January 2010 | Volume 13 / Number 1
Positron Telecommunication’s V114 PCI Card Review
By Tom Keating
Positron Telecommunication Systems Inc.
Editor’s Choice Award – YES
Price: $630 USD MSRP
We’ve officially seen it all when it comes to Asterisk (News - Alert). We’ve seen Asterisk on a PC, in small boxes or small appliance form, and we’ve seen it in 1U rack-mountable pizza boxes. But never have we seen Asterisk running on a PCI (News - Alert) card – that is until now. Positron Telecom offers several Asterisk-on-a-card products, including the V114 (4 analog FXO), the V214 (4 ISDN BRI), and the V310 (E1/T1). Positron Telecom sent TMC (News - Alert) Labs the analog V114 to test. Not only does this card have Asterisk integrated, it also has four integrated FXO ports to support up to four analog trunk lines as well as a single FXS port for connecting a phone or fax machine. It also supports fax pass through as well.
TMC Labs spoke with Positron’s President Richard McGravie to get some further insights into this product. One of the questions we were curious about was the target market for this product. Richard McGravie explained, “We are approaching vendors like Vyatta (News - Alert). We have a neat application for them because we’re an Ethernet adaptor and they’re just like a firewall/routing type appliance. They’ve got line interfaces from Sangoma and others, but it’s not an application -- it’s just another interface. So it doesn’t generate incremental sales for them. By installing one of our cards in their system you can then add secure VoIP routing and firewalling. So it becomes more for the reseller base to easily sell.” He added that companies like their solution since they don’t have to rewrite code or learn a new API interface to a card since Positron’s solution is 100 percent SIP-based.
TMC Labs then inquired about their support for virtualization. McGravie explained, “VMware was a fluke to be honest with you. We didn’t design it intentionally, but because we install as an Ethernet adaptor, you go into your VMware session, you configure your virtual Ethernet adaptor, you configure as the default gateway and all of a sudden you’ve got the simplest, easiest solution to work inside of VMware environment that nobody else can do.” He added, “In a VMware environment you have to configure an external switch and a router. You quickly end up with latency issues or [with] a typical problem in VMware [which] is timing due to clock drift. None of that happens in the VMware session anymore. It all happens on our card, so you don’t have those issues.” In fact, because the VM session communicates directly to the PCI bus and to the ‘virtual’ network card as opposed to across an IP network infrastructure, there is less latency and less chance of a network issue causing a problem.
Interestingly, McGravie told TMC Labs he has at least one company working on integration with Microsoft (News - Alert)’s popular unified communications platform – OCS 2007 R2. Positron is currently shipping with Asterisk 1.4.22 loaded; however, they have ported over Asterisk 1.6, but they haven’t ported over the GUI yet.
Installing the V114 was a breeze. When you install any Positron PCI card, you do not require a driver. The PCI card can therefore be installed in any host PCI slot running any operating system (Linux, Windows, etc.) and will simply communicate over Ethernet. Essentially, the card installs as an Ethernet network adaptor. Rather than using the full Asterisk IP-PBX (News - Alert) functionality you can just send SIP traffic to the card and it will do SIP to TDM or SIP trunking, making it a simple plug-and-play VoIP gateway. Because it is an Ethernet-based solution you can also use it with HMP applications as an IP-based TDM blade.
We installed the V114 into an old Windows XP machine and turned the PC on. Next, we browsed to 192.168.1.2, the default IP address for the Asterisk Web management tool (See Screenshot 1). From here we added a couple SIP phones to the extensions list. It does support auto-provisioning, but currently it only supports the older Aastra (News - Alert) series and some Polycom phones. We manually added a couple of SIP phones, including a Yealink and an Aastra 67i IP phone and they registered with no problem.
Next, we made an extension-to-extension test call. The voice quality was perfect. After our successful extension-to-extension call, we then tested the two built-in conference bridges. The bridges are PIN protected and feature your typical Asterisk moderator features, such as announcing your name when you join, increasing/decreasing volume, booting the last participant, and more. It also features music-on-hold if there is only one participant in the conference. All in all the conference bridges performed very well with excellent echo cancellation. A big part of that reason is because it uses Zarlink’s ASIC hardware-based G.168 echo cancellation chipset (with up to 128ms tail length) to improve the sound quality.
We wanted to know how well Positron’s E1/T1 cards scaled. McGravie responded: “If you take eight Digium (News - Alert) or Sangoma E1/T1 cards and put them into a PC and you run those channels, it creates over a thousand interrupts per second since that’s how Zap or DUNDi does its channel timing. That will bring any PC to its knees. So what Sangoma did is they went with Woomera [protocol]. It sticks all of the cards in a different PC and they have a protocol that talks from the host PC to the other PC. It has a TCP control channel and a UDP (News - Alert) data channel.” He then pointed out that debugging in this scenario is very difficult. He added, “With my cards you can put as many as you want into the system because the SIP overhead is so small that it doesn’t really affect the processing power.” The cards can intercommunicate via SIP or the IAX protocol.
You have full console access to the Linux operating system. We SSH’ed into the card . using an SSH client and the default root ‘uClinux’ password. Once logged in we were able to tool around the Linux shell, run various Linux commands, check out the default mounts and partitions, check out the tftpboot directory and modify some files, as well as peruse the /etc/asterisk/ directory, which contains all the important Asterisk config files. The root level access is key to truly leverage the flexibility of Asterisk.
Of course, you can use the easy-to-use Web-based admin tool to configure it as a SIP gateway or a full-fledged Asterisk-based IP-PBX. While using the Web tool we initially thought that the changes we made were being applied as we did them. However, what was actually happening is that the configuration changes were being made to Positron’s configuration files. We had to hover our mouse over System and then click Create Configuration. This would then write the changes to the Asterisk configuration files. We suggest a “Save Changes” button on the home page to make it clear you have to save the changes, but also it should be in a more prominent position for quickly saving configuration changes.
The main status screen shows import stats such as SIP peers, available disk space, trunk line statuses and more. Importantly, out of the box it supports call recording and you can choose to save the recording to the removable CompactFlash memory on the PCI card. Additionally, you can configure the voicemail system to send your voicemails to your email as a .wav file.
Although it only has 256MB of permanent NAND Flash memory to hold the OS and various Asterisk files, this is enough for most Asterisk deployments and certainly enough when using this as a SIP-based TDM and SIP-trunking blade. Still, it might be nice to have a 512MB option in case power Asterisk developers want to load up a large custom application. The fact that it is OS-independent and can even run under virtualized environments is a huge competitive advantage. Another winning element Positron has over their competitors is that they’ve made it easy to order. There is no need to figure out SKU numbers to add an additional echo canceller, FXS or FXO clip on cards -- it is an all-in-one solution that comes with everything. Overall, we liked the versatility of their solutions and were very pleased with the feature-set of the Positron V114 4-port analog PCI card. We found it very easy to manage – even with yet another Asterisk GUI we had to learn. TMC Labs highly recommends VoIP developers, VoIP solution providers, and Asterisk users to check out Positron’s PCI-based “Asterisk-on-a-card” solutions.
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