Digiums AsteriskNow marks a major step in the development of the Asterisk open-source project: The newest distribution integrates central voice over IP PBX features with an easy-to-manage operating system environment and offers simple ways for companies to transition Asterisk from testing to deployment.
eWEEK Labs performed tests on AsteriskNow Beta 4. Beta 5 should be available soon, and Digium representatives said the first release candidate will be available on or about April 11. The Beta 4 version is available for download in several iterations—including 32-bit and 64-bit ISOs; Xen and VMware virtual machines; and a Live CD.
AsteriskNow is a software appliance, so the installation packages include an underlying operating system, rPath Linux. Built with rPaths rBuilder, AsteriskNow removes the complexity of dealing with kernel updates and system dependencies, and is simple to manage and configure.
For example, AsteriskNow offers a couple of ways to update system software: We could initiate an update from the text menus on the server console, or we could manually initiate or schedule Conary updates from the rPath Web GUI. From this GUI, we also could configure e-mail notifications and alerts, keeping administrators in the know about system status.
Highly modular and quite slick, we found the new OS management interface to be much easier to use than the tools that come with the popular Asterisk distribution, Trixbox. However, there were occasions when we couldnt completely avoid using the command line with AsteriskNow, as many Asterisk add-ons and plug-ins have yet to take advantage of the Conary update system.
AsteriskNow is a slim Asterisk distribution, excluding applications such as SugarCRMs SugarCRM and Fonalitys Hudlite that are automatically bundled with Trixbox. And it had to be: Digium needed a lightweight Asterisk distribution for its new solid-state Asterisk hardware appliance.
AsteriskNow will be available under a couple of different types of licenses. The version we tested is licensed under the GNU General Public Licenses GPL, Version 2, but Digium representatives said there will be another free—but not open—version available soon. This latter version will provide access to a range of productivity and mobility software applications provided by Digium Ecosystem Partners.
Open-source purists may be offended by some aspects of AsteriskNow because the free product pushes other products and services. But most administrators will be able to overlook that because AsteriskNow does a good job of easing the transition from testing to deployment: Digium promises a one-click upgrade to Asterisk Business Edition from the management GUI, and there is also a button that takes administrators to a site where they can buy Polycom phones from a Digium reseller.
AsteriskNow features the new Asterisk GUI, an SSL (Secure Shell)-protected Web configuration front end for VOIP (voice over IP) deployment. Although not as in-depth or granular as the FreePBX GUI that comes with Trixbox, we found the Asterisk GUI to be incredibly easy to use and navigate.
Beta 4 introduces a new setup wizard that launched automatically the first time we logged into the Asterisk GUI. The wizard first walked us through the setup of extensions and trunks—we designated local extension lengths and patterns and then identified local analog trunks (such as our Digium Wildcard TDM400P) or VOIP trunks.
The Wizard at Work
We could set up customized local trunks via IAX (Inter-Asterisk Exchange) protocol or SIP (Session Initiation Protocol); we could choose from a few ITSPs (Internet telephony service providers) with profiles built into the software. (IAXtel and VoicePulses VoicePulse were the only included voice services in Beta 4, but others will be added in the next beta revision, according to company officials.)
With the trunks established, the wizard presented us with several predefined calling rules (for local, long distance, international and 911 calls). The rules dont automatically have a trunk associated with them, but we needed only to add the correct outbound passage or change the dial rules and create custom dial patterns if we had a different scheme in mind.
However, we discovered that the wizard does not present the full configuration options for call control rules. We could use the wizard to strip numbers from an outbound call, but we had to go into the regular configuration screen to prepend numbers.
Lastly, the wizard presented us with voice mail and user extension configuration screens.
Although not part of the wizard, we found it quite simple to create rules for inbound calls and create new voice menus. We created rules to forward incoming calls to different extensions, depending upon which trunk the call arrived from. At these extensions, we could create different voice menus and set up action sequences that would, for example, forward calls to extensions, play recorded messages or nested menu options, or offer callers interactive opportunities (press a key to do something.)
AsteriskNow includes several prerecorded messages, but we would recommend using the built-in Record A Menu function to customize messages. As we found recently in David Endler and Mark Colliers book “Hacking Exposed VoIP: Voice over IP Security Secrets & Solutions,” identifying prerecorded stock messages is one of the techniques a hacker could use to fingerprint a voice session.
To create new messages, we simply needed to type in a file name and choose an extension. The AsteriskNow server then called that extension and prompted us to record the message.
We easily created conference rooms—either with or without a PIN for security. We also had the option to record the conference and set a few moderator options. While not the most comprehensive conferencing solution weve seen, we definitely liked that we could configure multiple simultaneous conference extensions—something we have not been able to do previously with commercial VOIP PBXes.
As with other Asterisk distributions weve tested, client interoperability was not a problem. We easily configured CounterPath Solutions X-Lite 3.0 and a pair of Wi-Fi-enabled VOIP phones (the Linksys WIP330 and Zultys Technologies WIP 2) to work with AsteriskNow. We also tested with a pair of Polycom SoundStation IP 4000 conference phones.
On the reporting and logging front, the Asterisk GUI allowed us to monitor active channels (both analog and VOIP) through the server, as well as transfer or hang up specific channels. Meanwhile, the System Info tab presented Linux kernel and Asterisk build information (but not ZapTel information, for some reason), resource utilization, and system logs. Sadly, we could not yet export the logs for analysis from the Asterisk GUI.
One feature still lacking at this stage of the beta program is the ability to restore settings. As of Beta 4, we could back up our configuration data, but we could not import it.
We hope this issue will be rectified soon. When and if it is, we foresee being able to easily migrate an AsteriskNow deployment to a different machine for long-term use.
Technical Analyst Andrew Garcia can be reached at email@example.com.