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After the Quake - Asterisk in Christchurch, New Zealand

Posted: 2012-04-23 9:54 am by Denphone Admin.

A year on from the earthquakes in Japan and New Zealand, we take a look at Treshna Enterprises - a Christchurch, New Zealand based Open Source company providing Asterisk solutions to a wide range of companies. Christchurch was hit by a magnitude 6.3 earthquake in February 2011 that left 185 dead. A year on, the rebuilding process continues with a lot of reconstruction taking place in the city.

Denphone's Simon Gibson met up with Treshna's Managing Director Dru Hill for a chat about life in post-quake Christchurch. Somewhat fittingly during the interview there was another small aftershock.

Simon: Thanks for meeting this morning. First of all could you tell us a bit about Treshna.

Dru: Sure, Treshna is an Open Source company that we started in the 1990's. Originally we started out working mainly with postgres, and moving into Asterisk VoIP systems was a natural extension of that. Predominantly we are an IT consultancy and do development of specialised solutions.

We deal a lot with data and developing open source software solutions and we use Asterisk because it is a logical extension. We have a number of clients, especially in the 10 - 20 phone range using Asterisk based solutions and we find that it saves them a lot of money.

Simon: Can you give us some background on telephony in Christchurch before the earthquakes?

Dru: Very traditional. There were a lot of places with physical hard lines (analog). And it is still like that to a large degree - most people still have analog lines, digital phones and traditional PBX's.

Simon: So what happened following the quakes?

Dru: We were very very busy as a result of the earthquakes. You had 50,000 people living and working in the city, and then as a result of the earthquakes they weren't able to access their homes and their offices.

Using a Asterisk was definitely an advantage. The exchanges were inaccessible, so you couldn't move physical lines. And once the telco's did get access, there was a huge labour shortage as the telco's were inundated with quake related work. With so many people forced to move office as a result of the quake, Telecom [NZ's main carrier. ed] had a 4 week backlog to service all the requests. If we had had physical analogue lines we wouldn't have been able to do anything. Plug in and go is a much better solution - setup time becomes just a matter of how fast you can plug things in.

For us on the telephony side it was all quite straightforward because we are using a hosted VoIP service. I had a backup of our office Asterisk PBX system at home so it was just a case of installing that on an old server and then piggybacking off the internet connection I had at home. You couldn't get new connections, but if you had a line you were ok. It was over the shared internet but call quality was fine.

We ended up moving offices 5 times in 3 months because of the lack of office space in Christchurch so using Asterisk made things really easy from that side of things.

Simon: So how is telephony and IT in Christchurch changing as a result of the earthquakes?

Dru: Clients take more backups now, and have faster contingency plans because they are aiming to be able to re-establish their infrastructure in less than a day - especially those who lost buildings. Even people who had offsite backups found they had problems. A lot of clients had backups on disk that were stored in buildings that were condemned or warehoused by a 3rd party located in the Red Zone [area severely damaged by earthquake and off limits to the public.].

Simon: And how is Asterisk generally perceived in Christchurch?

Dru: There is some resistance to Asterisk - people generally don't want to replace their physical legacy PBX. They don't like the idea of their phones not being on a traditional analog line and worry about call quality and the costs of any outage. There are a lot of perceived risks, and it takes a fair bit of effort to get people to change their way of thinking. Also when people have put a lot of time and money into a traditional PBX they don't want to admit that they have made a mistake and wasted their time and their money.

The way it can be linked to databases and allow users to have much better idea of what is happening, based on caller ID, as well as the cost savings makes it very exciting and people are slowly starting to realise the possibilities.

Simon: So how did you get started with Asterisk?

Dru: I had a keyphone PBX originally (Don't know why!), but the sound quality was becoming really bad and it needed replacing. Implementing Asterisk was a pet project I set myself. There is a group of creative IT hobbyists who meet at the Canterbury Innovation Incubator, so I went along one evening, years and years ago, looking to come up with a technical solution, sharing ideas with people and I got a good start there. I already knew of Asterisk, and had supported it for clients, but I didn't really know it back to front - that kind of knowledge only really comes about from using it for yourself.

One area I am really interested in at the moment is call routing based on caller ID - especially when a client usually talks to a particular agent and how to route calls for that. That kind of thing can really improve customer satisfaction. We also run a small helpdesk here, so I have been looking at call reporting so we can best manage the staff we have - checking things like call volume, time on call, and managing peak times.

Simon: So to wrap up, what do you think the future holds?

Dru: On the Asterisk front, I see a stronger uptake in Asterisk and in unifying communications. I want to get more people using Asterisk - from what I can see I would say there is still only a 10 - 20 % uptake. It is a continuing shift along with mail servers, file servers and the like. These can all be outsourced to the cloud. For the phones, there are a number of providers in New Zealand providing VoIP cloud services for Christchurch and other locations. We provide customised solutions in that area - solving the problem of clients needing to maintain and manage IT equipment inhouse.

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