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The Linux Letter: Open Source Meets the Phone System

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The old adage "When it rains, it pours" is as applicable to technology as it is to salt. At least it seems that way to me. In one month's time, I had three similar requests, from three widely disparate companies, for help with phone-based applications. One was setting up a new office and wanted a complete phone system for its business. Another already had a phone system but wanted to add voice mail capabilities to it. The third had a full-function PBX and wanted to add an IVR application, with the caveat that the application required interaction with the back-end database. It was fortunate for me that there is a top-notch open-source project that made it easy to satisfy all three requests. This month, I'll look at the asterisk@home project, which is a fascinating amalgam of other open-source projects.

A Computer by Any Other Name

For many, the company phone system is that black box tucked away in some unknown closet somewhere. Few realize or consider that a modern PBX system is just a specialized computer. Each PBX has one or more CPUs. Each has RAM and ROM. Each has an operating system and one or more applications that it runs. Many have a mass storage device (for storing voice mail). In fact, the only major difference between a PBX and a desktop computer is the interface to the outside world. We use keypads to communicate with our PBX instead of keyboards, and our ears and mouth instead of our eyes to convey information. No matter how you interface with it, a computer by any other name is still a computer. And once you start thinking about a PBX in these terms, the prospect of rolling your own phone system becomes much less daunting. I'll get into why you might want to do so later.

Hardware

The most important consideration you need to address when designing your own PBX is how you're going to connect to the public switched network. Are you going to use conventional phone lines? Perhaps you are going to use a T1. Now matter which way you ultimately choose, you will need an interface card for your computer that will do it. The company I use to provide my interface cards is called Digium, whose products offer the means to connect to virtually any telco connection. Their cards are designed to plug into a standard PCI 2.2-compliant slot, which any modern PC provides. (If you are only going to deploy Asterisk for VOIP applications, then you'll be able to dispense with the Digium cards and, instead, route everything over the network card.)

What makes the do-it-yourself proposition attractive is the incredible deals you can garner from the PC manufacturers. I happened to be looking over someone's shoulder as she was surfing a very popular manufacturer's Web site, and I spied a deal on a Celeron D desktop machine for the grand sum of $375, shipped. It included 1GB of RAM, a 160 MB EIDE drive, a DVD burner, and a 17" LCD monitor. I can't buy the parts and assemble one myself for that kind of money. So for $375, and another $250 for Digium's "developer's package," I was on my way to assembling my first home-brew PBX.

The Premiere Open-Source PBX

Of course, no computer, whether PBX or PC, is of any value if it lacks application software. For a PBX, the premiere open-source application is Asterisk. Asterisk provides the functionality of a phone system that, feature for feature, compares favorably with proprietary systems. You can visit the project Web site for a detailed feature list. Not only does Asterisk fare well against commercial solutions in features, but it also does well in the scalability department; you simply network Asterisk servers together if you need a larger system or if your users are in geographically separated offices.

The Asterisk software is delivered in the form of a tar ball (the UNIX equivalent of a "zip" file) that contains the base system in source form. Five additional tar balls are available to provide you with source code for hardware drivers and added functionality. Whether you need them depends on how you intend to connect to the public switched network (PSN), whether you plan to have IVR capabilities, and whether you intend to network your Asterisk servers. Notice that I keep mentioning that the Asterisk software is delivered to you in source form. You will need to compile the software before actually installing it. The instructions are straightforward and simple. To make things really simple though, I'd recommend doing your compilation on the machine that will end up being your Asterisk server.

I've read that some people have installed Asterisk on *BSD-based machines (OpenBSD, NetBSD, and FreeBSD), but most installations are done on a Linux machines. Unless you are a BSD guru, I'd suggest that you stick with Linux (almost any distribution will suffice), since the greatest community support is available there.

Open and Fully Extensible

What makes Asterisk superior to its commercial cousins is, in my opinion, the fact that it was designed to be open and fully extensible. Sure, Asterisk can do IVR like its commercial brethren (press 1 for billing, press 2 for AR...press 9 if you've forgotten why you called). But unlike its commercial brethren, the target for a selection can be a script provided by you. Thus, you are not limited by your phone switch's capabilities. Whatever esoteric or innovative application you can think up, you can create—without having to cough up additional cash for more functionality.

Configuration

Once you've overcome the first hurdle and you have Asterisk compiled and installed, the next hurdle is configuration. Asterisk, like all properly designed software, uses plain-text files to store its configuration, storing them in the directory /etc/asterisk. (The /etc directory is the standard place to store configuration data. If a program has more than one configuration file, then the standard is to create a subdirectory under /etc with the same name as the program, to contain the files).

As a long-time user of UNIX-like systems, I am not intimidated by programs having more than one configuration file, but I have to admit I was stunned to find no fewer than 47 configuration files in the Asterisk directory. Yikes! Having read the excellent treatise Asterisk: The Future of Telephony, I found the files to be logical and well-named. Nonetheless, who wants to wallow through that many files just to set up a phone system? The potential for errors is just too great. Fortunately, another open-source project addresses this problem: FreePBX.

FreePBX uses a friendly browser-based face to hide the complexity of all of those files, greatly easing administrative functions. Consider this list of features from the project site:

Add or change extension and voice mail accounts in seconds.
Create Interactive Digital Receptionist menus.
Design sophisticated call groups.
Manage callers with queues.
Upload custom on-hold music.
Back up and restore your system.

In addition to configuring your system, you can also monitor it.

View call detail reporting with asterisk-stat.
View extension and trunk status with Flash Operator Panel.

I was quite surprised by the ease with which I got my first Asterisk configuration completed. In about an hour, I had a single POTS line, princess phone, and SIP (VOIP) phone connected, configured, and working. An hour after that found my system configured with minimalist IVR applications, voice mail, pager notification, and email forwarding of voice mail. In short, armed with a basic idea of what I wanted to accomplish, I was able to "make it so" in an extremely short time, all thanks to FreePBX.

One other thing: Some of the aforementioned 47 configuration files are actually provided by FreePBX, so I can't blame the Asterisk project for that. And frankly, given a choice, I'd rather have a large number of small, well-named, single-purpose files to edit than one huge, monolithic ones (like the RPG programs of old).

Asterisk@Home

Let's assume that you are interested in Asterisk, that you can see some potential places where it might be useful to you, but that you are uninterested in getting your hands too dirty. Are you out of luck? Not at all. You have at your disposal the Asterisk@Home project, the ultimate solution to the Asterisk box-building blues. That was the route I took when I started my first installation, and it couldn't be any easier. I simply downloaded the bootable-ISO CD image from the project Web site, burned it to a CD, put said CD into the machine, and let 'er rip.

Asterisk@home uses the CentOS 4 distribution as its base. For those unaware, Red Hat provides source packages for its Enterprise Linux distribution. CentOS is a project in which those source packages are used to build a distinct, but compatible, distribution. Upon booting, I was asked if I wanted to install Asterisk@home, with the admonition that the contents of the hard drive would be wiped clean. Since there was nothing of value on the drive (it contained the factory-installed WinXP image), I was more than willing to allow that to occur.

Once I answered a couple of questions concerning my connection to the network and my desired root user password, the software loaded the OS, then Asterisk (doing all of the necessary compilations for me), then FreePBX and SugarCRM (a CRM application some of you might find interesting). All of the dependencies were provided, and I literally had to do nothing more than sit and watch while the heavy lifting was done for me. When the system rebooted, I was able to use a browser on another machine to access the FreePBX instance and start configuring my server. I was truly impressed by the way the gang at Asterisk@home put this thing together. It eliminated most of the headaches and tedium that would put off many from attempting this project.

But why? You may still be wondering why you'd want to create your own PBX. That's a fair question, particularly if you aren't currently involved with your existing switch.

My biggest reason for doing this (besides having clients asking for it) is for the same reason that I like open-source software so well: I really tire of dealing with licensing issues. How many of you have had a catastrophic failure of some piece of computer hardware and discovered that you had misplaced your license information? Did you enjoy the hoops you had to go through to replace the information? Please don't lecture me about taking better care of my license keys, either. Anyone who can tell me that they haven't had to scramble once or twice in their career to get license keys is either untruthful or too new at the profession to have needed to. I don't mind paying for software, but I despise having to prove that I did so time and again.

Another of my reasons is to extend the functionality of an existing PBX without having to replace equipment (the aforementioned IVR application). An Asterisk server can sit in front of your existing PBX providing new services, while passing off everything else to the existing switch. Alternatively, it's possible to connect Asterisk to the existing system, adding VOIP connectivity to a system devoid of that possibility. Asterisk has been designed to integrate into an existing system or to stand alone as a full-featured PBX.

I know that many companies are still squeamish about implementing software that doesn't have some company standing behind it. Linux started taking off in the business community only after the IBMs and Red Hats of the world starting providing sources of commercial support. I suspect that Asterisk is no different. If that's the only thing holding you back, then be assured that commercial support is available for it, too. As a matter of fact, Digium provides a commercial version of Asterisk, complete with support. Given that Digium is also a supplier of telephony hardware, you can be assured that the company has a vested interest in the success of the product.

Personally, I find products like this fascinating. I've always been interested in electronics, having inhaled my share of solder fumes. My love of software grew from the ability to make changes quickly, something that can be tedious with electronics projects. Asterisk gives me an opportunity to do some interesting things that meld both hardware and software, with a powerful and useful product as a result. I think that you, too, might get hooked if you give it a try. Your business might just benefit as a result!

R.I.P. Asterisk@Home , Long Live TrixBox

Between the time that I submitted my article for editing and the time it was returned to me for clarifications, the Asterisk@Home project came to a close. In its place is Trixbox. Victoria Mack (the editor) discovered this as she was verifying the links in the article. Clicking on the Asterisk@Home links redirected her to the TrixBox project's Web site. Her question was simply "What effect does this have on the article?" Good question!

After some investigation, I have concluded that basically we're looking at a name change and some architectural changes in the project. My guess is that the name change was initiated so as to lose the connotation that "@home" gives to the original project, that somehow this project is only useful "at home." On the TrixBox Web site, I found a sentence that in essence says to think of TrixBox as Asterisk@Home version 3 (the currently released version is 2.x), so I don't think that we're looking at a major overhaul. On the other hand, one nicety added to the TrixBox site is the ability to upgrade the software instead of having to reload the box every time Asterix@Home released a new version. While the latter is not as bad as it sounds, an upgrade procedure is a welcome addition to this fine project.

The bottom line is this: Feel free to use the well-tested Asterisk@Home project software. It's still available for download from the TrixBox site, so you can put it into production if you wish. If you're slightly more adventurous and don't mind a few gremlins while TrixBox goes through teething pains, then give it a shot. In either case, you won't be disappointed and the cost for the software is the same: free. You'll get much more than you paid for with either product.

Barry L. Kline is a consultant and has been developing software on various DEC and IBM midrange platforms for over 23 years. Barry discovered Linux back in the days when it was necessary to download diskette images and source code from the Internet. Since then, he has installed Linux on hundreds of machines, where it functions as servers and workstations in iSeries and Windows networks. He co-authored the book Understanding Linux Web Hosting with Don Denoncourt. Barry can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Barry Kline

Barry L. Kline is a consultant and has been developing software on various DEC and IBM midrange platforms since the early 1980s. Barry discovered Linux back in the days when it was necessary to download diskette images and source code from the Internet. Since then, he has installed Linux on hundreds of machines, where it functions as servers and workstations in iSeries and Windows networks. He co-authored the book Understanding Web Hosting on Linux with Don Denoncourt. Barry can be reached at barry@blkline.com.

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    SB_HelpSystems_WC_GenericDuring this webinar, you’ll learn basic tips, helpful tools, and integrated file system commands—including WRKLNK—for managing your IFS directories and Access Client Solutions (ACS). We’ll answer your most pressing IFS questions, including:

    • What is stored inside my IFS directories?
    • How do I monitor the IFS?
    • How do I replicate the IFS or back it up?
    • How do I secure the IFS?

    Understanding what the integrated file system is and how to work with it must be a critical part of your systems management plans for IBM i.

     

  • Expert Tips for IBM i Security: Beyond the Basics

    SB PowerTech WC GenericIn this session, IBM i security expert Robin Tatam provides a quick recap of IBM i security basics and guides you through some advanced cybersecurity techniques that can help you take data protection to the next level. Robin will cover:

    • Reducing the risk posed by special authorities
    • Establishing object-level security
    • Overseeing user actions and data access

    Don't miss this chance to take your knowledge of IBM i security beyond the basics.

     

     

  • 5 IBM i Security Quick Wins

    SB PowerTech WC GenericIn today’s threat landscape, upper management is laser-focused on cybersecurity. You need to make progress in securing your systems—and make it fast.
    There’s no shortage of actions you could take, but what tactics will actually deliver the results you need? And how can you find a security strategy that fits your budget and time constraints?
    Join top IBM i security expert Robin Tatam as he outlines the five fastest and most impactful changes you can make to strengthen IBM i security this year.
    Your system didn’t become unsecure overnight and you won’t be able to turn it around overnight either. But quick wins are possible with IBM i security, and Robin Tatam will show you how to achieve them.

  • How to Meet the Newest Encryption Requirements on IBM i

    SB PowerTech WC GenericA growing number of compliance mandates require sensitive data to be encrypted. But what kind of encryption solution will satisfy an auditor and how can you implement encryption on IBM i? Watch this on-demand webinar to find out how to meet today’s most common encryption requirements on IBM i. You’ll also learn:

    • Why disk encryption isn’t enough
    • What sets strong encryption apart from other solutions
    • Important considerations before implementing encryption

     

     

  • Security Bulletin: Malware Infection Discovered on IBM i Server!

    SB PowerTech WC GenericMalicious programs can bring entire businesses to their knees—and IBM i shops are not immune. It’s critical to grasp the true impact malware can have on IBM i and the network that connects to it. Attend this webinar to gain a thorough understanding of the relationships between:

    • Viruses, native objects, and the integrated file system (IFS)
    • Power Systems and Windows-based viruses and malware
    • PC-based anti-virus scanning versus native IBM i scanning

    There are a number of ways you can minimize your exposure to viruses. IBM i security expert Sandi Moore explains the facts, including how to ensure you're fully protected and compliant with regulations such as PCI.

     

     

  • Fight Cyber Threats with IBM i Encryption

    SB PowerTech WC GenericCyber attacks often target mission-critical servers, and those attack strategies are constantly changing. To stay on top of these threats, your cybersecurity strategies must evolve, too. In this session, IBM i security expert Robin Tatam provides a quick recap of IBM i security basics and guides you through some advanced cybersecurity techniques that can help you take data protection to the next level. Robin will cover:

    • Reducing the risk posed by special authorities
    • Establishing object-level security
    • Overseeing user actions and data access

     

     

     

  • 10 Practical IBM i Security Tips for Surviving Covid-19 and Working From Home

    SB PowerTech WC GenericNow that many organizations have moved to a work from home model, security concerns have risen.

    During this session Carol Woodbury will discuss the issues that the world is currently seeing such as increased malware attacks and then provide practical actions you can take to both monitor and protect your IBM i during this challenging time.

     

  • How to Transfer IBM i Data to Microsoft Excel

    SB_HelpSystems_WC_Generic3 easy ways to get IBM i data into Excel every time
    There’s an easy, more reliable way to import your IBM i data to Excel? It’s called Sequel. During this webinar, our data access experts demonstrate how you can simplify the process of getting data from multiple sources—including Db2 for i—into Excel. Watch to learn how to:

    • Download your IBM i data to Excel in a single step
    • Deliver data to business users in Excel via email or a scheduled job
    • Access IBM i data directly using the Excel add-in in Sequel

    Make 2020 the year you finally see your data clearly, quickly, and securely. Start by giving business users the ability to access crucial business data from IBM i the way they want it—in Microsoft Excel.

     

     

  • HA Alternatives: MIMIX Is Not Your Only Option on IBM i

    SB_HelpSystems_WC_GenericIn this recorded webinar, our experts introduce you to the new HA transition technology available with our Robot HA software. You’ll learn how to:

    • Transition your rules from MIMIX (if you’re happy with them)
    • Simplify your day-to-day activities around high availability
    • Gain back time in your work week
    • Make your CEO happy about reducing IT costs

    Don’t stick with a legacy high availability solution that makes you uncomfortable when transitioning to something better can be simple, safe, and cost-effective.

     

     

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  • Backup and Recovery on IBM i: Your Strategy for the Unexpected

    SB HelpSystems SC 5413Robot automates the routine tasks of iSeries backup and recovery, saving you time and money and making the process safer and more reliable. Automate your backups with the Robot Backup and Recovery Solution. Key features include:
    - Simplified backup procedures
    - Easy data encryption
    - Save media management
    - Guided restoration
    - Seamless product integration
    Make sure your data survives when catastrophe hits. Try the Robot Backup and Recovery Solution FREE for 30 days.

  • Manage IBM i Messages by Exception with Robot

    SB HelpSystems SC 5413Managing messages on your IBM i can be more than a full-time job if you have to do it manually. How can you be sure you won’t miss important system events?
    Automate your message center with the Robot Message Management Solution. Key features include:
    - Automated message management
    - Tailored notifications and automatic escalation
    - System-wide control of your IBM i partitions
    - Two-way system notifications from your mobile device
    - Seamless product integration
    Try the Robot Message Management Solution FREE for 30 days.

  • Easiest Way to Save Money? Stop Printing IBM i Reports

    SB HelpSystems SC 5413Robot automates report bursting, distribution, bundling, and archiving, and offers secure, selective online report viewing.
    Manage your reports with the Robot Report Management Solution. Key features include:

    - Automated report distribution
    - View online without delay
    - Browser interface to make notes
    - Custom retention capabilities
    - Seamless product integration
    Rerun another report? Never again. Try the Robot Report Management Solution FREE for 30 days.

  • Hassle-Free IBM i Operations around the Clock

    SB HelpSystems SC 5413For over 30 years, Robot has been a leader in systems management for IBM i.
    Manage your job schedule with the Robot Job Scheduling Solution. Key features include:
    - Automated batch, interactive, and cross-platform scheduling
    - Event-driven dependency processing
    - Centralized monitoring and reporting
    - Audit log and ready-to-use reports
    - Seamless product integration
    Scale your software, not your staff. Try the Robot Job Scheduling Solution FREE for 30 days.

  • ACO MONITOR Manages your IBM i 24/7 and Notifies You When Your IBM i Needs Assistance!

    SB DDL Systems 5429More than a paging system - ACO MONITOR is a complete systems management solution for your Power Systems running IBM i. ACO MONITOR manages your Power System 24/7, uses advanced technology (like two-way messaging) to notify on-duty support personnel, and responds to complex problems before they reach critical status.

    ACO MONITOR is proven technology and is capable of processing thousands of mission-critical events daily. The software is pre-configured, easy to install, scalable, and greatly improves data center efficiency.