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Canadians and open source software

How a Toronto company is helping to bring open source to IP telephony

Canada’s telecommunications industry has traditionally punched above its weight. A disproportionate number of this country’s high-tech successes – Mitel Corp., Newbridge Networks Corp., Nortel Networks Corp. (yes, Nortel has had problems the last few years, but it’s still a major player) – are in the telecom sector.

So it’s interesting to see Canadians playing a role in an emerging telecommunications space: open-source software for Internet telephony.

Open-source software is everywhere these days, from the desktop to the infrastructure of the Internet. IP telephony is one of its more promising areas.

The most prominent open-source offering for IP telephony is Asterisk, an open source package backed by Digium Inc. of Huntsville, Ala., that can turn any Linux server into a phone switch for Internet Protocol or conventional phones and can support Internet telephony on Windows and Mac servers as well.

When Diana Cionoiu was looking for an open source telephony platform, though, she wasn’t satisfied with Asterisk. A full-fledged PBX was more than Cionoiu needed and there was no way to strip out the unnecessary features to leave a simple soft switch. Cionoiu, who worked at the time for a Romanian telephone carrier, also wanted some features Asterisk didn’t have.

So following a pattern that has led to many technology innovations, she decided to develop what she wanted.

The result was the Yate open-source telephony software, which is now used by carriers and call centres in several countries. Cionoiu’s company, Bucharest-based Null Team Co., has a handful of developers working on further extending Yate, and Cionoiu says the Yate community includes other developers around the world, a few of them paid by other companies.

Canadians step in

To date, though, Yate has run only on Linux servers. That’s where the Canadians came in. Sangoma Technologies Corp. of Toronto has joined with Null Team to produce a version of Yate for Windows servers.

Sangoma sells IP telephony hardware and software, and uses open-source telephony software in its products. It’s providing funding and development help to bring the Yate application to Windows “because we wanted to see that happen and wanted to help the Null Team keep going,” says David Mandelstam, president and CEO of Sangoma.

Sangoma’s involvement illustrates one of the trickiest issues in open-source software development: money.

Null Team makes its money from custom programming related to the Yate software. That’s the typical model for companies built around an open-source product: Revenues come from custom work, support and in some cases a modest charge for a complete, convenient package of open-source components that are available separately for nothing.

The trick is finding the money to develop the software further, and that’s what Null Team was up against.

“Without Sangoma it was really impossible to keep the company floating and at the same time to develop a stable framework,” says Cionoiu.

Of course the open source solution to that problem is for others who can benefit from the development work – like Sangoma – to get involved and help out.

Mandelstam believes open source will be a bigger and bigger force in IP telephony. Before long, he predicts, IP telephony products from the major vendors will use open-source software.

If open source does play that significant a role, it will be partly because of the sort of co-operation we’re seeing here.