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VoIP Navigation Guide: Getting Started with Asterisk and FreePBX

When you were just getting started with Asterisk® in the early days, you had two choices: hire a consultant to build you an Asterisk system or start with Asterisk@Home and learn it yourself. That was a disaster for many folks. Times have changed, and there are literally dozens of aggregations and platforms from which to choose. But the question we continue to hear is "What’s the best way to get started?" Today’s VoIP Navigation Guide will help you make the right choices.

Before we begin, you need to do a little head-scratching yourself. Sit down with a pencil and paper (or a computer if you must) and jot down answers to our Top 10 Preliminary Questions:

  1. Is this for home or office use?
  2. How many simultaneous calls?
  3. How many users on the system?
  4. Will there be remote or traveling users?
  5. Is this a mission-critical system for you/others?
  6. What type & speed Internet service? Wi-Fi only?
  7. What is the skillset of those supporting the system?
  8. Do you want to babysit hardware for your system?
  9. What’s your initial and monthly budget for the project?
  10. What should happen to calls if your house/office burns down?

Skillset Matters! Let’s start with the obvious. The technical skillset of you and any other people that will be managing your VoIP server are critically important. This isn’t the old days where you only had to monitor people making long distance calls from within your own house. Once you connect a VoIP server to the Internet, anybody and everybody around the world can take a shot at your server and run up huge phone bills on your nickel unless you know what you’re doing or unless you deploy a server on which access is locked down to just you and trusted users and service providers.

We preach (regularly) that firewalls are essential if you’re going to deploy a VoIP server. In the home or office environment, that means that, in addition to your VoIP server, you also need a hardware-based firewall/router with no mapped ports to the VoIP server, period. Any other setup and it’s just a matter of time until you’re hacked.

In the hosted or cloud environment, it means at the very least a software-based firewall on your VoIP server with all access restricted to a whitelist of trusted users and providers. Any other setup and it’s just a matter of time until you’re hacked.

If you’re not qualified to manage either a hardware or software firewall, then your VoIP choices are limited. None of the major aggregations including PBX in a Flash, the FreePBX® Distro, AsteriskNOW, and Elastix provide any firewall protection as installed. While Fail2Ban is included, it is basically a log scanner which searches for failed login attempts and blocks IP addresses that make excessive login attempts. The major problem with Fail2Ban is that it takes time to run and, if your server is attacked from powerful servers, that may not happen until thousands of hack attempts have been executed.

We have attempted to address this problem with this summer’s new releases of Incredible PBX. In these new releases, whitelist access is locked down as part of the installation process. You have a choice of platforms.

On Cloud-based servers and depending upon your installation skills, we recommend:

On self-managed servers, you typically install the Linux operating system and then run the Incredible PBX installer. On smaller devices, we handle that for you. We recommend the following setups with the caveat that the old adage still applies: "You get what you pay for!" All four of the small hardware offerings below support WiFi-only operation. Just add the recommended WiFi USB dongle. For the CuBox-i, it’s built in. The VirtualBox setup takes less than 10 minutes.

Sizing Your Platform. Appropriate server and Internet capacity obviously turns on most of the answers you wrote down in the preliminary questionnaire. If the system will be used by less than a handful of people, you’re probably safe with the cloud-based solutions we’ve identified or one of the four low-cost devices listed above. Keep in mind that you need roughly 100Kbps of Internet bandwidth for each simultaneous VoIP call. If you have existing POTS lines from Ma Bell, those don’t consume Internet bandwidth but do consume local network resources. POTS line integration also requires additional hardware for each line. For less than 5 POTS lines, the OBi110 is an excellent choice. You’ll find it advertised in the right column of Nerd Vittles for under $50.

For up to a couple dozen low-call-volume employees, the RentPBX Cloud offering is a terrific bargain. It includes the necessary bandwidth not only to make calls but also to connect your extensions. When you get above those numbers of users or with heavy call volume, scaling matters. You don’t want to purchase a server only to discover on Day Two that it can’t handle the call volume. Here’s where the PBX in a Flash Forum can be a tremendous help. Describe your environment using the Top 10 Checklist from above. One of our hundreds of experts will lend a hand in recommending what you need to get started. Better yet, hire one of the gurus to handle the setup for you. It’ll save you thousands of dollars in headaches and easily pay for itself in future savings.

The PBX in a Flash Alternative. We haven’t mentioned PBX in a Flash as a solution for those just beginning their VoIP adventure. The reason is simple. The firewall is not preconfigured on PBX in a Flash, and somebody has got to do it unless your server is sitting behind a rock-solid, hardware-based firewall. The beauty of PBX in a Flash is that it’s incredibly flexible. You can choose not only the version of Asterisk and FreePBX to install, but you also can compile Asterisk with any collection of features desired. Once you get your feet wet with Incredible PBX, it’s our VoIP tool of choice, but it takes some skills on your part to run it safely. A good place to begin is the Nerd Vittles Quickstart Guide for PBX in a Flash 3. Enjoy!

Originally published: Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Support Issues. With any application as sophisticated as this one, you’re bound to have questions. Blog comments are a terrible place to handle support issues although we welcome general comments about our articles and software. If you have particular support issues, we encourage you to get actively involved in the PBX in a Flash Forums. It’s the best Asterisk tech support site in the business, and it’s all free! Please have a look and post your support questions there. Our forum is extremely friendly and is supported by literally hundreds of Asterisk gurus.

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


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