Sunday, March 04, 2007

VoIP, SIP, Asterisk, huh?

2nd Update: I'm now using a FreeSwitch-based solution.  The command-line interface is crude, but will work for now for smaller conferences.  And it supports Google Talk, as well as most SIP phones and of course calling in from regular phone lines.

Update: Some kind souls have pointed out that Asterisk's default conference bridge needs some additional hardware, and thus my dedicated server idea won't work.  There's another conferencing plugin for Asterisk, but it doesn't have the web features. 

This is just the kind of information I was looking for; thank you very much!  One person also suggested checking out FreeSwitch, which appears to have most of the conferencing features I want accessible via a command-line interface (which may well be good enough). 

Anyway, if you have more information about either or both tools, or want to offer your services to set something up, I'd appreciate hearing from you.  I'll update this page again when the project is done.  Thanks!

We now proceed with the original article below...

Dear Lazyweb,

I'm looking for a better way to do international conference calls for Owners' Circle sessions than the various off-the-shelf providers I've used to date -- and I'm willing to pay generously for somebody to help me make it happen in a very short time frame.

I need web moderation controls and I want VoIP support so people don't have to make international toll calls (almost 40% of Circle members are in Europe or Australia), but I also need the ability to let people who don't have decent 'net connections call in to a good old-fashioned voice phone number.  And I'd greatly prefer being able to do all this at a flat monthly cost for up to say, 50 people, without any per-minute per-person charges needing to factor in there.

My initial research seems to suggest that slapping Asterisk on a dedicated server with enough CPU, memory, and bandwidth ought to be just the ticket, since there is already some kind of conference facility in the software with some sort of web UI.

But here's the problem: I don't really have the time to hack around with this stuff for several hours, or to spend several hours more learning enough VoIP acronyms to figure out what the heck I need to buy in order to get regular phones hooked up to this thing.  I definitely don't need to spend all that time and find out I'm barking up the wrong tree here.

In particular, I should note that cost savings is NOT the goal of this project.  I already have a cheap conferencing provider that meets all my requirements except one: unreliable call quality.  Sometimes they're great, sometimes they suck.  Last weekend, I ended up having to manually create a Skype conference with a small group of coaching clients because the quality was so bad.

Yes, I realize that people will have different levels of quality based on their bandwidth, latency, etc.  But that wasn't the problem last week -- a direct Skype conference with the same people produced fantastic quality.

Skype conferencing, however, has a limited group size, no moderation controls, and an abysmal user interface that doesn't allow you to re-conference a dropped participant without re-creating the whole damn conference.  It also doesn't address the regular-phone issue.  (Which is why Skypecasting isn't any better, especially since I hear its quality is variable, too.)

So, I'm pretty much stuck with needing to have something better to use in less than two weeks, and highspeedconferencing.com says it's going to be three months or more before they have a guaranteed-quality offering available.

Therefore, I'm contemplating this VoIP server idea.  Is it possible?  More important, is it practical?  I'm worried that I may be making assumptions rooted in ignorance and wishful thinking, and I really don't want to spend all my spare time hacking together proofs-of-concept.  So if you've actually done Asterisk-based conferencing using a hosted server, I'd really like your input.

And, if you're available to do the work to actually set the thing up for me, I'll happily pay you.  Especially if you can tell me what I do or don't need, and can or can't do with the result.  I'll even pay for your time if it turns out I can't do what I want, as you'll still have saved me time learning that on my own!

So, if you're interested, or just want to share your input or experiences, please drop me a line at voip-help "at" dirtsimple.org, or leave a comment on this post via my blog.  Thanks!