VoIPowering Your Office: The Wild iPBX Roundup, Part 1

This series has brought you in-depth coverage of a number of free or low-cost IP PBXs; now we get comparative.

 By Carla Schroder
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For lo these many years here at Enterprise VoIPplanet we have been giving a lot of attention to a small gaggle of iPBX systems:

PBXtra, trixbox, trixbox Pro, and AstLinux are all based on Asterisk. In fact there are dozens, if not hundreds of Asterisk-based iPBX systems. Digium has dual-licensed Asterisk—there is a GPL edition, and you also have the option of a proprietary license that allows you to not share changes that you make to the code. So it is attractive to both open source developers and commercial developers who don't want to share their Awesome Intellectual Property. (I think they're missing out on the full benefits of the open source development model, but, oh well, that's their business.)

SipX is the open source cousin to the commercial SIPxchange, and neither one is related to Asterisk. Each one of these has its advantages and weaknesses, which we are going to compare in this two-part series to help you decide which one (if any) sounds like a good fit for your shop. In Part 2 we will also include some honorable mentions of other iPBXs that are worth trying out.

PBXtra, trixbox, trixbox Pro
PBXtra is Fonality's original enterprise-worthy iPBX. PBXtra pioneered the hybrid hosting model: All of the management functions are hosted in Fonality's data center, and all the customer data files are stored on the customer's PBXtra server. PBXtra is managed both by the server administrator and users via a Web-based control panel. This eliminates a lot of problems: Fonality handles all security patches and upgrades, remote users can connect just as easily as local users, and their extension numbers travel with them. No firewall hassles, and if you use certified hardware, setup and administration are easy.

PBXtra scales up a lot better than Asterisk because the Fonality engineers have invested a lot of resources into improving the original Asterisk source code, plus the hybrid hosting allows your local server to handle a bigger load.

trixbox Pro has been extensively overhauled and now also supports the hybrid hosting architecture. You can use the Standard edition for free. The Enterprise and Call Center editions have more features and cost money.

Some admins are not comfortable with hosted services and prefer to retain as much control as possible. (If Fonality goes offline, so does your PBX, the thinking goes.) So for these folks there is still the original Trixbox, which is a standalone VoIP server.

All editions of trixbox are available as both software and hardware appliances—you may download a complete software appliance that includes the operating system and install it on your own hardware, or you may purchase a stylish server with trixbox already installed. PBXtra comes only with the server hardware; it is not available as software-only.

Just like Asterisk, PBXtra and trixbox support a large number of VoIP protocols and telephony hardware selections.

Of course this is always a debatable subject, but I think that Fonality provides the cleanest, best-organized user and administrator interfaces. We're a long ways from magical, telepathic iPBX systems that require no skill to set up and run, but PBXtra and trixbox are pretty fast and easy.

Fonality is friendly to resellers and has a number of programs for their whole product line, so if your ambition is to be a VoIP mogul they might have something for you.

AstLinux has grown a lot since the last time we took a look at it.

AstLinux is Asterisk plus Linux, stripped down to fit embedded devices like Soekris and WRAP boards, Gumstix, VIA mini-ITX boards, and ordinary x86 PC hardware. All of the nonessential bits are removed, and only the applications that are necessary to run an iPBX remain. It also supports WiFi, SNMP, SER (SIP express router), name services, OpenSSH, tc (for traffic shaping), and iptables, which means it is very adaptable as a border router and for tuning your VoIP network performance. It is designed to run from Compact Flash, which is very fast and reliable, but it will also run from a hard drive or LiveCD. The LiveCD has the option of saving settings and data to a USB storage device, so you could use it on diskless production systems.

The AstLinux Development Environment (ADE) is for users who wish to customize AstLinux for their hardware, or to customize the feature set. It's not for the plug-and-play set, but for OEM developers and users who want to build AstLinux images with exactly the features and hardware support that they want. It's easier starting from a lean, mean installation and building up than it is to weed out junk you don't want, especially on embedded systems.

Next week we'll wrap up with SipX/SIPxchange, the various Asterisk editions, and a list of other worthy contenders for your iPBX.

VoIPowering Your Office with Asterisk: Free Long Distance with Free World Dialup is the final article in the AstLinux series, with links to all previous articles
VoIPowering Your Office: Fonality Promotes trixbox to the Pro Ranks
VoIPowering Your Office: Cashing In on the VoIP Gold Rush

This article was originally published on Sep 24, 2007
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