VoIPowering Your Office: VoIP Appliance Power-Shopping, part 1

This is the first in a series of guides to all-in-one VoIP solutions. This week: Asterisk (the ancestor), Switchvox (the offspring).

By Carla Schroder | Posted Jun 23, 2008
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Shopping for VoIP gear is a lot more fun than it used to be. Now you can get prefab servers and bundles with everything you need, and all you do is plug things in and start yakking. OK, so it's not quite that easy, but the progress in the past couple of years in user-friendliness has been phenomenal. Comparison shopping is easier than ever, so today we're going to do a bit of price and feature comparisons on some of the vendors we know and love so well—and see if we can't figure out who offers the best value. (Note to miserly PHBs: cost and value are not the same things.)

The majority of them are based on Digium's Asterisk, so we'll compare how well the progenitor stands up to its offspring.

Just to keep it simple, we'll pretend we're a smallish office with up to 50 talkative users.

When I was researching this, I kept bumping into some serious acronym infestations, such as "How can Cisco CPE PPPoE MTU size adapt to MRU of LNS?" While all of those are interesting in their own way, the one that really matters to the IT decision maker is CPE, which means "customer premise equipment." Vendors fling that one around like rodeo queens flinging candy in a parade. The rest of the quotation means "We are mysterious so we can charge you more."

I'm going to compare products from Digium, Switchvox, Bluesocket, Fonality, Rhino, and any others that grab my fancy. In addition to the for-purchase products we'll be looking at, many of these also offer free-of-cost community-supported editions—which are great for test-drives and hardy do-it-yourselfers. Prices may vary from what I've found, depending on who you purchase from and how good you are at negotiating sweet deals.

Asterisk itself

Asterisk Business Edition comes in two flavors: software-only, and complete appliances with hardware. The base Asterisk Appliance starts at $1259.50. This gets you:
  •  A sleek compact box (roughly 11.7" x 7.5" x 1.7")
  •  1GB Compact Flash card for storing email and voice messages
  •  Four LAN ports, one WAN port
  •  64 MB Onboard RAM
  •  Hardware-based echo cancellation
  •  Embedded Asterisk Business Edition and AsteriskGUI
  •  One year Silver Subscription, which includes e-mail support and software updates
  •  Not sure what the CPU is, but since it's fanless I daresay it's around 1.0 GHz
  •  Supports up to 25 concurrent calls, 50 users
Hardware echo cancellation is a must when you have any analog integration. Software echo cancellation is common, but anything that eats up more CPU cycles is not desirable, as VoIP is already CPU-intensive. "Up to 25 concurrent calls" depends on a number of factors: using an uncompressed codec with no transcoding, such as G.711 SIP-to-SIP, and having adequate bandwidth, which you can calculate at roughly 90kbps per call. Using compressed codecs such as G.729 or GSM drops your concurrent call capacity significantly.

Gold and Platinum subscriptions are available at additional cost. An extra $220 buys Gold, and a cool $660 elevates your status to Platinum. These give you phone support, a package of Incidents Per Year (which normally cost $200 each) next-day replacement, and training discounts.

If you want POTS (plain old telephone system) analog phone or trunk integration, it holds up to 8 FXS/FXO ports in banks of four. So you can have four of each, or all of one or the other, at about $100 per port. It supports both SIP (session initiation protocol) and IAX (Digium's own VoIP protocol, Inter-Asterisk Exchange). The Asterisk Appliance does not support T1/E1 interfaces.

The box is cute, energy-thrifty, and has a small footprint, but it won't fit in a standard rack. It runs a slimmed-down, streamlined embedded Linux-based operating system, but it still seems underpowered compared to other VoIP appliances, and a single gigabyte for data storage seems meager.

Switchvox

Switchvox represents an interesting turn of events, because it is a heavily-modified Asterisk offshoot that used to be independent, but is now owned by Digium. Why did Digium buy Switchvox? According to an interview with Mark Spencer, Digium's founder and lead brainiac, because it has a superior graphical administration and user interface. (Pay attention, coders! User-friendliness matters. Our time is valuable too, you know!) There are also rumblings from various sources that Asterisk is not as good a performer as some of its descendants, and Switchvox has a good reputation as a stable, capable server.

Digium licenses its Asterisk code two different ways: under the GPL, which allows anyone to modify and re-distribute Asterisk code and its descendants, and also under a commercial license that permits closed-source development. Switchvox was originally closed-source, but Digium plans to open-source it.

Digium sells Switchvox appliances in two classes: SOHO and SMB. Since we are a fictional small office, we'll look at the base AA60 SOHO unit, which starts at $1595.00. This is not a rackmount, but a small unit that goes on a desk or wall mount.

  •  Supports 1 to 20 users
  •  Up to 10 concurrent calls
  •  1.2 GHz CPU
  •  512 MB RAM
  •  80 GB SATA hard drive
  •  One year of software updates
  •  Operating system and Switchvox software
Everything else is extra—FXS/FXO interfaces, T1/E1 interface, hardware echo cancellation, and support subscriptions. The software feature set is smaller than on the SMB boxes, which you can compare in this matrix.

There are a number of add-ons to choose from, such as a cold-spare failover unit, extended hardware warranty, and discounted hard phones. You can mix-and-match FXS/FXO ports however you like at about $100 to $160 per port, depending on how many you buy. T1/E1 goes for $664.00. So why does this cost so much more than the Asterisk Appliance, and seemingly do less? Because it's a big waddling fully-featured Asterisk server, not just a SIP + IAX server.

Come back next week for more VoIP power shopping.

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