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Is a very impressive software system for making a phone switchboard. The core software is Asterisk, which can be installed under various forms of Unix, including Linux and MacOS X. It supports the SIP protocol for network phones, various Digium cards for analogue phone line and analogue phones, and understands VoIP.

There is a substantial industry of software produced around Asterisk, and some of this is collected into a released known as ‘Asterisk @ Home’. This is a full package of some release of Linux (CentOS), with a text to speech package (Festival), AMP (Asterisk Management Portal, a configuration UI), FOP (Flash Operator Panel, a flash based monitor), a CRM package (Sugar), and various other tools.

The advantage of A@H is that most of the initial work of configuring Asterisk to create a workable PBX is already done for you, with various line configurations already made, including a full voice mail menuing system, talking weather reports (for New York only, but customisable for any major US city), music on hold, fax support – and etc.

Installation is like any Linux; download an iso image, burn it to CD (this is very simple on MacOS X, just fire up Disk Utility (which will probably come up automatically when you insert a black CD), select the iso image in its browser, and click on the ‘Burn’ button.

Insert this CD into a PC, and boot it. This process will reformat the hard drive. Back track for a moment: if you want to connect your switchboard to an analogue line (or ISDN, for that matter), you will need to buy a PC card. Because the authors of Asterisk (the base package, not A@H) are Digium, they support cards using the Digium chipset. For testing or simple installations, the Wildcard X100P is very cheap (around £10), and lets you receive and make calls on a standard trunk line. If you want to connect your current analogue phones to the PBX, then a more expensive card, the Digium TDM400P is required, with at least one FXO mini-card (for the external line), and at least one FXS card (for your internal phone or phones) installed. The TDM400P can take any combination of up to 4 cards. Our TDM400P, with one FXO and one FXS, cost £146 (inc VAT). Both cards were sourced from eBay vendors.

You need to have the card already installed in the PC before installing A@H (I didn’t when I first did this, and ended up reinstalling as the fastest way of getting running).

When the machine has finished installing CentOS, it needs to reboot to build Asterisk; this can take a little while. I found this process faultless, provided I had the Digium card pre-installed.

You should then log in to the system and set passwords. Do not connect to the Internet until this is done. The MOTD will be set to some useful hints, including the advice to type help-aah. You may need to set the time zone, configure the network interface, and you must set the root and admin user passwords and web maint passwords.

After that, you can connect to the web server on your PBX, and enter AMP. Select ‘Setup’ from the menu, and add an extension – I used a copy of X-Lite that I downloaded. The AAH handbook gives instructions on configuring this soft phone. You should also check the AMP Setup->General Settings and Incoming Calls pages. Everything else should already be configured to place a call.

Check the AAH handbook for useful PBX commands, and remember that it is 9 for an outside line now!

You will probably want to check out the rest of the information in the handbook to configure your Digital Receptionist, and perhaps to install any VoIP accounts that you have, but the above was all I needed to get started.

I set up two different ring groups, one work, one home, and configured a virtual extension to handle group office voice mail. The ring groups are set to transfer on no answer to the voicemail of the virtual extension, and that has the message set to our standard ‘out of office’ message. That replicates our previous voicemail system using BT services.

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