VoIPowering Your Office: PBX in a Flash Piles on the User-Friendliness

An already-very-good thing has just become notably better.

 By Carla Schroder
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I've been following the adventures of the PBX in a Flash (PiaF) gang with a lot of interest because I like Free and Open Source software, I like retaining as much control of my systems and networks as I can, and I like how they're investing a lot of energy into developing useful tools to take over the grunt work of running an Asterisk-based VoIP server. Let's take a look at some of their activities since they released PBX in a Flash last November.

Fissioning documentation
The first thing I noticed was the rampant masses of documentation. As much as I like tech and FOSS, a lot of project maintainers behave like they are charged per word, so they never want to tell you anything—like how to use their software. This isn't a problem with PBX in a Flash: You'll find answers and detailed how-tos all over the place.

The forums are excellent and polite. I know, I'm a wimp because I don't care to be flamed for asking questions. Wimps unite! The world already has too many mean grumps.

Managed and hosted services
PiaF now offers both managed and hosted services. PBX-Management for PBX in a Flash is aimed at resellers who want some good remote management tools. The hosted services, provided by Aretta Communications, are for customers who don't want to hassle with administering their own servers. Read all about it here, plus information on various VoIP service providers.

New scripts
As promised, there is now a script to download everything you need to do custom development on PiaF: the latest Asterisk sources, development tools, and a friendly KDE desktop environment for folks who like GUIs. There is a separate script just to install KDE. You don't want the overhead of a graphical desktop on a production system, but it's nice convenience for admins who are new to Linux and want a bit of help learning their way around it.

There are two backup scripts: one backs up your PiaF settings, and the other backs up your whole hard drive.

I have a special fondness for the Master Password script, because PiaF, just like Trixbox and SipX and similar software suites, requires you to track multiple passwords. The script lets you set all the logins to the same, which is a no-no for production systems, but heavenly on a test system.

The Nerd Vittles script collection includes Weather Reports by Airport Code, International Weather Forecasts, and Yahoo News Headlines by Category. These are fun to study because they show the flexibility of the Asterisk dialplan, and how you can do all kinds of cool custom hacks without needing to be an elite programmer.

Choosing service providers
The Nerd Vittles gang dispense much wisdom in New Year's Roundup: Pick-of-the-Litter VoIP Providers for Asterisk. This article has some good information on individual providers, as well as some indispensable general advice, the second most important bit being "Don't depend on a single provider." Asterisk lets you take advantage of multiple service providers to get the best rates, and to have failover when—not if—there are service interruptions. Or worse, and almost as common, unfriendly changes in their Terms of Service. There are hundreds of VoIP service providers, so you're not when stuck any of the providers you're using become unpleasant.

The most important piece of advice is don't bet your business on VoIP. It's still an immature industry—use it as much as you can for your outbound calling and connecting road warriors; you'll save money and get all kinds of flexibility and features not available anywhere else. We've been spoiled in the U.S. with first-rate phone service for decades now; PSTN outages are very rare. Even out here where I live at the tail end of nowhere there has not been a phone service failure in years. Power outages are frequent and lengthy, and television services are substandard. But the phone always works. Not even the big-name VoIP providers can guarantee that kind of service, so when your business depends on the telephone, you still need the PSTN.

A few small gripes
OK so I have a few very small whines, and it's about the website. The list under "Installation Tips for Everyman... and Woman" contains phrases that look like hyperlinks, but aren't.

If I were a mean grump I would certainly nurture a peeve over the instructions on the scripts page:

"Below is a list of scripts on this site for the navigationally challenged....This is an inefficient use of web pages but some people are having trouble finding stuff.
Pardon me, but if your visitors can't find things on your site it's your fault. I remember the early incarnations of the scripts pages—it was a navigational mess. Which is understandable for a new site, but really now—don't blame your site visitors.

OK then. End of grump. Overall, the new site design and layout is splendid, and having the main navigation tabs on top of the page is a nice convenience. I value very highly being able to find what I want quickly: Running a VoIP server is enough work without having to make finding answers my life's work.

This article was originally published on Feb 25, 2008
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