Voiceroute Druid Open Source Edition Launches offering New Open Source Asterisk GUI Front End

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Voiceroute Druid Open Source Edition Launches offering New Open Source Asterisk GUI Front End

Voiceroute gave me an exclusive first look at their latest Asterisk-based solution called Druid Unified Communications Server, which today launched their open sourced version at www.voiceroute.org. Druid UCS gives Asterisk fans a new and powerful open source Asterisk-based Unified Communications solution. Besides now being open source, one of Druid's highlighted features is a user-friendly admin graphical user interface that makes extensive use of AJAX for a rich user experience for easier setup and ongoing administration. I should point out that FreePBX is also open source and is bundled with Asterisk-based solutions such as trixbox, PBX in a Flash, and Elastix. It's become one of - if not the most popular GUI-based front-end to Asterisk. While Druid aims to take on FreePBX in this particular GUI arena, it goes far beyond simply adding a pretty web-based GUI. In fact, Druid adds functionality to Asterisk that is missing or lacking, such as IM based call control, rich end user communications portal, Shared Line Appearances (SLA), unified communications (UC) capabilities, and Microsoft Active Directory.

Voiceroute visited TMC and gave me a full demo of their latest wares. In just 10 minutes Voiceroute demonstrated building a completely working IP-PBX system with auto-provisioning phones from Cisco, Aastra, and Polycom. In addition, I interviewed Ming Yong, CEO of VoiceRoute to find out more about Druid, including the reasoning behind making Druid open source as well as the new features that Druid brings to the Asterisk platform.

First, I asked Ming what role unified communications would play in the Asterisk arena. Ming replied, "Honestly, nobody has done a good job, especially in the open source space with regards to unified communications (UC) and now in the commercial world dominated by Microsoft and to an extent Avaya, each provider has its own understanding of UC. We felt that there is a gap. We believe Druid is one of the best in its market right now for IP telephony and unified communications. In Druid we've recently added unified fax, IM, and we have mobile integration now." In speaking with Ming, it was apparent to me that Ming has lofty and yet truly noble goals for this open source unified communications project when he boldly claims, "The aim of the project is to present to the world the best open source unified communications project that people can actually have a say on what UC really means."

Administrating Druid was a breeze. Adding SIP trunks, PRI/T1 trunks, etc. was very easy to do using the web-based interface that makes extensive use of AJAX. Here's a look at the main screen after you logon to Druid with the Advanced menu tab expanded just to demonstrate the AJAX functionality:

I should also point out that you can check out the user interface by going to the Druid demo website where you can play with it online simply by logging in as the administrator with username "admin" and password "admin". Alternatively, you can logging in as extension 1000 with voicemail pin 1000 by using username “1000” and password “1000”. This next screenshot below shows how easy it is to edit/manage extensions. It too makes extensive use of AJAX making administrating Asterisk very easy to do. Ming would argue it's easier than FreePBX. I personally am so used to using FreePBX that it's hard for me to judge, but I will say FreePBX is a bit convoluted and Druid seems easier to navigate.

As for features, the latest version of Druid UCS will feature " Mobile Bridging". Every time a call comes into the DID or the extension, the call will ring the cell phone at same time (dual-forking the call). From the cell phone you can perform call control via DTMF touchtones to do call parking, transfer, and even record the call.

For the IM portion they are using XMPP via a Jabber server and have integrated it closely with the telephony functions to allow for example a popup window to display the incoming caller's CallerID. You can accept or reject the call from the desktop call control application. XMPP will act as the call control back to the SIP-based Asterisk server running Druid. Interestingly, Ming told me that they are working on integrating both XMPP presence as well as SIP presence together. So for instance, if you lock your workstation or set your status manually to "Away" (XMPP), it can automatically tell the SIP-based Asterisk that you are unavailable and do stuff like automatically route incoming calls directly to your voicemail (no ring), log you out of any ACD queues, etc. Ming stressed, "These features are all done using Asterisk and other open source components.  The whole point of Druid is 'open source UC' where people have a say and developers can contribute modules. Here's a screenshot of the open source Pidgin client (used to be Gaim) with an incoming call coming in as seen via the system tray screen pop-up.

There are two different Druid versions. Druid OSE (Open Source Edition) and Druid UCS (Unified Communications Server). Ming explained "The philosophy we are taking is not the same as other commercial open source projects where you have the open source branch and then you have the commercial branch which is very similar to the open source branch except you have support. We're not doing just support. In fact, we're going many steps deeper." He continued, "We will be certifying, testing and making Druid UCS a focused product with clear roadmap and direction for enterprises. While this means Druid UCS might not have some bleeding edge features as our open source edition, it will still have other exclusive enterprise level functionality making it very competitive against other commercial solutions..."

With the built-in IMAP support, Voiceroute is working on making Druid UCS capable of synching voicemail that resides on the Asterisk server or on the Exchange Server with Exchange UM (Unified Messaging) running. Thus, if you delete the voicemail from Asterisk it will also delete it from the Exchange Server and vice-versa. This is a critical integration feature not yet seen in other Asterisk-based solutions. More importantly, Druid UCS currently has basic integration with Microsoft Active Directory. We plan to improve on this such that you can provision phones based on Active Directory, and you can provision Druid users so that a single Druid user can log in and use his logon PIN for his voicemail and that same PIN for his web portal and SIP softphone. Basically one unified PIN for all of your communications. Voiceroute has done all of this inside Asterisk along.. For faxing Druid uses IAXmodem softmodem along with the HylaFax faxing software.
Additionally, this platform supports the Linux 'yum' command for performing updates. Ming explained, "We were the first to actually do a repository-based upgrading in Asterisk" On a related note I asked Ming, "I know there's a lot of issues with some of these Asterisk-based distros, where if I want to customize the configuration files and then use the web interface it overwrites my manual changes to the configuration file. Have you solved that problem where you want to use the web admin inteface but you also want the granularity to be able to customize the config files?" Ming responded, "Actually, we've solved all of those problems. Like you say, some Asterisk users like to tweak their .conf files. What we've done is built a very sophisticated parser. I would argue our parser is probaby better than what Asterisk has. It actually parses through it and leaves your edits there. So when you upgrade, our system will leave your .conf files unchanged and we just append. So every time you upgrade you simply type 'yum -y upgrade' and you're done!" Ming proudly added, "We've pretty much solved this whole config file and upgrading issue, which is why we feel we have the best Asterisk-based telephony distribution out there and that's why we wanted to open source the Druid web user portal as that is a key strength of Druid UCS.

Here are some screenshots:

Druid user portal with all the main functionalities such as Unified mailbox for fax & voicemail, time based call routing, recordings, settings.

Unified mailbox where both voicemail and fax are stored.

Click on “Send Fax” allows sending out of fax from Druid user portal

Time based call routing that has full AJAX support. Mobile bridging is available by checking the option. Call forwarding, follow me is also available. According to Voiceroute, they have users who set over 15 time based call rules for lunch time, dinner, etc.

In Druid they support auto-provisioning of phones and Ming stated they were the first to support mDNS. They also support CDP (Cisco Discovery Protocol) so you can plug-and-play Cisco phones. Unlike many Asterisk distros which only auto-provision a limited set of brands, Druid can auto-provision Polycom, snom, Aastra, and Cisco phones, which covers the most popular IP phones.

Additionally, Druid has XML application support and shared line appearance (SLA) support. On of the biggest issues in SIP-based telephony is SLA. Druid supports SIP, PRI, FXO-based shared lines. So you can actually do a "SIP shared line", which is a rare feature in SIP-based phone systems. Voiceroute took Asterisk 1.4's SLA capabilities and actually improved upon it at the dial plan level, such that when you have SLA on PRI you can group the PRI trunks together such that you can round robin the SLA softkeys that you have on the phone. For example SLA Line 1 comes in (i.e. PRI channel 1), say channel 2 rings, it'll go to the second shared line button on the phone, the 3rd call goes to the third shared line button and so on. Even more impressive suppose shared line 1 is occupied, all of the other phones that share this BLF (Busy Lamp Field) subscription will see that this line is busy but you can actually join the call simply by pressing the line and Druid will automatically create a dynamic conference with that shared line.

Ming addressed the scalability and security issues often brought up when discussing Asterisk with potential customers. Ming explained, "We feel Asterisk is not given enough credit for its scalability and its security. It's actually pretty good in security as compared with proprietary solutions since bugs are fixed much more quickly. We feel it's not given enough credit in the medium to large enterprise level. A good example of a large implementation is what we did in the case study with one of our customers where they had 380 seats with 20 Blackberry extensions."

I asked, "So does this mean you are going after the medium to large market?" Ming stated, "Yes, we want to go after the medium to large enterprise who wants a open source unified communication solution but do not want to be spoon-fed a proprietary vendor's solution whether that's Microsoft, Cisco or Avaya. We find quite a number of these large enterprises who heard about Asterisk and want to adopt Asterisk." The obvious stumbling block for them is the mentality that Asterisk cannot scale. Ming explained that Asterisk with Druid UC gives medium to large enterprises a scalable and reliable open source unified communications solution.

Clearly, Ming aims to take on Microsoft, Cisco, and Avaya in the unified communications realm. Asterisk and open source telephony in general has up to this point been weak in UC, so Voiceroute may be onto something here. Importantly, Voiceroute is currently working on integrating Active Directory so tightly that when you add a user to Active Directory it will actually sync with Druid's LDAP server and actually provision the phone, the web interface, and the softphone all at the same time. They are also working on the ability to completely negate the need for a Microsoft OCS 2007 solution. Ming stated, "Microsoft is very dominant in the office space. I don't think that will change, which is why their OCS positioning on the client side is extremely strong with Office Communicator. They have full integration with Outlook, presence, etc. and it's a very nice client. So what we want to do in fact for the commercial Druid is swap out the OCS server. Why don't you use Druid UCS as the back end for call control as well as unified messaging and then use a powerful client like Office Communicator, all in one integrated package? That is one of our major goals." This tight integration with Active Directory (AD) positions Voiceroute well and could give this particular flavor of Asterisk a much needed boost within the Asterisk community since VARs & resellers are clamoring for AD support - not to mention the SLA support which VARs and resellers also want. It'll be interesting to see if the Asterisk community embraces this new open source GUI front-end alternative to the popular FreePBX. Though again, I shouldn't pigeonhole Druid as simply an Asterisk GUI front-end since it adds functionality to Asterisk. Only time will tell, but I like what I see so far...

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