Business 2.0 – Taking the leap forward…

The following post doesn’t really fit in line with the normal spirit of the blog, simply because it’s not funny nor directly related to technology. It’s called Business 2.0, as it relates to the ever problematic question any business owner has: “When should I grow and how?”.

As you may know, I’ve been a freelance Asterisk Platform developer since early 2003, turned to freelance development (Penguin for hire) around April 2007. Since that time, I’ve built systems and platforms for some of the better known brands around the world. Be it working directly with the customer or through a 3rd party (as a sub contractor) – I can easily say that I’ve completed over 120 different large scale projects within 3 years time. Now, when I refer to projects, I’m not referring to installing PBX systems, I don’t do that at all – I’m referring to highly complex application level development, creating some of the most innovative Asterisk based systems I’ve ever seen.

Image representing Jajah as depicted in CrunchBase

Image via CrunchBase


Image via Wikipedia

Putting aside everything, finalizing a rough estimate of 40 development projects on a yearly base, most of these performed solely by myself is a fairly challenging task. Sure, at times I’ll outsource some work to other freelancers like myself, specifically in fields where I’m not all that fluent (Database, Web Development, UI) – but yet, doing that means that I’m conducting 3 – 5 projects on a monthly basis.

After doing so for 3 years now, I can’t help but start thinking about expanding my business, taking it to the next level by hiring more people and building it up to a new level. Question remains for this: “How? What is the natural track of expanding your business?” – of course the simple answer would be: “Just hire another developer or two, and start doing more sales” – it’s not as simple as it sounds. After thinking about it for some time, I’ve concluded there are a few models of expansion:

Model 1: Organic Growth

Organic growth can be described as the simplest way of growth: “Hire a new guy and get more work in”. The problem with this model that it is fully reliant on your ability to sell more. However, as you concentrate on sales more, you take time from the development and delivery process – thus, the addition of the new developer is not a 100% addition, it’s actually 100% (developer) minus 40% (you) – so you are not at 200% capacity, you are 160% capacity. Surely 160 is 100, however, for the initial 6 months, till the guy learns the ropes, you are not at 160, you are actually at 80 – can you and your business sustain that?

Thus, the main issue with Organic growth is cash flow, can your business sustain the elevated expenses with less income for the period of transition? If the answer is NO, then you need a different method. If the answer is YES, then you are in the best place in the world, however, bear in mind that taking someone to work for you is a responsibility – people are not resources, they are human beings, with families and children – taking someone to work for you is like taking responsibility for their lives.

Model 2: The Partner

Panama Business and Investment
Image by thinkpanama via Flickr

A partnership with a person who is equally matched to you is always a good option. Technically speaking, it means that you are teaming with someone who generates as much work as you do and is capable of finalizing the work as fast and as good as you can. Yet, taking a partner doesn’t negate the requirement for a new employee or two. In this case, you may end up with too much sales with too little staff to deliver – that is a big problem.

Another issue with partners is the issue of trust. While most partners tend to rely on each other and trust each other, that trust can easily be broken (in most cases by stupid things). It’s enough for one partner to now carry its weight in sales/development to initiate a chain reaction, shortly ending in the partnership dissolving.

So, the partner is a good option, however, may prove to be problematic if the wrong partner is chosen – in addition, dissolving a partnership solely on these issues isn’t all that simple – and usually ends up in litigation and other judicial issues – YUCK!

Model 3: Un-intrusive Angel

Some people ragard Un-intrusive Angels as “Stupid Money” – an Angel investor that doesn’t interfere in your company business model and operations. In many cases, this is how start-up companies start – someone gives them a lump sum of money to start their business, signing off to own a portion of the new company.

An un-intrusive investor usually gives you the money and pays you a visit once every few months to see how his money is spent. Don’t expect to raise a whole lot from these people, usually you will get anything from 25K$ to around 250K$ – tops. If you are getting an investment from an Angel, make sure you plan your business carefully – and make sure your investor knows what he is getting into. The Angel is not a found piggy bank, he is a business man looking for profit – if you make sure his expectations of profits (time frame, amount, percentage, etc) are kept within the reason of your business – he will make an educated decision and invest accordingly. Promises like: “you’ll double your money in 3 years” are stupid – make sure it’s realistic and to the point. If you promise the moon, and reach a star – that’s a problem, if you promise the skies and hit a start – that’s wonderful.

Model 4: The Strategic-Intrusive Angel

Jeff pulver

Image by TheFemGeek via Flickr

A strategic angel is similar to the previous one in terms of funds, however, he is more capable in assisting your business meet its goals. Usually, it would be someone who is already a well established figure in your business sector, had made his money from previous companies and is now looking for new ideas and businesses. I call him an intrusive Angel, as sometimes he may have ideas as to where your business should go – and he will make sure you hear his ideas. You may regard it as annoying, but you should still listen to your Angel and pay him the respect he deserves.

Sometimes this Angel may invest in your business due to the fact that he has a hidden agenda. An agenda can be: The angel looks at your business and see a certain potential you are not planning, he’ll invest and try to re-direct your company to the agenda he sees. This is usually the case when your angel is invested into several endeavours that is either parallel to each other or may have orthogonal intersection points. These angels can be the builders of your business or the destroyers, it is up to you to make sure the latter doesn’t happen.


So, which model did I choose? – I didn’t choose yet, I’m still figuring it out myself. What ever the model may be, the choice isn’t simple nor straight forward. At best, whatever choice I’ll take will have a profound impact on my business and me – so I’ll need to weigh my options carefully. If you can think of an additional model, I’d love to hear about it – so just comment on this post.

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Call Analytics – Closed Alpha testing group

Well, it’s been almost a month since I’ve started writing about the humbug project. Now, it’s time to actually get you people involved, at least in the initial levels. We are looking to add 10 additional members into the humbug call analytics suite. Currently available analytics during the alpha testing is inbound call analytics.

Our aim is to gather as much information as we can and as much user requests as we can, humbug is a community oriented project, thus it relies on community oriented input and feature requests. Participating members will  be granted access to the humbug analytics portal, allowing them to gather statistical information regarding their inbound call hits and their top ten DID numbers – we are working on additional statistics. As new stats will become available, we’ll role those out into the service as soon as possible.

In order to participate in the closed alpha testing, please send an email to alphatest at, and we’ll send you a short piece of dialplan code to insert into your Asterisk server. Technically speaking, we’ll send you a short AGI command that looks like this:

exten => _X.,n,AGI(agi://somehost/DataReceiver,some_unique_ident)

The above line needs to be inserted into any place you would like to generate call analytics from. We’ll also enclose configuration steps for FreePBX (and other FreePBX compatible distributions). We are hard at work for creating a FreePBX integrated module, so you can do a one-click install.

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Beyond the dialtone – PBX user experience revisited

When most of us think about PBX systems, we usually associate these with cumbersome usage, confusing dialing codes and in most cases – a PBX system is automatically associated with the annoying task of transferring a call from one handset to another. Lately, I’ve been thinking deeply about how people use PBX systems, is this really the only way to use a PBX system? is there something else to the mix? can we really enrich one of the oldest operational paradigms in the world? – and for that matter, can the public be re-educated to assimilate a new breed of PBX systems or services?

Hardware-based IP phone
Image via Wikipedia

As to answering the question of re-educating the public, I guess I’ll have to leave that question to the head shrinks. As to answering the latter, enriching the PBX experience is both achievable and advisable. When I say enriching, I mainly talk about your ability to bring to the IP phone functionality usually not associated with it. Imagine to have the ability to receive a stock exchange RSS feed to your phones idle screen, notice that you stock is either rising or falling, and by the flick of a button – either sell or buy. We’ve all come accustomed to IP phones that look like the one of the right. A whole bunch of buttons, that in most cases have no direct use when our phone is utilized using a single account. However, these buttons can be externally re-assigned and re-programmed to achieve greater functionality – surpassing the normal behavior of just making phone calls.

The technology involved exists on almost every high-end IP phone on the market (well, at least those made by SNOM, Aastra, Cisco and Polycom – most of the Chinese makers don’t have this) – it’s called a Mini Browsers. Mini Browsers are exactly what they are called, these are simplified versions of your typical Internet browser. Some vendors had produced their own XML based Mini browser markup language (SNOM, Cisco, Aastra) while others had decided to provide a sub-set of XHTML (Polycom). The variations between the vendors are at the neck deep of the problems of using Mini Browsers, and that is that the formats are considerably different. Sure, SNOM had more or less adopted Cisco’s general structure, however, it still varies.

Through the utilization of this technology, it is possible to create phone based browser applications, that seem native to the phone user, as the general interface resembles the native phone interface. It is now the developers job to make the web interface displayed to the user as seamless and as native as possible, keeping in mind that the developer must remain agnostic to the information retrieval layer. Most companies leave their phone systems and these tasks to their system administrators and infrastructure team, however, this task is far beyond their capabilities and skill set. Creating an agnostic IP phone minibrowser dislplay layer, capable of utilizing multiple vendors and models, is a question of content management and content rendering, very must similar to the content transcoding problem that is common to the mobile content world – in other words, a sys-admin will create an ad-hoc solution, a programmer will create a proper, well structured, well designed solution that carry the enterprise beyond its initial needs and requirements.

A short example of how these interfaces work can be found here – on my company blog.

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Digium TE205P vs. OpenVox D210P

If there is one thing I like doing is testing hardware, specifically, testing new hardware that is related to Asterisk. I was more than pleased when OpenVox had approached me, asking to review one of their products – specifically after I once announced that I really dislike cheap clone cards. So, I got OpenVox’s D210P card, which is a fairly similar clone to the TE205/TE210 of Digium, and I decided to take a it for a test drive.

So, first off, lets take a look at Digium’s TE205 card:

Digium TE205P Card

Digium TE205P Card

The card is based upon two specific chips, the Xilinx Spartan FPGA and an Inifineon based Quad E1/T1/J1 framer chip. Technically speaking, the entire brain of the outfit is located in the Xilinx FPGA (naturally), which on the TE205P now enables remote firmware upgrades and some additional features. Digium had been using Xilinx based boards for over 8 years now, and they’ve been doing the job more than well.

Now, let’s take a look at the OpenVox clone board:

OpenVox D210 Card

OpenVox D210 Card

OpenVox utilizes the same Inifineon framer chip (well, it’s a clone after all), while utilizing the Lattice Mico8 FPGA chip. Now, from a technological point of view, I couldn’t really find much differences between the Mico8 and the Spartan, beside a minor differences here and there – but these are not important. So, I proceeded to testing the card with Asterisk. So, the nice thing about this clone is that it doesn’t require patches to the stock version of DAHDI, which in my book means that OpenVox are aiming at being a real-clone, not some would be patched version of a clone – so that’s good. Installation was fairly similar to that of the Digium TE205P card, so I couldn’t really find specifics in there to prefer one over the latter. So, I started testing the card in various situations: Normal telephony, 3G based transmission (64kbps bearer capability),  dropped calls during high loads and checking CPU/Load spikes during high usage.

The Test Scenario and Comparison

All of the above tests were conducted according to the following scenario:

Testing Lab Server

Testing Lab Server

In general, I’ve connected 3 different IP phones to the testing server: A Polycom 650, a SNOM 370 and a Grandstream GXP2000. All IP phones include the latest firmwares and updates and were all working flawlessly with another similar setup, so I assumed they were all bug and issue free for the testing lab. The main reason I’m using 64Bit CentOS is simply due to the fact that all my servers are 64Bit capable (mainly E5410 and E5405).

Test 1: Normal Telephony

Well, in general, the card does exactly what it should – provides a connection to an E1 circuit (we only have E1 circuits in Israel). I’ve conducted normal telephony functions from all the above mentioned phones. In general, I’ve conduct from each phone a total of 40 calls, and repeated the test once for the Digium TE205P card and once for the OpenVox D210P card. The results were fairly similar with a slight advantage for Digium. In general, the OpenVox card had slipped about 4% of the calls, mainly to an IRQ miss that occurred for some reason. With the Digium card, the IRQ misses were not exhibited, allowing for all 120 calls to traverse normally.

Conclusion: In a normal office telephony scenario, the D210P is a fair choice – however, not my preference for a Call Center or a service provider.

Test 2: 3G based transmission (64kbps bearer capability)

I’ve been playing around with IVVR and Asterisk, mainly using the Fontventa H264 packages for Asterisk (that’s why I used 1.4 branch). With this test, the D210P provided less then medium results, specifically when trying to stream large 3gpp based video streams, while the TE205P had showed no specific issue with the transmission. Main issues exhibited were related to choppy video streams, causing jumps in the stream. The Digium card was fully capable of stream the video without a hitch. Now, I won’t hold this again OpenVox, as this usage is fairly advanced and is required by a very small portion of the market, but I believe they still have some work to do there. As they are using the same framer as Digium, I would deduce that their firmware is either an older import from Digium (reverse engineer) or some other firmware related issue.

Conclusion: Not a pick for 3G transmission with Asterisk.

Test 3: Dropped calls during high loads

No matter what test I did, with OpenVox I’ve always received a dropped call ratio of around 3-4% – when at high loads that went up to around 7%. When I mean high loads, I mean generating 30 outbound calls from Asterisk to one circuit, then receiving them on the second port (yes, a back-loop). I’ve conducted 100 runs of this test, at various speeds. It would appear that when generating calls with a 100ms interval between one initiation to another on the circuit, the OpenVox will drop a call here and there – at sporadic intervals. This may be actually related to the IRQ misses exhibited in Test 1.

Conclusion: If you have high load anticipated – OpenVox is not the choice for you.

Test 4: CPU Load/Spikes

It is a well known fact that all card that are used with Asterisk introduce load spikes of a sporadic nature. In the past, the masters of low spikes were Sangoma, however, with the introduction of Digium’s VoiceBus, that balance had tipped and Digium took the upper hand. In order to evaluate the spikes, I’ve monitor the machines’ load while having 30 calls traverse from one port to the other. The calls were playing back a static file of 5 minutes, and after disconnecting the calls would generate and additional one and continue from there. Both cards exhibited slight spikes when multiple calls either originate or disconnect, however, the CPU spikes that the OpenVox card had exhibited were about 40% higher than the ones exhibited by Digium and there were more spikes than with Digium.

Conclusion: If your system isn’t as beefy as mine, and you need full capacity – OpenVox isn’t the choice for you

Overall Operational Conclusion

The OpenVox card promises to be a low-cost alternative to the Digium card, and it surely delivers. Over all, if you have an office PBX system or a low scale IVR environment, the OpenVox alternative can be evaluated, although it’s not my personal favorite. Sure, in many cases I can say: “OpenVox would do the job” – but hey, I would always rather go with the original and not the clone. I believe that OpenVox are far ahead of its clone competitors (Atcom, Yeastar, Varion, PhonicEQ, etc), simply because it does a better job at building and designing a better card – however, they still have some way to go in order to be completely in-lined with Digium and Sangoma.

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Astricon 2009 – Glendale, AZ – Part II

Ok, it’s day 1 (or actually day 2) for AstriCon 2009 – and here’s my report for the day.

Yesterday was kind’a of a hectic day for me, as I was teaching a full day track of Asterisk and Cloud Computing, specifically, implementing Asterisk systems with Amazon EC2. I started the day with a class filled with 20+ people, and ended the day with a similar number – so in general I’m very happy. Not many people tend to attend the pre-conference days, so having that number of people and their positive reactions through out the day were very reassuring to me.

If there is one thing I’ve learned from this experience, it is the following: If you give a full day track, don’t arrive at the hotel 24 hours prior to it – you need at least 48 hours! People didn’t really notice (I hope), but through out the day I was suffering from a splitting headache – one that would usually send me right into bed with a couple of Advil’s. But hey, that didn’t stop me and I powered through it, I’m fairly proud of myself for doing so – as at the end of the day I regained back my strength and was livelier.

Today was the first official day of the conference – I gave the opening talk for the Cloud Computing track of the day. My talk was about how to build “IP Centrex” like services, without building an “IP Centrex”. I guess that I didn’t really introduce a brand new concept, but actually talked about something that many are thinking about, but are not inclined to try it on their own and burn some cash on. I guess my talk helped them out saying: “Hey, we’re not talking out of our asses here, this guy makes some sense and what we thought of isn’t that far fetched”.

Previous to that, Digium announced the 2009 Digium innovation award winners, where my company won an award in the pioneer category. This is the second year in a row my company had won the award, and I’m really happy with being acknowledged for this specific work. Having being a part of the community for over 7 years now, this award, at least to me personally, says a lot – it’s basically saying: “Look, you’ve done good, you’ve done some work that really helps out the project and the community in general – here’s a beer and a toast to you – hip hip” – well, that’s kind’a of a mouth full, but you get what I mean. I think that this is actually the place to mention that the award was for developing a high-powered Dialer/IVR platform, used in the Israeli elections and the work was contracted for a company called Shtrudel.

The all conference party is tonight – so I better rest up and be ready for it – should be fun. I guess beer and food are always a good mix when a bunch geeks are getting together :-)