Many years ago when Eric Schmidt headed up Novell, the company prided itself on being an organization that ate its own dog food before releasing code to the public. Microsoft has done much the same thing with new releases of Windows. And it’s not a surprise that the dogfood principle carried over to Google as well. The end result is that not only are products less buggy, but many of the day-to-day implementation issues already have been resolved long before the public ever touches a shipping product. Microsoft expanded on this by offering beta releases of code to thousands of "pioneers" that understood the risks of using untested software that still was under development. That brings us to Digium® and Asterisk® 1.8 which is quickly devolving into a perpetual beta release.
While we’ve never been invited to Digium’s headquarters for reasons that should be obvious when you read articles like this, the scuttlebutt always has been that Digium uses a commercial PBX internally to support its telecommunications needs. Indeed, most of the commercial resellers of Asterisk products market a far different flavor of Asterisk with dozens if not hundreds of patches that are not available to the general public. And one of the distinguishing features of PBX in a Flash always has been its update-fixes utility which incorporates dozens and dozens of patches into every version of Asterisk that is installed by end-users and developers alike. Some of this needs refinement if Asterisk 1.8 is going to have a chance of adoption in the commercial marketplace.
The root of the problem in the Asterisk world is that we now find ourselves with one and only one supported version of Asterisk: Asterisk 1.8. And it happens to be a version that few people actually use to run their businesses. The reason for this dilemma is that, other than security fixes, Digium now has dropped support for both Asterisk 1.4 and 1.6, the two products that most folks regard as the "stable releases" and deploy in production systems. So we’re left with a supported version of Asterisk that no one actually is using or selling for a production environment. Indeed, Digium, The Asterisk Company markets a commercial product based upon a completely different version of Asterisk!
The bottom line is, if Digium isn’t willing to stake its business on Asterisk 1.8, why should anyone else take the plunge? After all, who knows Asterisk better than The Asterisk Company? Suffice it to say Asterisk 1.8 is not getting the necessary testing that a product with an installed base in the millions deserves and, indeed, requires in order to flourish.
This ultimately leads to embarrassing situations such as the release of Asterisk 1.8.4 last week followed by the almost immediate discovery (worldwide) that Cisco phones no longer could connect to Asterisk servers. The response to complaints was that the necessary code wasn’t in the source tree. No kidding! As it has turned out, there wasn’t an available patch that worked either.
For a whole host of reasons, this should never have happened. If Digium and some of the lead developers used Asterisk 1.8 to run their businesses, we’re pretty sure we wouldn’t be writing this column. There are some other considerations that should be equally obvious. First, any regression testing methodology worth its salt should have caught this since Cisco phones registered properly with Asterisk 18.104.22.168 and prior versions. Second, major mistakes like this give a black eye to a promising product that for the most part has been incredibly stable since its initial release. Third, shipping a version like 1.8.4 instantly reduces the pool of users willing to try new releases because of the very real perception that with each new release comes a risk that Digium and the Asterisk developers have chosen to reinvent the wheel without telling anybody.
PBX in a Flash has become the de facto aggregation platform for those wanting to deploy a turnkey version of Asterisk 1.8 because it includes the very latest versions of CentOS 5.6, Asterisk 1.8, and FreePBX 2.8 plus all of the other necessary components to get up and running quickly. But, as we discovered the hard way last week, this also means that the latest, greatest release can also bring a whole host of problems just as quickly. So here’s what we’ve done to mitigate the damage. Later today we will introduce new PBX in a Flash 22.214.171.124.2 ISOs in 32-bit and 64-bit flavors that include a utility to select prior versions of Asterisk 1.8 to deploy rather than just the current release. Check back here or join us on Twitter for the actual release announcement. Of course, you still can choose from two versions of Asterisk 1.4 as well as the latest version of Asterisk 1.6.2 as well.
By way of example, let’s assume you want to install Asterisk 1.8, but you also have an office full of Cisco phones so you’d prefer that your employees still have the ability to make and receive phone calls. Thus, you’d like to install Asterisk 126.96.36.199 instead of Asterisk 1.8.4. So here’s how to do it using PBX in a Flash 188.8.131.52.2. First, burn the ISO to a CD and begin the install on a dedicated server by booting from the ISO and pressing the Enter key. After choosing your keyboard, time zone, and root password, the installer will build you a base CentOS 5.6 system. When the system reboots, remove the CD. This will bring up the menu which ordinarily lets you choose the flavor of Asterisk you would like to install. Instead of choosing Gold, Silver, Bronze, or Purple, choose the last option which lets you drop down to the Linux command prompt. Log into your server as root using your new root password. Now issue the following command: piafdl -p 1833. When you press the Enter key, you’ll get a new PIAF-Purple install with Asterisk 184.108.40.206 instead of 1.8.4.
If you have an earlier PBX in a Flash ISO and would like to mimic this behavior to load Asterisk 220.127.116.11, here’s how. Install the CentOS portion of PBX in a Flash in the usual way. When your server reboots after removing the CD, choose the Linux CLI option from the PIAF flavors menu. Log in as root and issue the following commands:
chmod +x 1833.sh
There’s some added flexibility in the new PIAF 18.104.22.168.2 ISO as well. In the event we experience a problem with one of our mirrors, PIAF always has had the flexibility to retry downloads from another mirror. But now you also can force an install from a specific mirror site. For example, piafdl -c -p 1883 would force an install of Asterisk 22.214.171.124 from our .com site, piafdl -d -p 1883 would force an install of Asterisk 126.96.36.199 from our .org site, and piafdl -e -p 1883 would force an install of Asterisk 188.8.131.52 from our .net site. In addition, this added flexibility will let us offer newer releases for pioneers and older releases for those that need a specific function. Keep reading for more details…
For "the rest of the story," be sure to read the Comments including Digium’s response to this article.
May 21 Update: Because of the instability issues with Asterisk 1.8.4, we have backrevved PIAF-Purple, our Asterisk 1.8 flavor, to Asterisk 184.108.40.206. Cisco phones work; however, this does not fix a problem with Polycom phones. To address that, you will need Asterisk 220.127.116.11; however, that version was not as stable with Google Voice. So you now have the Hobson’s Choice of picking your poison. The default PIAF-Purple selection will get you Asterisk 18.104.22.168. Or you can drop down to the Linux CLI, login as root and issue: piafdl -p 184 (for Asterisk 1.8.4) or piafdl -p 1832 (for Asterisk 22.214.171.124). For the time being, a "stable version" of Asterisk 1.8 unfortunately isn’t in the cards.
June 1 Update: As of today, the new default PIAF-Purple is Asterisk 126.96.36.199.
Originally published: Monday, May 16, 2011
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