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View from the Trenches: A Fresh Look at VoIP Project Development in the Cloud

The world of cloud-based computing has profoundly changed over the past year. And today we want to take a fresh look at the cloud landscape for those of you that spend considerable time experimenting or tweaking software applications either for customers or for your own organization.

First, a brief paragraph of history. We began our cloud experiments almost seven years ago when Amazon S3 was still in its infancy. At the time, Amazon S3 was a real bargain even with all its development quirks. The adventure continued when we moved some production level systems to Amazon’s EC2 cloud in early 2013. What we quickly learned was just how expensive cloud computing could be once you reached the end of your "free year" with Amazon. As the cloud options continued to bloom, RentPBX began providing technical and financial assistance to our projects while also offering inexpensive, production-quality VoIP services in the cloud at truly bargain basement prices: $15 a month. That barely covers the electric bill for many folks hosting their own local servers. And RentPBX servers are unique. They don’t commingle other processor-intensive applications on their servers. All of their servers are pure VoIP which makes for an incredibly reliable cloud-based platform. Our special pricing still is available for those using PBX in a Flash and Incredible PBX. Just sign up with the coupon code: NOGOTCHAS. So that’s a little background.

But there are many of us that develop systems and experiment with new offerings as part of our daily routine. We build systems. We tweak systems. We blow up systems. And we start over, sometimes dozens (hopefully not hundreds) of times. To give you an example, our typical Incredible PBX build to support a new platform goes through twenty to thirty iterations before all of the kinks are worked out of the code. And that’s before the software development teams for CentOS, Ubuntu, Asterisk, Apache, SendMail, MySQL, and the Raspberry Pi "improve" anything. A production-quality cloud service really isn’t flexible enough to support this type of activity, and an affordable local server lacks the horsepower to keep setup times reasonable. On occasion, we use a high performance iMac coupled with VirtualBox for development, but that introduces some quirks that typically aren’t found on real world servers.

The good news is that there are two relatively new cloud offerings that fit very well with the requirements needed for rapid application development. We use both of them in slightly different ways so let us share our experience in hopes that it will save many of you some time experimenting.

We can’t say enough good things about Digital Ocean. Despite a few growing pains from time to time, Digital Ocean provides a vast assortment of cloud-based servers scattered all around the world. There are servers in New York, San Francisco, Amsterdam, London, Frankfurt, and even Singapore. You can size your development platform to meet almost any requirement with prices starting at about 5¢ for a 7-hour day of development. That buys you a speedy 512MB/single-CPU platform with 20 gigs of storage and a terabyte of monthly bandwidth. Add a (free) 1GB cache to your build, and it’s the performance equivalent of our $3,000 standalone Dell servers. You can scale up from there to a platform with 64GB of RAM, 20 CPUs, 640GB SSD drive, and 9 terabytes of monthly data transfer for less than $1 an hour. The difference with this platform is you can create a CentOS, Ubuntu, Fedora, FreeBSD, or Debian server of any recent vintage in about one minute. There’s also a vast array of preconfigured applications for the specialists of the world:

Using our referral code, you get $10 of free service while we get a little spiff down the road to keep the Nerd Vittles lights on. Tear down of servers is almost instantaneous, and you simply pay for the time you used. Using the small platform for 90 minutes will set you back a whole penny. Some of our PBX in a Flash users are actually running production-level servers on this platform (which we don’t recommend), and the monthly cost is capped at $5. One of the best kept secrets at Digital Ocean is that you can take snapshots of your builds and store them at little to no cost. We have a dozen of them and have never paid a penny in storage fees. You also have the option of off-site backups for production platforms.

The new kid on the block is CloudAtCost.com. If you’re not into bleeding edge, this probably isn’t the offering for you. But it is dirt cheap. While you can pay by the month, CloudAtCost also has a revolutionary marketing strategy. You can pay for your virtual machine once (almost always at a substantial discount off the listed prices), and you get to use "your server" forever at no additional cost… at least as long as CloudAtCost stays in business. If this sounds like a pyramid scheme, you probably wouldn’t be the first to suggest that. Suffice it to say, their business has grown geometrically over the past year. And they recently announced CloudPRO which lets you pool resources from servers you previously have bought, and use them in much the same way as Digital Ocean but with no additional charges. So here’s today’s pricing:

To put things in perspective, the virtual machine equivalent of Digital Ocean’s smallest setup costs $17.50, ONE TIME! The Big Dog 3 platform with a one-time fee of $560 migrated to CloudPRO would provide you with the capability to create 8 smaller systems (1 CPU, 1GB RAM, and 10GB storage) as desired with no bandwidth limitations forever.1 Download and upload performance is fairly impressive using speedtest-cli:

So what’s the catch. Well, there are some. First, as you might imagine, these folks are much like the fella laying track in front of the steaming locomotive. Will that ever end? You’d better hope not because, when it does, the entire house of cards may come down. While Digital Ocean typically builds virtual machines in under a minute, CloudAtCost turnaround times are close to a day. Once your server is actually working, we’ve had a pretty good experience with the performance quality although there can be rough spots that usually are resolved within a day. The promise, of course, is to get build times down to a minute or two. But, frankly, we’re not holding our breath. As for platform support, there are plenty of options just like with Digital Ocean:

What is this platform good for? In our case, it’s almost perfect for off-site backups. You can judge the web performance for yourself by visiting the backup site for Nerd Vittles, or the PIAF Forum, or Incredible PBX, or PBX in a Flash. Would we use CloudAtCost for production? Not a chance. But for backups and demo servers, it’s AWESOME and CHEAP! If you’re a Nerd Vittles early bird, you can use our coupon code for an additional 20% off: Zu2eXYDYtU.

DEMO SERVER. We’ve actually set up an Incredible PBX server with Google Voice and an IVR of sample applications so you can judge the CloudAtCost performance for yourself. You can even try hacking the IP address if that’s your thing. We always love to test our firewall: nmap -sT -O To try out Allison’s IVR, enter your 10-digit callback number below and then click the Click Here button once. Count to 10 and your phone should be ringing. After you answer the call and press 1, you’ll be connected to the IVR Demo in Canada. Don’t be shy.

Nerd Vittles IVR Demo Options
1 – Call by Name (say “Delta Airlines” or “American Airlines” to try it out)
2 – MeetMe Conference (password is 1234)
3 – Wolfram Alpha (say “What planes are overhead?”)
4 – Lenny (The Telemarketer’s Worst Nightmare)
5 – Today’s News Headlines
6 – Weather Forecast (say the city and state, province, or country)
7 – Today in History
8 – Speak to a Real Person (or maybe just Lenny if we’re out)

Originally published: Cinco de Mayo, 2015

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Special Thanks to Our Generous Sponsors

FULL DISCLOSURE: ClearlyIP, Skyetel, Vitelity, DigitalOcean, Vultr, VoIP.ms, 3CX, Sangoma, TelecomsXchange and VitalPBX have provided financial support to Nerd Vittles and our open source projects through advertising, referral revenue, and/or merchandise. As an Amazon Associate and Best Buy Affiliate, we also earn from qualifying purchases. We’ve chosen these providers not the other way around. Our decisions are based upon their corporate reputation and the quality of their offerings and pricing. Our recommendations regarding technology are reached without regard to financial compensation except in situations in which comparable products at comparable pricing are available from multiple sources. In this limited case, we support our sponsors because our sponsors support us.

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VitalPBX is perhaps the fastest-growing PBX offering based upon Asterisk with an installed presence in more than 100 countries worldwide. VitalPBX has generously provided a customized White Label version of Incredible PBX tailored for use with all Incredible PBX and VitalPBX custom applications. Follow this link for a free test drive!

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…

  1. forever: as long as CloudAtCost.com stays in business []