Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Building a Startup

(Continued from Starting a Startup)
After several days of meetings in Sarasota we determined:

1)  I was moving to Sarasota to start a company with Norm and Joe.
2)  We were going to utilize open source software wherever possible (including AstLinux, obviously).
3)  The Internet was the only ubiquitous, high quality network to build a nationwide platform.
4)  The Internet was only getting more ubiquitous, more reliable, and faster in coming months/years/decades/etc.
5)  We were going to take advantage of as much of this as possible.

These were some pretty lofty goals.  Remember, this is early 2006.  Gmail was still invitation-only beta.  Google docs didn’t exist.  Amazon EC2 didn’t exist.  “Cloud computing” hadn’t come back into fashion yet.  The term itself didn’t exist.  The Internet was considered (by many) to be “best effort”, “inherently unreliable”, and “unsuitable” for critical communications (such as real time business telephony).  There were many naysayers who were confident this would be a miserable failure.  As it turns out, they were almost right.

We thought the “secret sauce” to business grade voice over the internet was monitoring and management.  If one could monitor and manage the internet connection business grade voice should be possible.  Of course this is very ambiguous but it lead to several great hires.  We hired

Joe had already deployed several embedded Asterisk systems to various businesses in the Sarasota area.  They used an embedded version of Linux he patched together and a third party (unnamed) “carrier” to connect to the PSTN.  The first step was upgrading these machines and getting them on AstLinux.  Once this was accomplished we felt confident enough to proceed with our plan.  This was Star2Star Communications and in the beginning of 2006 it looked something like this:

1)  Soekris net4801 machines running AstLinux on the customer premise.
2)  Grandstream GXP-2000 phones at each desk.
3)  Connectivity to a third party “ITSP”.
4)  Management/monitoring systems (check IP connectivity, phone availability, ITSP reliability, local LAN, etc).
5)  Central provisioning of AstLinux systems, phones, etc.

This was Star2Star and there was something I really liked about it - it was simple.  Anyone who knows me or knows of my projects (AstLinux, for example) has to know I favor simplicity whenever possible.  Keep it simple, keep it simple, keep it simple (stupid).

As time went on we started to learn that maybe this was too simple.  We didn’t have enough control.  Out monitoring wasn’t as mature as it should be.  We didn’t pick the right IP phones.  These could be easily fixed.  However, we soon realized our biggest mistake was architecture (or lack thereof).  This wasn’t going to be an easy fix.

We couldn’t find an ITSP that offered a level of quality we considered to be acceptable.  Very few ITSPs had any more experience with VoIP, SIP, and the internet than we did.  More disturbing, however, was an almost complete lack of focus on quality and reliability.  No process.

What we (quickly) discovered is the extremely low barrier to entry for ITSPs, especially back then.  Virtually anyone could install Asterisk on a $100/mo box in a colo somewhere, buy dialtone from someone (who knows) and call themselves an ITSP.  After going through several of these we discovered we needed to do it ourselves.

Even assuming we could solve the PSTN connectivity problem we discovered yet another issue.  All of the monitoring and management in the world cannot make up for a terrible last mile.  If the copper in the ground is rotting and the DSL modem can only negotiate 128kbps/128kbps that’s all you’re going to get.  To make matters worse in the event of a cut or outage the customer would be down completely.  While that may have always happened with the PSTN and an on premise PBX we considered this to be unacceptable.

So then, in the eleventh hour, just before launch I met with the original founders and posed a radical idea - scrap almost everything.  There was a better way.
(Continued in Building a Startup (the right way))

No comments: