The last few weeks have certainly reinforced the notion that one should never ASS-U-ME anything unless you’re willing to learn the hard way when things go south. We’ve also uncovered a new twist to the Golden Rule: "He who has the gold makes the rules." In the Digium®-centric Asterisk® world, it goes something like this. When life is good, we reserve the right to cash in on the proceeds. When things go wrong, the Asterisk community needs to do better testing. It’s a free product, and you get what you pay for.
We wish we could say that our suggestion that Digium eat its own dog food before releasing new Asterisk versions to the public was well received. Quite the contrary, and we probably should have learned several years ago about the tenor of responses one could expect when suggestions were made to change the Digium Way of doing things. In the previous case, we had suggested that altering dialplan syntax and punctuation between Asterisk versions was counter-productive because it broke almost every existing Asterisk application. That was sloughed off as being someone else’s problem since the Digium developers could not possibly anticipate all of the problems that would be caused by changing verbs and syntax in the dialplan.
Think of what would happen if you moved the location of the brake pedal on every new car, and you get some idea of the scope of the problem for Asterisk application developers, assuming you still can find the ones that wrote your company’s application.
Testing Methodology… NOT! With the release of Asterisk 1.8.4, we suddenly encountered a new can of worms. Virtually all Cisco SIP and Polycom TLS phones no longer worked. Keep in mind that this is the only "fully supported" (whatever that means) version of Asterisk that is still available. In the case of the Cisco phones, Digium managers claimed that they didn’t have every piece of equipment on the planet so it wasn’t their fault. In the case of Polycom, it turned out that Digium’s multi-million dollar headquarters reportedly is chock full of Polycom phones, but they’re all plugged into a commercial PBX that didn’t have the problems engineered into Asterisk 1.8.4.
That brings us to the Hobson’s Choice now facing existing and would-be Asterisk users. Wouldn’t you think that a company that profits enormously off hardware and software sales because of their "free" Asterisk product would have some rudimentary test lab in place with a dozen or two phones from the major VoIP manufacturers so that new releases could be checked out before the production-ready release is distributed? Well, apparently not. Kinda reminds us of an old Huntsville comment about the Apollo moon missions. Would you want to fly to the moon in a spacecraft built by the lowest bidder? For Huntsville’s Digium Corporation, the question might be phrased a little differently. Why would any organization want to stake its livelihood on an untested Asterisk PBX?
Does free really matter if your phones don’t work?1
As one of Asterisk’s primary cheerleaders for many, many years, this latest revelation that there is an almost complete lack of testing before production versions of Asterisk are released is disappointing to us not to mention incredibly short-sighted on Digium’s part. Since Digium appears unwilling to actually use their own product internally, we’d like to propose a dog food alternative.
First, instead of more leather chairs for the new Digium headquarters2, how about a 200 square foot test lab in the attic with a few $250 Atom-based PCs and a couple of under $1,000 Dell servers running Proxmox and VMware virtual machines with a couple dozen flavors of Asterisk. Then add a dozen SIP phones from the leading VoIP providers as well as a few of the leading ATAs. $5,000 would easily cover the total cost of the lab. How do we know? Well, the PBX in a Flash Dev Team (with no VC funding) has had a similar setup in two locations for years. We even do testing for outside organizations from time to time. 🙂
Make Lemonade Out of Lemons. Better yet, if we were king, the testing facility would be moved front and center to the first floor behind a glass showcase so that every visitor could see that Digium was just as serious about testing its products as it was about its revenue-generating training room and its foosball table. Click on Tom Keating’s photo of the Digium facility for the corporate tour. Testing is a matter of corporate pride in most organizations, not something to be ashamed of… unless you don’t happen to do much of it. Indeed, the comments we’ve received from Paul Belanger suggest that at least some of the Digium folks have their hearts in the right place about all of this. And, just because some Asterisk developers are not on the corporate payroll, the buck clearly stops with Digium, The Asterisk Company, to make certain that the Asterisk product is rock-solid reliable before it goes out the door.
Second, build a checklist of functions that must pass muster before any new Asterisk version is released. Ever heard of a Digium card that didn’t work with a new Asterisk release? Didn’t think so. We’re guessing this is something more than coincidence. The overall software reliability of Asterisk affects Digium’s bottom line just like hardware reliability even if the software product is touted as being free. Digium profits from Asterisk hardware sales, Asterisk consulting, Asterisk training, Asterisk conventions, Asterisk support, and numerous Asterisk software add-ons that cost money. If the reliability of Asterisk goes down the tubes, so goes the commercial side of Digium’s business as well.
Third, don’t depend solely upon software-driven tests in checking out new releases. Nothing beats a human at the controls for a day to give new software a proper workout. Make calls from every phone to every other phone on the same and on a different network to verify call quality and reliability. Then do the same thing using POTS phones connected to ATAs. When all of that works, move on to a short list of major Asterisk features to make sure they remain stable. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? It is. We do it regularly with no profit motive at all. Here’s our short list of two dozen deal-breakers, and our readers can probably suggest a couple dozen more. We’ll add them to the list as they arrive. If you don’t want to design a system for testing, then feel free to use The Incredible PBX with our compliments. All of these turnkey features are available out of the chute, and you can install it from a thumb drive on almost any hardware.
Music on Hold
Do Not Disturb
SIP Server Connectivity
IAX Server Connectivity
VPN Server Connectivity
Here’s hoping that we all get something positive back from Digium management this time around. Hopefully, they’ll realize before it’s too late that their future really does depend upon a reliable Asterisk product. And, no, we’re not going to print any response suggesting that users turn back to Asterisk 1.4 and 1.6.2 when Digium and the Asterisk developers are on record as being unwilling to address a bug such as the one that occurred in Asterisk 1.8.4 if instead it had arisen in either of the older versions of Asterisk that are barely on life support.
Every organization has defining moments. This is an important one for Digium. Take responsibility for the quality of your product! And, rather than focusing upon whether to call the next version of Asterisk 1.10 or 2.0, spend the necessary time and money to get the Asterisk 1.8 house in order. Otherwise, the VC-funded office building may belong to another fish in the growing sea of VoIP providers one day soon. It’s worth remembering that Digital Research of CP/M fame3 as well as WordStar, Ashton-Tate, Lotus, and WordPerfect all were household names and seemingly invincible software development houses once upon a time. History has a way of repeating itself. Wonder why?
Originally published: Wednesday, June 1, 2011
Changes in PBX in a Flash Distribution. In light of the events outlined in our recent Nerd Vittles article and the issues with Asterisk 1.8.4, the PIAF Dev Team has made some changes in our distribution methodology. As many of you know, PBX in a Flash is the only distribution that compiles Asterisk from source code during the install. This has provided us enormous flexibility to distribute new releases with the latest Asterisk code. Unfortunately, Asterisk 1.8 is still a work in progress to put it charitably. We also feel some responsibility to insulate our users from show-stopping Asterisk releases. Going forward, the plan is to reserve the PIAF-Purple default install for the most stable version of Asterisk 1.8. As of June 1, Asterisk 184.108.40.206 is the new PIAF-Purple default install. Other versions of Asterisk 1.8 (newer and older) will be available through a new configuration utility which now is incorporated into the PIAF 220.127.116.11.2 ISO.
Here’s how it works. Begin the install of a new PIAF system in the usual way by booting from your USB flash drive and pressing Enter to load the most current version of CentOS 5.6. When the CentOS install finishes, your system will reboot. Accept the license agreement, and choose the PIAF-Purple option to load the latest stable version of Asterisk 1.8. Or exit to the Linux CLI if you want a different version. Log into CentOS as root. Then issue a command like this: piafdl -p beta_1842 (loads Asterisk 18.104.22.168), piafdl -p beta_1841 (loads Asterisk 22.214.171.124), piafdl -p 184 (loads Asterisk 1.8.4), piafdl -p 1833 (loads Asterisk 126.96.36.199), or piafdl -p 1832 (loads Asterisk 188.8.131.52). If there should ever be an outage on one of the PBX in a Flash mirrors, you can optionally choose a different mirror for the payload download by adding piafdl -c for the .com site, piafdl -d for the .org site, or piafdl -e for the .net site. Then add the payload switch, e.g. piafdl -c -p beta_1842.
Bottom Line: If you use the piafdl utility to choose a particular version of Asterisk 1.8, you are making a conscious decision to accept the consequences of your particular choice. We would have preferred implementation of a testing methodology at Digium before distribution of new Asterisk releases; however, that doesn’t appear to be in the cards. So, as new Asterisk 1.8 releases hit the street, they will be made available through the piafdl utility until such time as our PIAF Pioneers independently establish their reliability.
Need help with Asterisk? Visit the PBX in a Flash Forum.
Or Try the New, Free PBX in a Flash Conference Bridge.
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Special Thanks to Vitelity. Vitelity is now Voyant Communications and has halted new registrations for the time being. Our special thanks to Vitelity for their unwavering financial support over many years and to the many Nerd Vittles readers who continue to enjoy the benefits of their service offerings. We will keep everyone posted on further developments.
Some Recent Nerd Vittles Articles of Interest…
- There’s been a lively debate about all of this in the Comments to the original article and on the PIAF Forum and the FreePBX Forum, three eyeopeners you won’t want to miss. [↩]
- Digium HQ photo courtesy of Tom Keating. Click on the photo for a tour. [↩]
- Gary Kildall flew his own airplane, too. He reportedly was off on a flying adventure while Bill Gates was meeting with IBM to seal the DOS deal. The rest, as they say, is history. [↩]