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Asterisk: The Definitive Guide, 3rd Edition by Russell Bryant, Jim Van Meggelen, Leif Madsen

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Chapter 1. A Telephony Revolution

First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.

Mahatma Gandhi

When we first set out—nearly five years ago—to write a book about Asterisk, we confidently predicted that Asterisk would fundamentally change the telecommunications industry. Today, the revolution we predicted is all but complete. Asterisk is now the most successful private branch exchange (PBX) in the world, and is an accepted (albeit perhaps not always loved) technology in the telecom industry.

Unfortunately, over the past five years the telecom industry has continued to lose its way. The methods by which we communicate have changed. Whereas 20 years ago phone calls were the preferred way to converse across distances, the current trend is to message via text (email, IM, etc.). The phone call is seen as a bit of a dead thing, especially by up-and-coming generations.

Asterisk remains pretty awesome technology, and we believe it is still one of the best hopes for any sort of sensible integration between telecom and all the other technologies businesses might want to interconnect with.

With Asterisk, no one is telling you how your phone system should work, or what technologies you are limited to. If you want it, you can have it. Asterisk lovingly embraces the concept of standards compliance, while also enjoying the freedom to develop its own innovations. What you choose to implement is up to you—Asterisk imposes no limits.

Naturally, this incredible flexibility comes with a price: Asterisk is not a simple system to configure. This is not because it’s illogical, confusing, or cryptic; on the contrary, it is very sensible and practical. People’s eyes light up when they first see an Asterisk dialplan and begin to contemplate the possibilities. But when there are literally thousands of ways to achieve a result, the process naturally requires extra effort. Perhaps it can be compared to building a house: the components are relatively easy to understand, but a person contemplating such a task must either a) enlist competent help or b) develop the required skills through instruction, practice, and a good book on the subject.

Asterisk and VoIP: Bridging the Gap Between Traditional and Network Telephony

Voice over IP (VoIP) is often thought of as little more than a method of obtaining free long-distance calling. The real value (and—let’s be honest—challenge as well) of VoIP is that it allows voice to become nothing more than another application in the data network.

It sometimes seems that we’ve forgotten that the purpose of the telephone is to allow people to communicate. It is a simple goal, really, and it should be possible for us to make it happen in far more flexible and creative ways than are currently available to us. Technologies such as Asterisk lower the barriers to entry.

The Zapata Telephony Project

When the Asterisk project was started (in 1999), there were other open-source telephony projects in existence. However, Asterisk, in combination with the Zapata Telephony Project, was able to provide public switched telephone network (PSTN) interfaces, which represented an important milestone in transitioning the software from something purely network-based to something more practical in the world of telecom at that time, which was PSTN-centric.

The Zapata Telephony Project was conceived of by Jim Dixon, a telecommunications consulting engineer who was inspired by the incredible advances in CPU speeds that the computer industry has now come to take for granted. Dixon’s belief was that far more economical telephony systems could be created if a card existed that had nothing more on it than the basic electronic components required to interface with a telephone circuit. Rather than having expensive components on the card, digital signal processing (DSP)[3] would be handled in the CPU by software. While this would impose a tremendous load on the CPU, Dixon was certain that the low cost of CPUs relative to their performance made them far more attractive than expensive DSPs, and, more importantly, that this price/performance ratio would continue to improve as CPUs continued to increase in power.

Like so many visionaries, Dixon believed that many others would see this opportunity, and that he merely had to wait for someone else to create what to him was an obvious improvement. After a few years, he noticed that not only had no one created these cards, but it seemed unlikely that anyone was ever going to. At that point it was clear that if he wanted a revolution, he was going to have to start it himself. And so the Zapata Telephony Project was born:

Since this concept was so revolutionary, and was certain to make a lot of waves in the industry, I decided on the Mexican revolutionary motif, and named the technology and organization after the famous Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. I decided to call the card the “tormenta” which, in Spanish, means “storm,” but contextually is usually used to imply a big storm, like a hurricane or such.[4]

Perhaps we should be calling ourselves Asteristas. Regardless, we owe Jim Dixon a debt of thanks, partly for thinking this up and partly for seeing it through, but mostly for giving the results of his efforts to the open source community. As a result of Jim’s contribution, Asterisk’s PSTN engine came to be.

Over the years, the Zapata Telephony interface in Asterisk has been modified and improved. The Digium Asterisk Hardware Device Interface (DAHDI) Telephony interface in use today is the offspring of Jim Dixon’s contribution.

Massive Change Requires Flexible Technology

Every PBX in existence suffers from shortcomings. No matter how fully featured it is, something will always be left out, because even the most feature-rich PBX will always fail to anticipate the creativity of the customer. A small group of users will desire an odd little feature that the design team either did not think of or could not justify the cost of building, and, since the system is closed, the users will not be able to build it themselves.

If the Internet had been thusly hampered by regulation and commercial interests, it is doubtful that it would have developed the wide acceptance it currently enjoys. The openness of the Internet meant that anyone could afford to get involved. So, everyone did. The tens of thousands of minds that collaborated on the creation of the Internet delivered something that no corporation ever could have.[5]

As with many other open source projects, such as Linux and so much of the critical software running the Internet, the development of Asterisk was fueled by the dreams of folks who knew that there had to be something more than what traditional industries were producing. These people knew that if one could take the best parts of various PBXs and separate them into interconnecting components—akin to a boxful of LEGO bricks—one could begin to conceive of things that would not survive a traditional corporate risk-analysis process. While no one can seriously claim to have a complete picture of what this thing should look like, there is no shortage of opinions and ideas.[6]

Many people new to Asterisk see it as unfinished. Perhaps these people can be likened to visitors to an art studio, looking to obtain a signed, numbered print. They often leave disappointed, because they discover that Asterisk is the blank canvas, the tubes of paint, the unused brushes waiting.[7]

Even at this early stage in its success, Asterisk is nurtured by a greater number of artists than any other PBX. Most manufacturers dedicate no more than a few developers to any one product; Asterisk has scores. Most proprietary PBXs have a worldwide support team comprising a few dozen real experts; Asterisk has hundreds.

The depth and breadth of the expertise that surrounds this product is unmatched in the telecom industry. Asterisk enjoys the loving attention of old telco guys who remember when rotary dial mattered, enterprise telecom people who recall when voicemail was the hottest new technology, and data communications geeks and coders who helped build the Internet. These people all share a common belief—that the telecommunications industry needs a proper revolution.[8]

Asterisk is the catalyst.

Asterisk: The Hacker’s PBX

Telecommunications companies that choose to ignore Asterisk do so at their peril. The flexibility it delivers creates possibilities that the best proprietary systems can scarcely dream of. This is because Asterisk is the ultimate hacker’s PBX.

The term hacker has, of course, been twisted by the mass media into meaning “malicious cracker.” This is unfortunate, because the term actually existed long before the media corrupted its meaning. Hackers built the networking engine that is the Internet. Hackers built the Apple Macintosh and the Unix operating system. Hackers are also building your next telecom system. Do not fear; these are the good guys, and they’ll be able to build a system that’s far more secure than anything that exists today. Rather than being constricted by the dubious and easily cracked security of closed systems, the hackers will be able to quickly respond to changing trends in security and fine-tune the telephone system in response to both corporate policy and industry best practices.

Like other open source systems, Asterisk will be able to evolve into a far more secure platform than any proprietary system, not in spite of its hacker roots, but rather because of them.

Asterisk: The Professional’s PBX

Never in the history of telecommunications has a system so suited to the needs of business been available, at any price. Asterisk is an enabling technology, and as with Linux, it will become increasingly rare to find an enterprise that is not running some version of Asterisk, in some capacity, somewhere in the network, solving a problem as only Asterisk can.

This acceptance is likely to happen much faster than it did with Linux, though, for several reasons:

  • Linux has already blazed the trail that led to open source acceptance. Asterisk is following that lead.

  • The telecom industry is crippled, with no leadership being provided by the giant industry players. Asterisk has a compelling, realistic, and exciting vision.

  • End users are fed up with incompatible and limited functionality, and horrible support. Asterisk solves the first two problems; entrepreneurs and the community are addressing the latter.

The Asterisk Community

One of the compelling strengths of Asterisk is the passionate community that developed and supports it. This community, led by the fine folks at Digium, is keenly aware of the cultural significance of Asterisk and has an optimistic view of the future.

One of the more powerful side effects of the Asterisk community’s energy is the cooperation it has spawned among telecommunications, networking, and information technology professionals who share a love for this phenomenon. While these cadres have traditionally been at odds with each other, in the Asterisk community they delight in each others’ skills. The significance of this cooperation cannot be underestimated.

If the dream of Asterisk is to be realized, the community must continue to grow—yet one of the key challenges that the community currently faces is a rapid influx of new users. The members of the existing community, having birthed this thing called Asterisk, are generally welcoming of new users, but they’ve grown impatient with being asked the kinds of questions whose answers can often be obtained independently, if one is willing to devote some time to research and experimentation.

Obviously, new users do not fit any particular kind of mold. While some will happily spend hours experimenting and reading various blogs describing the trials and tribulations of others, many people who have become enthusiastic about this technology are completely uninterested in such pursuits. They want a simple, straightforward, step-by-step guide that’ll get them up and running, followed by some sensible examples describing the best methods of implementing common functionality (such as voicemail, auto attendants, and the like).

To the members of the expert community, who (correctly) perceive that Asterisk is like a web development language, this approach doesn’t make any sense. To them, it’s clear that you have to immerse yourself in Asterisk to appreciate its subtleties. Would one ask for a step-by-step guide to programming and expect to learn from it all that a language has to offer?

Clearly, there’s no one approach that’s right for everyone. Asterisk is a different animal altogether, and it requires a totally different mind-set. As you explore the community, though, be aware that it includes people with many different skill sets and attitudes. Some of these folks do not display much patience with new users, but that’s often due to their passion for the subject, not because they don’t welcome your participation.

The Asterisk Mailing Lists

As with any community, there are places where members of the Asterisk community meet to discuss matters of mutual interest. Of the mailing lists you will find at http://lists.digium.com, these three are currently the most important:

Asterisk-Biz

Anything commercial with respect to Asterisk belongs in this list. If you’re selling something Asterisk-related, sell it here. If you want to buy an Asterisk service or product, post here.

Asterisk-Dev

The Asterisk developers hang out here. The purpose of this list is the discussion of the development of the software that is Asterisk, and its participants vigorously defend that purpose. Expect a lot of heat if you post anything to this list not specifically relating to programming or development of the Asterisk code base. General coding questions (such as queries on interfacing with AGI or AMI) should be directed to the Asterisk-Users list.

Warning

The Asterisk-Dev list is not second-level support! If you scroll through the mailing list archives, you’ll see this is a strict rule. The Asterisk-Dev mailing list is about discussion of core Asterisk development, and questions about interfacing your external programs via AGI or AMI should be posted on the Asterisk-Users list.

Asterisk-Users

This is where most Asterisk users hang out. This list generates several hundred messages per day and has over ten thousand subscribers. While you can go here for help, you are expected to have done some reading on your own before you post a query.

Asterisk Wiki Sites

The Asterisk Wiki (which exists in large part due to the tireless efforts of James Thompson—thanks James!) is a source of much enlightenment and confusion. Another important resource is the community-maintained repository of VoIP knowledge at http://www.voip-info.org, which contains a truly inspiring cornucopia of fascinating, informative, and frequently contradictory information about many subjects, just one of which is Asterisk. Since Asterisk documentation forms by far the bulk of the information on this website,[9] and it probably contains more Asterisk knowledge than all other sources put together (with the exception of the mailing list archives), it is a popular place to go for Asterisk knowledge.

An important new wiki project is the official Asterisk Wiki, found at http://wiki.asterisk.org. While not yet as full of content as voip-info.org, this wiki will be more formally supported and is therefore more likely to contain information that is kept current and accurate.

The IRC Channels

The Asterisk community maintains Internet Relay Chat (IRC) channels on irc.freenode.net. The two most active channels are #asterisk and #asterisk-dev.[10] To cut down on spam-bot intrusions, both of these channels now require registration to join.[11]

Asterisk User Groups

Over the past decade, in many cites around the world, lonely Asterisk users began to realize that there were other like-minded people in their towns. Asterisk User Groups (AUGs) began to spring up all over the place. While these groups don’t have any official affiliation with each other, they generally link to one anothers’ websites and welcome members from anywhere. Type “Asterisk User Group” into Google to track down one in your area.

The Asterisk Documentation Project

The Asterisk Documentation Project was started by Leif Madsen and Jared Smith, but several people in the community have contributed.

The goal of the documentation project is to provide a structured repository of written work on Asterisk. In contrast with the flexible and ad hoc nature of the Wiki, the Docs project is passionate about building a more focused approach to various Asterisk-related subjects.

As part of the efforts of the Asterisk Docs project to make documentation available online, this book is available at the http://www.asteriskdocs.org website, under a Creative Commons license.

The Business Case

It is very rare to find businesses these days that do not have to reinvent themselves every few years. It is equally rare to find a business that can afford to replace its communications infrastructure each time it goes in a new direction. Today’s businesses need extreme flexibility in all of their technology, including telecom.

In his book Crossing the Chasm (HarperBusiness), Geoffrey Moore opines, “The idea that the value of the system will be discovered rather than known at the time of installation implies, in turn, that product flexibility and adaptability, as well as ongoing account service, should be critical components of any buyer’s evaluation checklist.” What this means, in part, is that the true value of a technology is often not known until it has been deployed.

How compelling, then, to have a system that holds at its very heart the concept of openness and the value of continuous innovation.

Conclusion

So where to begin? Well, when it comes to Asterisk, there is far more to talk about than we can fit into one book. This book can only lay down the basics, but from this foundation you will be able to come to an understanding of the concept of Asterisk—and from that, who knows what you will build?



[3] The term DSP also means digital signal processor, which is a device (usually a chip) that is capable of interpreting and modifying signals of various sorts. In a voice network, DSPs are primarily responsible for encoding, decoding, and transcoding audio information. This can require a lot of computational effort.

[4] Jim Dixon, “The History of Zapata Telephony and How It Relates to the Asterisk PBX” (http://www.asteriskdocs.org/modules/tinycontent/index.php?id=10).

[5] We realize that the technology of the Internet formed out of government and academic institutions, but what we’re talking about here is not the technology of the Internet so much as the cultural phenomenon of it, which exploded in the early ’90s.

[6] Between the releases of Asterisk 1.2 and Asterisk 1.4, over 4,000 updates were made to the code in the SVN repository. Between the releases of Asterisk 1.4 and 1.8, over 10,000 updates were made.

[7] It should be noted that these folks need not leave disappointed. Several projects have arisen to lower the barriers to entry for Asterisk. By far the most popular and well known is the FreePBX interface (and the multitude of projects based on it). These interfaces (check out http://www.voip-info.org/wiki/view/Asterisk+GUI for an idea of how many there are) do not make it easier to learn Asterisk, because they separate you from the platform or dialplan configuration, but many of them will deliver a working PBX to you much faster than the more hands-on approach we employ in this book.

[8] The telecom industry has been predicting a revolution since before the crash; time will tell how well it responds to the open source revolution.

[9] More than 30%, at last count.

[10] The #asterisk-dev channel is for the discussion of changes to the underlying code base of Asterisk and is also not second-tier support. Discussions related to programming external applications that interface with Asterisk via AGI or AMI are meant to be in #asterisk.

[11] To register, run /msg nickserv help when you connect to the service via your favorite IRC client.

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