Thursday, August 9, 2007

Car dealership uses Asterisk VoIP to stay on "cutting edge"

O'Brien Automotive Team is a large car dealership conglomerate based in Peoria, Ill. When the company built new headquarters recently, it needed a phone system flexible and cost-effective enough to satisfy the needs of 200 employees at the home office, and hundreds more staff at nine local dealerships in four states. After evaluating options and wrangling with incompetent vendors, O'Brien went with an open source Asterisk solution.
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Dave Stear, IT director for O'Brien, says he knew the archaic phone system the company had in place at the old facility would have to go. "When we were thinking about where technology is going and how we might be able to utilize that in our industry, we realized a traditional phone system wouldn't be able to provide the functionality we needed in a cost-effective way," Stear says. Simply going with the latest system from the phone company wasn't going to cut it. "We're at 40 acres, with five buildings that are kind of spread out. With a traditional PBX, once it was set up we couldn't change anything; at least not without a lot of time and expense. Every time, we'd have to have a technician come out. It's cumbersome."

One of Stear's network managers mentioned Asterisk, an open source PBX that works on Unix or Unix-like operating systems. It is compatible with traditional standards-based telephony equipment, and uses commodity computer hardware. Stear ran a test implementation of Asterisk at the old facility and liked what he saw. "The ability to customize it to our needs and wants really is what convinced us," he says. "It can be customized and changed on the fly. We understood that technology was changing rapidly and we needed to be on the cutting edge or we were going to be left behind."

Next, Stear needed to find a consultant to handle installation. He experienced some challenges that almost changed his mind about going with an open source solution. "I have found that with open source there doesn't seem to be any kind of standard for a vendor. They don't have to be certified or pass any tests to come at you and say, 'We can do this for you.' You're kind of on your own to guess if they can do what they say they can do. I went through three vendors before I found one that was able to work with us. It was very frustrating." Stear couldn't find a company able to modify the system the way he needed. "It came down more than once to 'we're about done with this.' But we stuck it out." Eventually, Stear found NeoPhonetics, formerly SIPBox, and he's happy with the installation of the servers, 170 phones, and a system that includes voicemail, call forwarding, unified messaging, and VoIP ( ). Working together, NeoPhonetics and O'Brien got the system deployed in only two weeks.

But just because the system was deployed didn't mean that it was nailed down. Stear needed customized call routing and call groups, which are like mini call centers for different departments. With hundreds of employees, the needs for routing and groups are constantly changing, but tweaks to the system happen lightning fast via NeoPhonetics remote network support. Even when Stear hit some snags with phone company procedures, the consultant was able to provide quick workarounds. "We had a lot of trouble with the phone company and moving our numbers over," Stear says. "For example, we put in some long distance VoIP, and the phone company was requiring an accounting code to be entered for every long-distance call." With O'Brien's old, traditional phone system, the accounting codes were a good way to track long distance expenses. With VoIP, expense tracking wasn't needed -- but the phone company couldn't move fast enough to remove the code requirement. "With the Asterisk system, we were able to put a fix in place [for a few weeks] until the phone company was able to remove the requirement."

Now that Stear's having a good experience with open source, he's considering adding more to the IT mix at O'Brien. "I'd like to put some file servers on the network without paying Microsoft all that licensing money," he says. He's already got Red Hat Linux on the two servers running Asterisk, and several traditional open source tools for network monitoring and administration, including MRTG and OpenNMS.

Stears says when it comes to using open source solutions like Asterisk, it's important for IT managers to find the right vendor, right away, and avoid the challenges he faced. "I would advise them to make sure they have someone on staff who knows everything they need to know about open source, or be certain to check the vendor's references so you've got someone who has a complete understanding of how to launch and maintain what they're trying to accomplish."

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