My, how things have changed. I remember when the PBX, or private branch exchange, was a big, expensive box that enterprises selected with about the same care that they gave to choosing a mainframe computer.
But now, as I recently discovered out on the Web, you can set up your own PBX for practically no charge at all, up in the public cloud, ready to go in a matter of minutes.
Granted, this cloud-based PBX is not sufficient to serve a large enterprise, but that's not the point. What's remarkable, it seems to me, is that a PBX of any kind can be provisioned with just a few clicks of a mouse, thanks largely to open-source code and the rise of rich, on-demand, platform-as-a-service (PaaS) services.
Back in the day, calls got switched within enterprises with something called Centrex, which used capacity on the phone company's central switches. These were the big switches located in the telephony "cloud," which had yet to have anything to do with Internet Protocol. Then, starting in the 1970s, standalone PBX products from AT&T and other manufacturers hit the scene. Companies installed these on their own premises, and they took over much of the work formerly handled by Centrex. (The latter service survives, the Web reveals, with several million lines still in use.)
Now, years later, while PBXs are still getting installed in hardware form, their functionality also is available as pure software, ready to switch VoIP calls on a private or public server. And, as I happened to learn from the blog run by Customer.io, a provider of email marketing services, it's possible to set up one of these soft PBXs for next to nothing.
As explained on that blog, the first step is to create a shared cloud app at PaaS provider App Fog, formerly known as PHP Fog. For a small company like Customer.io, with just two people, AppFog's "free" tier of service works just fine; larger organizations would likely need to pay a monthly fee. Next, download and install a copy of the open-source PBX called OpenVBX. It's available from Twilio Inc., which provides Web services that weave voice and SMS messaging into Websites.
A Twilio account is required to make all this work. Twilio charges by the drink, so to speak: 1 penny a minute for inbound calls to numbers that it provides (for $1 a month), for instance, and 2 cents a minute for outbound calls. For a 1-800 number, the charge is $2 a month. And so forth.
Once these and a couple of other elements are set up, Twilio enables customers to determine how its servers should handle incoming calls -- where to forward them, what voice responses to provide, where to send SMS alerts, and so forth.
The Customer.io people describe all this as "insanely easy," and I believe it. They also admit that they "like experimenting with software (a lot)," which surely must help. Who knows how well such a cloud-based PBX would scale or how its services would compare to those provided by a telco or other provider?
I see this roll-your-own-PBX story as just a small taste of what's coming in cloud-based computing. Rich development platforms like AppFog's, provided as on-demand PaaS, should make it a snap to provision all of the necessary software frameworks and automatically handle issues like security, load balancing, firewalls, and server configuration.
This, in a word, is on-demand agility, for both IT and the business as a whole.
What plans do you have for using PaaS? Any experiences you'd like to share? Am I perhaps being too optimistic?