We didn't know quite how to begin this article so we decided to try and find a picture that sums up what you're up against installing a Cisco 7970 color IP telephone with Asterisk®. The disturbing part of this photo is that it shows the lengths to which Cisco will go to provide literally picture-perfect documentation for how to hang this phone on a wall while there is close to ZERO documentation for how to use it as a SIP telephone with anything other than Cisco's proprietary CallManager telephone system. It's almost like they don't want it used that way. LOL! Since the entire world is moving to SIP, Cisco obviously needed to be able to say they supported SIP ... but just barely. If you've never had to deal with Cisco or, better yet, Cisco's web site, lucky you! For those of us that ran Internet services in a former life, there was Cisco or Cisco when it came to routers. Luckily, that's not the case in the IP telephony business, and fortunately it's now changed in the router business as well. Guess why? Creativity and software quality have gone down the rat hole. And Cisco shareholders wonder why their company is losing market share.
It wasn't quite right to reduce Cisco's beautiful (and I do mean beautiful) new COLOR IP telephone to a nuts-and-bolts image. But we're trying to paint a picture of how it works, not how it looks. The good news for Asterisk users is that IF you ever get the 7970 working with your Asterisk system, you'll never go back. The quality of calls with the Cisco 7970G is head-and-shoulders above all of the competition. Embarrassingly good! Having said that, it's more than a little disappointing to encounter Version 8 of their SIP firmware and discover that it functions about like a .8 beta release of most telephony software. Many things don't work. Some buttons still crash the phone. And it appears that Cisco has little or no intention to make things much better ever. You might be asking, "Why would a company act like this?" It's really pretty simple: monopoly (they wish!) and money (ditto!). The phone can be purchased for under $500 from many on line retailers such as our favorite (shown above). The CallManager license adds another $250 to the retail price of each and every phone. You'd want a monopoly, too, with that sort of pricing structure.
SPECIAL NOTE: We have one, gently used Cisco 7970 for sale. It actually was used to prepare this article. Make us an offer, or we'll make you a deal you can't refuse. If you're interested, contact us.
So how do we get the damn phone to work with Asterisk? Well, here's where it gets a little tricky. The first thing you should do is watch Kerry Garrison's great video on setting up the phone. You'll find it at AsteriskTutorials.com. What you'll learn in the tutorial is that most of the configuration of the phone is done through XML config files which are ordinary text files with nested (special) keywords in brackets that tell the phone how and what to do when. You then copy these config files to a TFTP server and reboot the phone after pointing it to the IP address of your TFTP server. If you don't have a TFTP server, Kerry will even tell you about a great one for Windows that you can download for free: TFTPd32.
Welcome to TFTP Hell. As with everything Cisco, there are a few instant gotcha's with the installation process. First, Cisco provides no documentation with the phone and has published no documentation on the XML config files. Why? Monopoly and Money. The official answer would be that you don't need to know nothin' 'bout no stinkin' config files. Just use (buy!) their CallManager, and it generates the config files out of thin air. Now you get it. The only problem with the Cisco Scenario is that then your phone will only talk to the CallManager, not Asterisk. In fairness, we should note that Cisco documentation is available for the SIP firmware on the phone, but it all pertains to CallManager. Big surprise there. And, by the way, be sure to order the phone with SIP firmware, not SCCP, and a 7970 Power Supply or you're really S.O.L. with a dim phone to boot. So it's Go Back to Go time.
The second gotcha is that the phone has to know where to find the TFTP server before you can change anything. You can't manually set the TFTP IP address with something like telnet or ssh. That would be too simple. You can set it on the phone keypad provided the existing firmware is configured to allow changes. The default firmware load isn't. So what's left? Well, you'll need a DHCP server that understands Option 66. Most don't. What Option 66 does is store the IP address of your favorite TFTP server so that when a client obtains an IP address for IP access, it also can obtain an IP address for a TFTP server containing updated config files... or new firmware. If you don't have a router with DHCP that supports Option 66, not to worry. TFTPd32 includes it as well.
Gotcha #3 is that you can't just run TFTPd32 on your LAN and expect things to work. Why? Because your existing LAN probably already has a DHCP server (without Option 66) that's already handing out IP addresses. Can't we just disable our existing DHCP server? Absolutely, but you'll wipe out any preconfigured IP addresses that depend upon your DHCP pool of IP numbers which is the way most mere mortals reserve IP addresses on LANs without having to manually configure IP addresses, and subnet masks, and DNS server addresses for every device on your LAN. So ... the quickest, pain-free way to get started is to boot up a Windows machine on your network. Then replace the network cable connected to your PC with a crossover cable. Now connect the other end of the crossover cable to your shiny new Cisco phone. When the phone is rebooted, it will find the only remaining DHCP server in town (with Option 66 which you must set to match the first number in your DHCP pool since this number will be grabbed by your Windows machine when you plug in the crossover cable): the TFTPd32 DHCP server. If this sounds convoluted, hang on to your hat 'cause we're just getting started. Remember, we haven't changed anything yet!
The Right Way, The Wrong Way, and The Cisco Way. While we're on a roll with DHCP and TFTP, let's assume for a moment that we already have your phone making calls through your Asterisk server which it isn't, of course. Now you've decided that you'd like a different ring tone or picture on your phone. Can the phone handle it? Absolutely. Is it intuitive? No way. To perform either of these feats of magic, the drill goes something like this. You create another XML config file for both the pictures and the ring tones. Then you load the config files in a secret place on your TFTP server. Then you copy your new ring tones and cover art to the same secret locations. Now you go to each phone and drill down through layer after layer of menu options until you finally come to a screen which will display available ring tones or background images. The phone then will kick off a TFTP session using your TFTP server (which hopefully is still on line). Once it retrieves the file names or thumbnails after querying the XML config file, you get a list of choices. Highlight the desired choice and the phone makes another TFTP connection to download the desired file into your phone. Rube Goldberg would be proud of what Cisco engineers have been able to dream up. I'd fire all of them. Here's a silly idea. Ever heard of HTTP and a web page. There's even HTML support already on the damn phone. Of course, it doesn't work, but who cares. Why fix it when you can dream up an installation scenario like this one? Who in their right mind would ever design an installation system which forces you to keep an insecure TFTP server running on your network all the time?
Call us picky, but here's another little detail. One disgruntled employee with a crossover cable and a notebook computer running TFTPd, and your entire Cisco phone system runs the very real risk of being toast. The problem with Option 66 is that whoever has physical access to your phones can wreak all sorts of havoc since the phones will connect to any available TFTP server. Holding down the pound key for 10 seconds while the phone reboots and then pressing all 12 buttons on the phone's dialpad (in order), and your phone is now MY PHONE. And, this is from a company that has been thinking about network security longer than almost anybody. We should point out that there is a phonePassword field in the config file which defaults to blank, and it may or may not help on the security front. My guess is that most companies never touch it. And, with the ink barely dry on our maintenance contract and given the other configuration quirks of this phone, we were reluctant to test this password feature for fear of turning the device into little more than a boat anchor. We'll leave that testing for you to try out on your new $500 phone. If there's some other, more obtuse security feature (such as tftpDefault) that we've missed, we're pretty confident that some diehard Cisco cheerleader will point it out to us in a comment shortly. In the meantime, we'll continue our head scratching. Memo to Cisco: There are lots of reasons that folks expect documentation with their equipment. Not the least of these is SECURITY.
Earth to Asterisk. Can You Read Me? Well, enough of the Cisco bashing. We really do want to get this phone working with Asterisk. And did we mention? We wouldn't trade the Cisco 7970 for ANY other phone on the planet. The voice quality with both the headset and the speakerphone is that good! For openers, to use the phone with Asterisk, you'll need at least Asterisk 1.2 to get any connectivity. Asterisk 1.09 won't cut it. And the 7970 ought to work fine with any version of TrixBox as well as Asterisk@Home versions going back to 2.0, all of which include at least Asterisk 1.2. Now for the fun part.
First, download the Sample Config Files from Kerry Garrison's AsteriskTutorials.com site. Unzip the file which will give you a configs folder with three files. Turn your phone over and write down the MAC address which is the number beginning with 00 and consists of 12 hex digits. Rename the SEP000E84E8E3D5.cnf.xml file substituting the MAC address you wrote down for 000E84E8E3D5 in the existing file name. If this config file name doesn't include the actual MAC adddress of your phone, your phone won't process any updates. Now press the Settings button on your phone. It's the one on the right side with a check mark on it. Then press 5, 3 and write down the version of the firmware that's loaded on your phone. If it doesn't start with SIP, send it back and tell the vendor that you requested a Cisco 7970 with SIP firmware. Unless the firmware version is SIP70.8-0-3S, you'll need to change the firmware version in both the SEP config file we renamed above and also in the XMLDefault.cnf.xml file. Use the Windows TextEdit program to search for SIP70.8-0-3S and replace it with the firmware version you wrote down.
Before we get too far along, let's be sure that your phone is locked in such a way that you can't manually specify a TFTP server's IP address. Press the Settings button again and then 2, 8. A closed padlock should appear in the upper right corner of the display. Pressing **# will attempt to unlock the phone. The padlock should open within a few seconds. If so, there may also be a new, gold Edit tab above the second (of six) softkey buttons on your phone. If the Edit button is not dimmed out, then you can press it and manually enter an IP address for a TFTP server. Otherwise, you'll need to go through the knuckle drill we 've previously outlined using a crossover cable. Be aware that each time you change or reenter the TFTP IP address, your phone will automatically reconnect to the TFTP server to check for updates as soon as you Save the IP address. This is worth remembering because it's an easy way to force a config reload on your phone.
We're almost ready to set up an extension to connect to your Asterisk server. But first, you'll need to be sure you have created an available SIP extension on your Asterisk system. Using AMP or freePBX, choose the Extensions option and Add a new SIP extension. Choose an available extension number and password. In the Device Options section, set the qualify field to No and set the mailbox option to something like 500@default instead of 500@device (using your chosen extension number, of course). Set up a voicemail account with the same password you specified for the extension. Then Submit your changes and click the Red Bar to reload Asterisk.
Now we're ready to edit the SEPxxxxxxxxxxxx.cnf.xml file using NotePad. First, search for 192.168.5.50 and replace every instance with the internal IP address of your Asterisk box. It should come as no surprise that Cisco has a different way of handling SIP connections through NAT and a firewall, and it's not yet compatible with the way the rest of the world (including Asterisk) do it. So, for the time being, forget using a 7970 outside your firewall unless you enjoy Water Torture. Beginning on line 10 of the file, you'll see two entries that look like this:
<timezone>Pacific Standard/Daylight Time</timezone>
The top line tells the phone to display the date as MO/DA/YR with time in 24-hour military time. If you'd prefer a 12-hour clock with am and pm indications, add a lower case a immediately after the Y. Change Pacific on the second line to match your time zone. Leave the rest of it alone unless you live in a freaky Daylight Savings location. If you do, you'll know what I'm talking about. Otherwise, don't worry about it.
The 7970 theoretically can support 8 extensions on the eight buttons along the top right side of the phone. That only seems to work if all the designated extensions are housed on the same Asterisk server, i.e. one IP address. Here's what a typical entry for an extension should look like. To add another one, just duplicate the code, increment the line button number, and enter the appropriate settings for the next extension.
We've shown the entries that worked for us. Most of the entries can be left alone. Just change the Proxy entry to the IP address of your Asterisk box. Then enter your extension number in featureLabel, name, and authName. Enter a displayName for calls from this extension, and enter your extension password in authPassword.
In addition to using these eight buttons for Extensions, you also can use them for Speed Dial entries. And these entries can be any sequence that your Asterisk server understands. For example, you could assign *8 to a button to do a Call Pickup. Here's what the entry would look like to assign this to the eighth button:
Aside from assuring that the featureID code is 2, you can assign a Speed Dial entry to any button number and label it any way you choose. The speedDialNumber should be the exact string of numbers you would normally dial to place the call using the dialpad of your phone.
There are some other entries in the Config file, you'll want to take a look at. Near the bottom of the file you'll find settingsAccess. If this is set to zero, you'll want to change it to 1 so that you can avoid the TFTP knuckle drill we've outlined above. Once this configuration change is loaded into the phone, you should be able to manually enter a TFTP IP address as we described above.
Finally, there's a group of entries in the vendorConfig section of the file that determine when the 7970's display will be active and for how long. The entries look like this:
These are self-explanatory for the most part. The first line tells the phone which days of the week not to turn on the display automatically. If you want it on every day, delete 1,7. The displayOnTime tells the phone what time of day in your time zone to turn on the display (24 hour clock). The next line tells the phone how many hours and minutes to leave the display lit. And the last line tells the phone how long to leave the phone lit up when you manually turn on the display by pressing the sixth Display button (which will display a green light when the phone display is off).
To load the configuration changes we've made above, just copy the three files in your Config directory to the default directory you set up on your TFTP server. Then unplug the phone and plug it back in once you have your TFTP server with its DHCP server configured and running.
After reading the next paragraph, we think you'll understand why we're abbreviating the implementation step with this phone. I'd venture to say that not one of our daily readers is going to buy this phone after reading our review. If some of you prove us wrong with your comments, we'll be glad to add the missing pieces. Or you can go here and find most of the information you'll need to get started. Here are a few helpful hints on replacing the default photo and ring tone on the phone. A link for dozens of ring tones appears earlier in the column. Step 2 is to create a distinctiveringlist.xml file and put it in the root directory of your TFTP server together with the .raw sound files. In the XML file, you merely list the sound files. And it looks like this:
To load a new Ring Tone for your first extension, crank up the TFTP server. Then press the Settings button on your phone followed by 1, 1, 2. Then follow the prompts to Select your desired Ring Tone for each extension.
You do something similar for photos except you need two PNG images for each photo you want to make available for display on the phone. One is a thumbnail (80x53) and the other is the photo itself (320x212 in 12 bit color). Don't worry about the 12 bits. The phone will convert 16 bit images, but keep the full-size images relatively small, e.g. 100K. Once you have your photos, create a Desktops folder off the root directory of your TFTP server. Then create a subdirectory inside it called 320x212x12. Using Notepad, create an XML file there and name it List.xml. Capitalization matters! Sample entries are shown below. Now copy all of your images to the 320x212x12 folder.
<ImageItem Image="TFTP:Desktops/320x212x12/MyGirlsTN.png" URL="TFTP:Desktops/320x212x12/MyGirls.png"/>
To change the desktop photo, crank up your TFTP server. Then press the Settings button on the phone followed by 1, 2. Then pick the desired photo and press the Select button. Save your change and you're done.
In theory, there are all sorts of other neat things you should be able to do with this phone. For example, there's a message waiting light. Doesn't work. Then there's a stutter dial tone with message waiting. Doesn't work. The phone is designed to display a listing of Phonebook Entries out of an XML file on your web site when you press the Directory button. Doesn't work. It's also supposed to display a page of helpful tips when you hit the question mark button. Doesn't work. Then there's the ability to run a web-based XML application. No cigar there either. And, when you answer a call on the phone, don't dare press the Transfer button unless you like watching core dumps. Fortunately, # transfers still work with Asterisk. Well, you get the idea. And this is Version 8? Can you even imagine what Version 1 looked like? And the sad part of all of this: the Cisco 7970 probably has the best voice quality of any telephone we've ever used. And we've used lots of them. Here's how we've decided to use the phone in our pure-VoIP environment. It's a variant of the old adage: "Don't Call Us, We'll Call You." We put the 7970 on a separate table in our high tech office and, whenever we need to talk to someone important, we'll call from our cushiest chair using this phone. For the rest of our incoming calls and our voicemail, we'll use another phone ... that works and better supports IP telephony but sounds more like a cellphone call. So, if you get a crystal-clear call from us, you can stand a little taller knowing how important you are. It's a call from the Cisco 7970!
The Hobson's Choice for most folks boils down to this. Do you want great sounding IP phone calls with a phone that costs two to five times as much as other IP phones while giving up virtually every other feature that has made IP telephony great? While it will let you retrieve your voicemail messages from your Asterisk server, unfortunately you'll never know you have a message unless you dial in regularly and manually check. This phone has been pitched as the perfect phone for the busy executive. The first busy executive that misses an important meeting because the message waiting lamp never lit up, and this phone would be out the window. Too bad!
Perhaps more than any other American company, Cisco is responsible for getting IP telephony off the ground. So it's especially disappointing to see what an absolutely crappy job they've passed off to the Internet community as their SIP offering. If you're one of their corporate customers, we hope you'll take the time to drop a line to John Chambers at Cisco and give him your thoughts. Cisco didn't get to where they are today with software that just barely passes the smell test.
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