About 2 weeks ago I received the first batch of 50 production IP04s from the guys at Atcom. I would have blogged about this earlier but to be honest I have been so busy testing and shipping that I haven’t had time! Here the IP04 is pictured on the bottom, with a WRT54G for size comparison:
I now have now been using the IP04 for a few months (both prototype and production models). Here are a couple of things I really like:
- The IP04 is actually easier to set up than an x86 Asterisk system, as it comes with uClinux and Asterisk pre-installed. Apply power and 60 seconds later you have dial tone. You can telnet in and edit Asterisk config files just like a regular x86 box.
- The tiny embedded form factor is very cool. You can see from the photo above it is about the same size as a WRT54G (the WRT is a little deeper, the IP04 a little wider). The IP04 is fanless, and draws just 4.5W
- Compared to other embedded systems, the IP04 has a huge amount of NAND flash – 256 Mbytes. This means plenty of room for prompts, voicemail, and even your own programs. My experience with most other embedded systems is that you are always running out of flash. The IP04 feels more like a hard disk based system.
- The yaffs file system is working really well. It even appears that no special shut down procedure is required to ensure data is written to the NAND flash. For example if I edit a file then pull the power plug out the data is still there when I re-boot!
After some initial testing we discovered a hardware bug – the FXS ports had relatively high levels of background noise. This was especially obvious on FXS to FXS calls. Over a busy weekend I worked with Alex Tao (Shenzen, China) and Alen Chen (Atcom) on this bug.
Alex discovered that if we used an external 3V3 power supply then the noise went away. This led us to a fix – insert some inductance (in the form of a ferrite bead) in the 3V3 rail of each FXS module to block noise getting into the module. This part was actually suggested by the Silicon Labs Si3210 datasheet, but most FXS module designs tend to leave it out. Anyway, I have retrofitted these beads to the IP04s I am shipping so now the FXS ports sound much better.
This was another example of “open hardware” in action. Alex, Alen and I working together to bounce ideas off each other and solve tough bugs together, using email and chat.
I must admit that I have been impressed by the quality of the Atcom IP04 hardware. I used to own a telephony hardware company, and the first batches of our products had far more issues than these IP04s. Virtually every IP04 I fire up works first time. Of course there are still a few software glitches – but I am sure we can fix these over the next few months.
Here is a picture “under the hood” – you can see the four FXS/FXO modules (in this case two modules of each type):
You can also see the little green RS232 daughter board that is used for console access.
After about two weeks I am nearly out of stock, maybe only 5 left. Some new stock is due in mid September, and hopefully an 8 port version later in the year. I intend to spend the rest of this year maintaining the IP04 and chasing down any bugs, plus work on a few other projects like the $10 ATA.
The Oslec open source echo canceller seems to be working well on the Blackfin (as well as on x86 machines).
Just like the prototype IP04s, the Atcom production units have proven very reliable. I have had one running for several weeks without any stability problems. Like any new product there are lots of improvements we can think of, for example expansion to 8 ports, fixing a few software bugs, speeding up boot time, improving speech quality etc.
The release of the production IP04 is an important milestone in the Free Telephony Project as no hardware assembly (like soldering) is required. To date much of the technology we have been developing required hardware assembly. Fun for us, but not for everybody!
There are many more software hackers out there than hardware hackers, so for the growth of the project it was important to develop production, pre-assembled hardware. Now you can experiment with embedded Asterisk on a powerful DSP-enabled platform at a very reasonable cost (around $450). This is less that it would cost to buy a 4 port PCI card and a x86 PC!
This strategy seems to be working. The first batch of IP04s have sold out very quickly, and the forum traffic and contributions are growing steadily. Bugs are being solved, and exciting new project like embedded E1/T1 and BR-ISDN Appliances have been kicked off.
It was exactly two year ago when I started working on this project (Asterisk on the Blackfin). I wasn’t sure if Asterisk would run on uClinux – back then uClinux didn’t even support shared libraries! Since then, with the help of many people, we have developed a range of open hardware designs, and even sprouted a small industry of people who are earning income from this area through product manufacture, sales, development, and consultancy.
The future looks even brighter – the technology is maturing rapidly and will soon be deployed to the mass market. This is possibly a first: a commerical, mass market product developed from free software and open hardware.
IP04 home page
Buy an IP04 from the Free Telephony Project on-line store
Blackfin Asterisk Forum
Building an Embedded Asterisk PBX Part 1
Building an Embedded Asterisk PBX Part 2
Building an Embedded Asterisk PBX Part 3
IP04 and the Asterisk Appliance
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