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Incredible PBX on Steroids: The Asterisk-GUI Project Rolls On (Chapter 3)

We’re big fans of the new hybrid vehicles especially the Cadillac ELR. It combines an electric motor with a gas generator to give you the best of both worlds. For in-town driving, you get terrific performance at 1.5¢/mile using pure electric power. But you’re not hamstrung from venturing out to anywhere you choose using a traditional gas engine that can be refueled quickly at any time. In a nutshell, that’s the design philosophy that’s inspired development of Incredible PBX for the Asterisk-GUI.

This is the third installment in our series. You can catch up with the Overview as well as Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 here.

With Incredible PBX for the Asterisk-GUI, you get a terrific GUI to manage Asterisk® while taking advantage of all the neat features that Incredible PBX brings to the table using traditional dialplan design. Stated another way, you’re not being forced to always use a GUI to manage your Asterisk server when command-line utilities are more functional or efficient. Previous approaches to GUI-only management of Asterisk forced you to always jump through the GUI hoops to do much of anything. Unfortunately, what you lost in that scenario was a lot of the native functionality of Asterisk.

That’s not to say there wasn’t a lot to like about our GUI heritage with Asterisk. These open source projects brought a wealth of features to the table for beginners without having to learn much about the way Asterisk actually worked. The downside was you didn’t learn much about the way Asterisk actually worked. On the one hand, it kept folks from making serious programming errors that could result in major phone bills when security issues crept into a dialplan. The drawback was you never learned why. When something came unglued and things do come unglued, you were up the proverbial creek without a paddle. In fact, many never knew they had a paddle much less what it looked like.

I wish I had a nickel for every user that’s complained over the years that Asterisk won’t start. The last time we checked Google was showing 963,000 of them. It turns out that many of these weren’t failures with Asterisk at all but rather shortcomings in the interaction of one particular graphical user interface with MySQL. If you don’t believe it, shut down MySQL on your existing Asterisk server and then try to restart Asterisk. You’ll never see this with Incredible PBX for Asterisk-GUI. Why? Because the reliability of Asterisk isn’t tied to the reliability of MySQL, Apache, Perl, Asterisk-GUI, or any other foreign application.

astrundir in '/etc/asterisk' is set to  but the directory
does not exists. Attempting to create it with: 'mkdir -p '
mkdir: missing operand
Try 'mkdir --help' for more information.
Attempt to execute 'mkdir -p ' failed with an exit code of 1
You must create this directory and the try again.

In the new Incredible PBX design, we haven’t forgotten about security either. In this day and age, it’s the single most important feature of any PBX that is connected to the Internet. We always recommend running your server behind a hardware-based firewall with no Internet port exposure, but we appreciate that’s not always possible particularly with Cloud-based servers. Incredible PBX is delivered with the Linux IPtables firewall preconfigured. It allows access from your server’s IP address, from the IP address used to install Incredible PBX, from private IP addresses on your local area network, and from a very limited set of trusted providers so that you can connect your trunks to make and receive phone calls. The tools to add and delete whitelist entries on your firewall are also included. In addition, we’ve included the PortKnocker utility which lets remote users with the three port knock codes gain access until their IP addresses can be whitelisted by an administrator. In addition to IPtables security, there’s another layer of protection for web-based applications. Asterisk-GUI, of course, has its own security system that’s tied to the Asterisk manager.conf setup. All of the remaining web applications require Apache authentication. For Reminders and AsteriDex, you can create multiple Apache passwords for individual users or groups of users. For administrator applications, you set an admin password that’s only known by administrators.

We couldn’t help chuckling recently when one of the security sites found a vulnerability in one of the Incredible PBX applications but noted that administrator access was required to get to the application to launch the attack. That’s akin to saying your system is vulnerable if you hand out your root user credentials AND whitelist the IP addresses of the bad guys. Literally, what was documented was true, but finding security issues in software that requires root permissions for access is getting a little desperate, wouldn’t you say? Of course, one of our "competitors" wasted little time splashing it all over their web site. The vulnerability was fixed the same day it was disclosed, by the way. And it was automatically pushed out to every Incredible PBX server, all of which run industry-standard Linux operating systems. That’s the approach to system design and support our users have come to expect. Feel free to compare it to the offerings you’ll find elsewhere, commercial or otherwise. That, my friends, is what freedom of choice is all about.

The Lean, Mean (Pure) Asterisk Machine

The roadmap for the future direction of Incredible PBX continues to evolve, but let us take a moment and share our current thinking. We’ve previously mentioned that the target audience for Incredible PBX for Asterisk-GUI is hobbyists. That’s not a dirty word in our book. Nor does it mean the platform won’t be as robust and reliable as previous releases of Incredible PBX. It just has a smaller memory footprint and much faster performance. Yes, we’re using Asterisk-GUI which Digium no longer supports. But that was a marketing decision that had nothing to do with the quality of the product. It was written by some of the best brains in the Asterisk business so we’re comfortable using it as a platform. We’ve found only two bugs in beating on the software relentlessly. Outbound Caller ID on a per extension basis can be quirky. Trunk-based CallerID whether assigned at the provider end or on Incredible PBX works just fine including CallerID spoofing where permitted by the provider. The other wrinkle was Asterisk-GUI’s failure to support the [context](+) feature of Asterisk. We’ve found an easy workaround for that one as well. We just won’t use it.

The plan is to roll this out first on the CentOS 6.5 (now 6.6) platform because we view it as the most stable. Scientific Linux 6.6 works equally well. Once we get any kinks out of the code, we’ll turn our attention to Ubuntu 14 and then on to the small hardware: Raspberry Pi, BeagleBone Black, CuBox, and PogoPlug. There’s also been interest in a more internationally-friendly version, and that’s on the drawing board as well. During the rollout, we hope to complete work on moving a few MySQL-based utilities to SQLite3. We will leave MySQL in the installation mix but will turn it off to further reduce the memory overhead of the install. We also will scale back the number of simultaneous Apache sessions running since the purpose of Apache is primarily to support administrator utilities on the server. Actually, you can run Asterisk-GUI using either the native Asterisk http server or with Apache. Thanks to Bill Simon of Simon Telephonics, you’ll have both options. With simple modifications, we think we can improve the performance on memory-constrained platforms dramatically while providing a robust, high performance platform if you have the hardware to support it. We’ve also initiated discussions with Amazon to roll out a phone service using this platform for the new Amazon Echo product. So 2015 is shaping up to be another banner year in the VoIP world. We hope you’ll come join us.

This week we continue the march. We want to review some of the open source features being incorporated into Incredible PBX from the open source code base minus some of the superfluous GUI modules. For example, you can manage blacklisting of callers using nothing more than your telephone. The same is true for SMS messaging. If you can dictate an SMS message, then why type it? Bash scripts are a well-tested feature of Incredible PBX, and you’ll still find a healthy collection of them in the /root folder of your server after you complete the install. But today’s focus is what can be accomplished with Incredible PBX using nothing more than your telephone.

Blacklisting Callers with Incredible PBX

One of our old PBX favorites dating back to the Asterisk@Home days was blacklisting. This means that old girlfriends and telemarketers get routed to Zapateller with a message that your number is not in service. By default, Incredible PBX for Asterisk-GUI will automatically blacklist incoming calls without a CallerID number. You can modify this behavior if desired:

asterisk -rx "database del blacklist blocked"

If you change your mind and want to turn anonymous call blocking back on, use this command:

asterisk -rx "database put blacklist blocked 1"

We’ve retained the same feature codes to manage blacklisting of specific numbers from any phone on your system:

  • *30 – Add a number to Blacklist
  • *31 – Remove number from Blacklist
  • *32 – Blacklist last number that called

Blacklisting was all smoke and mirrors in the old GUI days. But we want you to understand how this actually works so that you can change it if you’d like. For example, instead of the Zapateller tone, you might prefer to route callers on your blacklist to Lenny (53669 on your phone) so that you waste some of the caller’s time instead of the other way around.

In the extensions_additional.conf file, find the [app-blacklist-check] context. The last four lines in that context look like this:

;exten => s,n,Goto(DLPN_DialPlanMain,53669,1)
exten  => s,n,Zapateller()
exten  => s,n,Playback(ss-noservice)
exten  => s,n,Hangup

To route blacklisted callers to Lenny, just uncomment the top line shown and add semicolons to the next two lines:

exten  => s,n,Goto(DLPN_DialPlanMain,53669,1)
;exten => s,n,Zapateller()
;exten => s,n,Playback(ss-noservice)
exten  => s,n,Hangup

Wasn’t that easy? Now just save your changes and reload your dialplan: asterisk -rx "dialplan reload"

You may prefer to manually add numbers to your blacklist. You can do this from the Linux command prompt like this. Don’t forget the 1.

asterisk -rx "database put blacklist 8005551212 1"

From the Asterisk CLI (asterisk -rvvvvvvvvvv), do it like this:

database put blacklist 8005551212 1

To display all of your blacklist entries, try this:

database show blacklist

To remove an entry from the blacklist, use this syntax:

database del blacklist 8005551212

MP3 Voicemail Messaging for Cellphone Playback

One of the most requested features on our forums has been the ability to forward voicemails in MP3 format so that they play back correctly on cellphones and desktop mail clients. As with many of the Incredible PBX features, we wouldn’t know where to start to thank all of the folks that helped make this happen. You can review the thread on the PIAF Forum for background. This is yet another great example of how the open source community should work. Thanks to everyone that participated in bringing this development to fruition. On the new Incredible PBX for Asterisk-GUI platform it’s automatic. All you have to do is assign an email address to any voice mailbox on your server in the Users setup, and incoming voicemail messages will be delivered by email in the proper format for playback. The message thread explains how for those with an interest.

Accessing Voicemail Messages with Incredible PBX

Speaking of voicemail, we’ve tried to maintain the same feature codes that many have become accustomed to over the years. Here’s a recap of the codes in case you ever forget:

  • *98 – Check Voicemail Messages from Any Phone
  • *extension – Leave a Voicemail for Dialed Extension
  • * after voicemail connect – Access Voicemail Retrieval

Migrating the Google Speech Feature Set to Incredible PBX for Asterisk-GUI

We previously mentioned that Google Voice wasn’t around when Asterisk-GUI was developed. Not to worry. We’ve added it. And that’s just the beginning. All of the Google features that have made Incredible PBX so popular will be included in the Asterisk-GUI edition. That includes text-to-speech and speech recognition thanks to Lefteris Zafiris. It also includes SMS messaging with your same Google Voice credentials. Pick up a phone and dial S-M-S to dictate and send an SMS message to any recipient in the U.S. or Canada. Pick up a phone and dial 949 to listen to a weather forecast for any major city in the world. Just say the name of the city and state or country. Pick up a phone and dial 951 to listen to the latest News Headlines. Or dial T-O-D-A-Y to listen to Today in History. Sign up for a free Wolfram Alpha key, dial 4747, and you’ve got a voice-enabled encyclopedia at your fingertips. Eat your heart out, Siri. Our extra special thanks to Google for still supporting the open source community. Did we mention… It’s all still free.

Google has changed the rules a bit on using their speech recognition engine. So you now need an API Key to use the Speech Recognition AGI script for Asterisk. Assuming you’ll be using the functionality for “personal and development use,” here’s how to obtain your API key:

1. IMPORTANT FIRST STEP: Use an existing Google/Gmail account to join the Chrome-Dev Group.

2. Using the same account, create a new Speech Recognition Project.

3. Click on your newly created project and choose APIs & auth.

4. Turn ON Speech API by clicking on its Status button in the far right margin.

5. Click on Credentials in APIs & auth and choose Create New Key -> Server key. Leave the IP address restriction blank!

6. Write down your new API key or copy it to the clipboard.

7. Once you’ve installed Incredible PBX, log into your server as root and edit speech-recog.agi in /var/lib/asterisk/agi-bin.

8. Go to line 70 of speech-recog.agi: my $key = "". Insert your API key from Step #6 above between the quotation marks and save the file: Ctrl-X, Y, then Enter.

This will activate all of the Speech Recognition applications in Incredible PBX as described above.

Activating Wolfram Alpha with Speech Recognition in Incredible PBX

If you’re not familiar with Wolfram Alpha, it’s an encyclopedia and almanac on steroids. It’s driven by a supercomputer. There’s not much it doesn’t know. We’ve written an exhaustive article on Wolfram Alpha for Asterisk so start there. With Incredible PBX, everything is preconfigured for you. All you need to do is obtain a (free) API key.

To get started, sign up for a free Wolfram Alpha API account. Just provide your email address and set up a password. It takes less than a minute. Log into your account and click on Get An App ID. Make up a name for your application and write down (and keep secret) your APP-ID code. That’s all there is to getting set up with Wolfram Alpha. If you want to explore costs for commercial use, there are links to let you get more information.

Now you’ll need to insert your API key into /var/lib/asterisk/agi-bin/4747. The first line of the file looks like this: APPID="Wolfram-Alpha-API-Key-Goes-Here". Insert your API key between the quotation marks and save the file: Ctrl-X, Y, then Enter.

You’re ready to try out Wolfram Alpha by dialing 4-7-4-7 from any phone connected to your server. Here are some sample queries to get you started:

Weather in Charleston South Carolina
Weather forecast for Washington D.C.
Next solar eclipse
Otis Redding
Define politician
Who won the 1969 Superbowl? (Broadway Joe)
What planes are overhead? (flying over your server’s location)
Ham and cheese sandwich (nutritional information)
Holidays 2015 (summary of all holidays for 2015 with dates and DOW)
Medical University of South Carolina (history of MUSC)
Star Trek (show history, air dates, number of episodes, and more)
Apollo 11 (everything you ever wanted to know)
Cheapest Toaster (brand and price)
Battle of Gettysburg (sad day 🙂 )
Daylight Savings Time 2015 Charleston South Carolina (date ranges and how to set your clocks)
iPads by Apple (pricing, models, and specs from Best Buy)
Doughnut (you don’t wanna know)
Snickers bar (ditto)
Weather (local weather at your server’s location)

Yahoo! Weather by ZIP Code Is Moving to SQLite 3

One of the more popular features of Incredible PBX has always been the ability to retrieve a Yahoo weather forecast by dialing Z-I-P and plugging in a 5-digit ZIP code for the weather report you wished to hear. This always required a MySQL zip code database to translate the zip code into a city and state for presentation to the various weather services. As part of our move to reduce the memory footprint of Incredible PBX, we are gradually removing our dependence on MySQL. In its place we’re deploying SQLite3 databases, and Weather by ZIP Code was our first successful migration. Moving the MySQL zip code database to SQLite was a snap using a terrific open source script that we highly recommend to developers. It lets you convert any MySQL database (with indexes) to SQLite 3 in seconds. Here’s the link if you ever have the need. About 5 lines of PHP code had to be modified to complete the migration from MySQL to SQLite. Not bad. For our purposes, you’ll never know the difference when you dial in for your next weather forecast.

Originally published: Monday, December 15, 2014

Need help with Asterisk? Visit the PBX in a Flash Forum.


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