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Asterisk Appliance review

A number of months back I was asked by my employer to evaluate the 3Com / Digium Asterisk Appliance. I have reproduced it here in the event that others might find this useful.

First off, the good points. The user interface is easy to use, and not difficult to configure. A lot of the stuff that needs to be configured are obvious to configure. The default configuration with some minor tweaks would probably work for the vast majority of small-business users. I was also, in addition to playing with the two phones provided, readily able to configure two third-party SIP user agents: a Linksys PAP2-NA analog adaptor, and a Grandstream BudgeTone 101 (a SIP phone that can be had for $40). Being as the platform is, fundamentally, Asterisk, this was expected.

I love the Polycom SoundPoint IP-330 phone. It is solid, and being of similar parentage to the old Shoreline IP-100 phones has a similar solid feel and Polycom’s amazing speakerphone. The audio quality on the 330 is simply amazing. What is more amazing to me is that you can get the IP-330 from retailers for well under $150 (I don’t know what our prices would be), and even as low as $109. (Personal note: Polycom still sells a variation of what was the IP-100 for SIP called the IP-501, and it sells for around $200).

I wish I could be as enthusiastic about the 3COM phone. It is a decent phone, audio quality is good, but it has a “cheaper” feel than the Polycom phone. It performed well. The plastic stand seems easily broken.. in fact, when assembled it makes an alarming “snap” sound that feels like it might not hold up to repeated repositioning.

Configuring SIP and IAX trunks from providers is easy. I was able to span from both my personal Asterisk system at home and a SIP provider that was not listed in their defaults.

Problems: I observed (audible, not via packet analysis) some packet loss and jitter just on the isolated network. I can’t imagine what would be causing hearable dropped packets on a network that consisted of the Asterisk Appliance, the 3COM PoE switch, and two phones. I didn’t look at things on the wire, so this could be (and this is what kinda frightens me) problems with the codec engine in the Appliance itself.

The Appliance has a “cheap” SOHO feel to it, not unlike 3COM (and competitors) home networking products. I don’t know what costs are, but if I was a customer paying more than $400 for this piece of equipment I’d wonder what I was getting for my money. The case is lightweight plastic, and the device does not weigh more than a pound soaking wet. Given that I know the retail price of these devices is upwards of $1,500, it does not meet the expectations of what I would expect a similarly priced device to cost. (As a comparison, the PoE switch provided, a 3COM 4210, costs in the $300 range and is made of metal, rack-mountable with optional hardware, and “looks” like professional networking equipment). In short, it looks like a $200 SOHO router toy, not a $2,000 serious PBX.

Also, the Appliance runs very warm. This is reflected in the installation documents, which stresses even specific directions the device should be mounted. I’d be concerned putting this device in a phone room typical of the kinds of clients we’d be looking at without any kind of active cooling. I can appreciate the desire to create a device with no moving parts, however given the environments we sometimes find equipment in (especially in the small business sphere, where dedicated server rooms with air conditioning are uncommon) I’d be concerned about leaving it with no artificial airflow.