Open-source IP telephony and the systems administration dilemma

To effectively set up, operate, and customize an open-source phone system like Asterisk or FreeSWITCH, you need to be competent at Linux systems administration.
When Asterisk and FreeSWITCH first came about, this was clear, because to go though the process of building the software and running it on your server, you had to decipher and successfully follow compiling instructions and use systems administration skills to get it to work.
Enter the Asterisk+FreePBX “distro.” There are several of them out there now, and their promise is big: insert this CD or flash drive, boot your server, and out comes a working phone system with a configuration GUI. The installers even do a decent job of making the system secure, so that you’re not the victim of the first script kiddie to happen upon your server’s IP address.
Linux is pretty good at figuring out hardware configurations and installing drivers and setting up automatically. So, chances are, when the installer is done, you really do have a working system.
At this point, the person maintaining the phone system has to hope that all problems can be effectively diagnosed and solved through the GUI, that nothing interesting happens with the underlying hardware or operating system that would require troubleshooting, that all logging is available through the GUI, and that the security of the GUI’s web server (typically Apache, firewalled by iptables) is correct. 
What if you are running Asterisk+FreePBX and have a SIP communications issue with a provider? You can’t turn on SIP debugging in FreePBX. You can use the Asterisk Logs module to get some log information but you’d do much better with command line tools such as grep. The truth is, inability to navigate Linux and the Asterisk command line is crippling.
Taking advantage of the open-source system’s openness to customize and add new features, such as Google Voice integration, means getting into the nuts and bolts. Or wait for someone else to write a (probably buggy) GUI module for you.
The fact is, if you want to be hands-off with systems administration, you need to get an appliance-like system such as SwitchVox or the big name brand small business PBXes. You have to pay for these. With your money you will get professional support to operate the low-level controls when an error appears, and you’ll get full GUI access (probably) to everything you should have access to. If it’s not in the GUI, you don’t have access to it.
If you want free, you need to learn systems administration so that you can be your own support person. The forums of FreePBX and various distros are full of questions like, “My phone doesn’t work, what do I do?” Ask them what appears in the logs and they have no idea what you are talking about. It just doesn’t work like that.
This is the dilemma. Free and customizable, with the cost of learning systems administration (and maybe some scripting/programming) skills, or hands-off with the cost of paying the vendor for the software and support?
To be a little more specific about what I am calling systems administration skills, here are the things I believe a person needs to know in order to competently install and maintain an open-source phone system, with or without a GUI, and whether from a CD-installed distro or from RPM packages or from source (not an exhaustive list):
  • ability to navigate the Linux filesystem comfortably and know where certain kinds of files typically are (logs are in /var/log, config files are in /etc, executables in /usr/bin and so on)
  • ability to use a text editor
  • handiness with find, grep
  • ability to correctly configure a firewall or packet filter such as iptables
  • ability to read syslogs and follow clues to solve a problem
  • familiarity with the operating system’s package system (such as yum/RPM with CentOS) so that he/she can easily load necessary tools
  • some familiarity with development tools such as make, gcc, configure scripts, cvs and svn, and the ability to decipher output they produce
  • ability to configure user accounts and passwords
  • some familiarity with network diagnostic tools like netstat and tcpdump
  • for FreePBX, familiarity with command-line MySQL for database troubleshooting
  • for Asterisk’s mail needs (voicemail or fax to e-mail), ability to configure some mail sender

Is it a tall order? Yes, there is a learning curve. It’s not Windows 7. But, like learning a foreign language, when you go into the foreign land (Linux console) and can speak the language, you are empowered.

One thought on “Open-source IP telephony and the systems administration dilemma”

  1. Saw the link to your post on MichiganTelephone…

    This is a nice list and I’m pleasantly surprised that I get by on almost all points listed. However, I agree with Michigan Telephone.

    A free system doen’t mean a confusing and difficult process to decipher. And to implement tools to aid the user/administrator are not that much more work than leaving a confusing pile to be sorted through. It’s like commenting code well.

    For example: Helpful to have a single page of text or a gui chart that shows all setup connections like registered PAP-Pots line, or successful Google Voice registration/link along with built in trouble codes. “everything is green light, except red light on google voice”; “Google Voice inbound on port 5222 is blocked by firewall”. Or helpful things like Debian uses that tells you no program X but you can install it with ‘apt-get install X’ and many other commands that give similar suggestions. At a glance a user can see where the problem is and a few possible solutions.

    I have been impressed with the walk-through installation of blue.box and freeswitch (at least up until the google_voice page). Blue.box instructions are steps plus a little of the reason ‘why’ at each step. Which helps with understanding and future troubleshooting.

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