Saturday, December 24, 2011

Asterisk vs. Cisco Unified Communications


Over my 12 years in the Telecommunications Industry I have worked with a variety of phone systems including Avaya, Aspect, Nortel, Cisco and Asterisk. I am often asked how Asterisk compares to other traditional phone systems. These days I am most often asked to compare Asterisk with Cisco. Many times I am told by a prospect that Cisco can do things that Asterisk cannot, or that Asterisk is not as reliable as Cisco. Allow me to set the record straight regarding the two systems.

Asterisk vs. Cisco, here are some points where we can differentiate. Since I have administered both systems, I can speak with authority on this subject.

1. Cost – Even if Cisco undercuts their cost upfront, they will make it up on the backend. If you buy a Cisco system you will pay a license for every extension on the system, the phones are more expensive, and you have to buy Microsoft exchange licenses for each voicemail box on the Unity voicemail system. On top of this, you will pay for annual support from a Cisco partner who will charge 20% - 30% of the total cost of the system yearly.

2. Features – In some areas the Cisco phone system really excels. The distributive architecture of the system is quite nice. All in all it is a great phone system. However, out of the box if you compare feature for feature Asterisk can do much more. In addition, due to the openness of its architecture you can make Asterisk do pretty much anything that you want.

3. Voicemail Systems – The voicemail system that comes free with Asterisk is 100% better than the Unity voicemail system that Cisco uses. Unity relies on a Microsoft Exchange mail system to manage voicemails. This is a needlessly complex design that does not provide any enhancements to the overall features of the voicemail system. In addition, on the Cisco system voicemail administration is separate from user/extension administration. Therefore, in addition to logging into the Cisco Call Manager to manage the user and extension, the administrator has to log on to a completely separate system to administer voicemail. With Asterisk, combined with our device management software, the User, Extension, Voicemail and device configuration are all managed from one screen.

4. Phones -- Cisco makes a great phone, however in my opinion Polycom makes the best devices currently on the market, and they are priced much lower than equivalent Cisco phones. Furthermore, Asterisk allows you to choose the phones you want to use with your system. Good luck attaching and managing anything to Cisco's Call Manager that does not have a Cisco logo emblazoned on it.

5. System Integrity – Like any application there are good ways to deploy Asterisk and there are bad ways to deploy Asterisk. If you ask around organizations that have Asterisk based phone systems you will find an array of experiences. Many of these organizations will tell you that their phone system is their biggest nightmare. Still others will tell you that their Asterisk based phone system is the best thing since sliced bread.

In most cases the difference between these organizations is their deployment methods. Many organizations are attracted to Asterisk because of cost. Sometimes this leads those same organizations to cut corners on implementation, phones, interface cards, and server hardware. With Asterisk you get what you pay for. Cutting corners now will cost you in the future. Therefore, hire an experienced integrator to build and support your system, listen to their advice when purchasing phones, and don’t cut corners on equipment costs. PLEASE DON'T EVER BUY CHEAP PHONES! Unless you have a staff member that has performed several Asterisk deployments, don’t do it yourself. This strategy will ensure that you have a quality phone system that rattles and hums as it drives up productivity while enhancing the workplace environment, and you will still come out way ahead on cost over a traditionally branded system.

6. Future Proof Technology – Asterisk is open, freely available, and developed by a community of developers committed to constant improvement of the product. This ensures that the latest enhancements and fixes are available to you without the purchase of new software, licensing, or equipment. If the latest version of Cisco's Call Manager arrives on the market with some fancy new feature, plan on starting from scratch to upgrade your environment. In many cases a Cisco Call Manager upgrade will require you to purchase new software, pay for the same licenses again, and often times buying new rebranded HP servers that have been marked up by Cisco three times their original retail price from ~$4000 to ~$12,000.

Several Cisco shops have dumped Cisco in favor of Asterisk. In many cases they cite cost and features as the reason:

Here is another interesting article that discusses why some people integrate Asterisk with Cisco:

Needless to say they are both good systems, but at the end of the day open standards, ongoing cost of ownership, and flexibility win in my opinion.

If you are interested in a full list of Asterisk and Cisco features, they can be found here:

Here is a very good post comparing Polycom and Cisco Phones:

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