VoIPowering Your Office: Driving the Big Green trixbox, part 1

What started life as Asterisk for amateurs is now available as a flashy plug-and-play VoIP appliance. Here's a first look.

By Carla Schroder | Posted Jun 9, 2008
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The fine folks at Fonality (I like saying that for the alliteration and spray effects) sent me a trixbox Pro server to test. This is a prefab hardware and software bundle, ready to plug in and go to work. It comes in two different hardware configurations, the base appliance and the enterprise appliance. Let's take a quick look at specs. The base appliance includes:

  •  Single-core 3.0 GHz P4 CPU
  •  512 MB RAM
  •  2 x 80 GB SATA RAID 1
  •  2 fast Ethernet ports
  •  4-port switch
  •  Single 400-watt power supply
  •  Maximum 48 analog ports or one T1/E1.
The enterprise box has dual power, a dual-core CPU, one gigabyte of RAM, and supports up to four T1/E1 interfaces. It is a fairly compact box, about the size of an old-style desktop PC. It comes with a set of mounting brackets for wall or floor mount. If you want to house it in a rack, you'll need rails and space for a 3U unit. It has enough holes drilled to accommodate any mounting hardware, and probably enhance cooling as well.

A fair bit of effort went into making this appliance stylish; Judge for yourself from this photo. Fonality works hard at supporting its reseller channels, so part of their strategy is making the trixbox appliance attractive to the people signing the checks. The backlit LCD panel is an eye catcher; even the handles have a certain flair. It pays to keep in mind that droning on about technical specs won't win any sales, but shiny and sleek will.

Software

Currently, trixbox pro runs on CentOS Linux 4.4. trixbox Pro is hybrid-hosted just like its big sibling PBXtra. This means that it is managed remotely at Fonality's data center, but all of your data remain on your own premises. A secure VPN (virtual private network) connects your server to the datacenter. So, you can log in to your Web control panel from anywhere and manage your server, and your users can log into their own personal control panels from anywhere. This eliminates firewall drama, and supporting remote workers and road warriors is easy. All of your configurations are backed up remotely, so you can roll back to an earlier state to correct problems.

The hybrid hosting also takes care of generating your call data reports (CDR). Generating CDR reports is CPU-intensive, so moving this job away from your trixbox server means it won't get bogged down, and you won't have to employ workarounds like only running CDR generation at night, or other periods of low activity. Your original data are still on your trixbox server if you want to mangle them in your own unique way, such as exporting them into a spreadsheet or some data analysis software. All activity that passes through your server gets recorded, and the default call reports let you parse and search data in a number of useful ways, which we'll look at in more detail next week. Copies of your CDR are stored remotely, and this can be disabled if you'd rather they weren't.

Software updates for both the operating system and trixbox Pro are pushed out automatically—bug fixes, updates, and security patches are delivered, so you don't have to lift a finger.

What happens if Fonality's servers go down,or they forget to pay their Internet bill? You can still make and receive calls, and go about your business. You won't have your Web control panel, so you won't be able to make any changes.

Capacity

The trixbox Pro appliance targets the SMB (small-to-medium business) market, supporting up to 200 SIP phones and 23 concurrent calls for the base appliance. The enterprise appliance can handle up to 46.

IP telephony is CPU-intensive, and when it's overloaded it behaves differently than the old-fashioned circuit-switched telephone network. When that gets overloaded you can't place a call, and you'll either hear a fast busy signal, or a message telling you that all circuits are busy. If your trixbox server gets overloaded—say, for example, 50 employees all join a giant teleconference—the first symptoms are echo and jitter. Jitter will increase as packets are dropped, until either the server melts down (not likely), or you notice the problem and pull the plug on the conference (easy and fun).

How will you know there is a problem? The server will tell you. The Web control panel lets you configure monitoring and alerts for a number of key events, such as CPU and RAM usage, disk space, and call load levels, measured in kb/second.

Zero Configuration

Fonality makes some big promises about plug-and-play provisioning. Next week we'll find out if it lives up to the promises, and go in-depth into key server administration features.

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