate annual licensing fee to operate. I'm not sure that's entirely accurate. I could have sworn you weren't required to pay annual licensing fees for the phones, but you did have to pay an optional support cost based on the number of phones. But assuming this is true, this could become yet another strong driver to cause Cisco CallManager shops to jump ship to save on TCO (Total Cost of Ownership). In SHSU's Asterisk/Cisco setup, they will keep their existing Cisco phones but attach them to Asterisk servers on the back end, thus eliminating the phone licensing costs.

It's ridiculously easy to switch phones. You simply swap out the firmware on the Cisco phones from Skinny to SIP, reboot the phone, and the phone will automatically register with the Asterisk server. There are millions of Cisco IP phones and CallManager shops out there that now have a choice and as I said in my March article, that is a good thing.


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