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Posts from September 2007

Oops... challenges of using a new blog editor - I turned Trackbacks OFF by default

As I finished up my last post with additional thoughts on Skype and hotel networks, I naturally went to look for the TrackBack URI on my first post so that I could have the link show at the bottom of the article. However, when I went to look - there was no TrackBack URI shown! I went into TypePad's control panel and, sure enough, the checkbox for allowing TrackBacks was unchecked. In further investigation, I found it was unchecked for all my other recent posts! (Now, fixed... they all should accept TrackBacks.)

200709300638The reason was relatively easy to find. When I started using my new MacBook Pro about two weeks ago, I started using a new offline blog editor, ecto. Over in the options area, there is a checkbox for TrackBack's that I apparently had left in the unchecked state. I have now checked it and clicked the "Make Default" button so that it remains in this state. Details, details, details... (and my apologies to anyone who was looking for the trackback URI).

P.S. If any of you are Mac users and have opinions on what is the best offline blog editor to use on a Mac, I'm looking for opinions (in this other post).

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Additional thoughts on Skype and hotel networks - there's issues on both sides...

To my immense surprise, my article yesterday about my challenges with Skype and my hotel Internet connection just hit TechMeme today, so welcome, anyone who is coming my way from there. But that also prompted me to want to offer up some additional thoughts on the subject.

First, I'm actually quite annoyed at the Best Western here in Ontario, CA, for essentially blocking Skype by virtue of their network security traffic policies. If travel shall bring me to Ontario, CA, again, you can be pretty sure that I will not be staying here. Skype has become an important communication tool for me and <cue violins>was the way I was intending to call home and stay in touch with my family</violins>. Skype has worked great at the hotel I was at earlier in the week in Phoenix and in fact at every other hotel I've been at lately. I do intend to contact Best Western to express my dissatisfaction at being unable to use the program.

Having said that, as a security professional I do understand WHY the security team at the Internet provider to this Best Western hotel has the policies in place that they do. As Phil Wolff commented, Skype's launch "can look like the beginning of port scanning or a bot-gone-wild". Given that this provider is dealing with hotel rooms where random strangers are connecting who-knows-what onto the network, they have to be extremely vigilant (especially because customers like me while complain quickly if Internet access is slow/unavailable). The more I think about it, hotel networks are really an absolute nightmare from a security point-of-view. You have no way to enforce virus protection, people can put all sorts of machines in all sorts of states onto the network, systems with spyware can easily be scanning/attacking your network -it's really pretty crazy and I'm glad that I'm not involved with running such a network! (Although the security geek in me would admit that the aggregate data they must get from network traffic would probably be fascinating.) However, there is probably a compromise out there where the ISP can tune its filtering rules so that if it sees such traffic and can identify it as Skype traffic, it can not trigger the MAC lock-out.

Which brings me to the final point that there's a lesson here for anyone developing P2P apps, or I suppose any other apps that have a similar traffic profile. If the apps generates traffic that looks like a bot or port scan, odds are that it will be blocked in some places like this one (and the hotel Phil was at). It would be great if developers could take that into account and either: a) naturally put in some kind of rate throttling; or b) perhaps provide a "hotel mode" where it throttles back the number of sessions to some (perhaps user-settable but with a default) value. This of course would make it longer for things like presence information to appear, but would at least let you continue to operate the program without triggering the network security alarms. Of course, you'd have to change to that mode, which many people would forget to do and wind up being locked out, but it might be an interesting "advanced" option for those who know what to do with it.

Any other "lessons learned" you see here?

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How using Skype disrupted my hotel Internet connection and locked me out

UPDATE: I have now posted some additional thoughts about this issue.

It's been a frustrating time here at the hotel in Ontario, CA, where all I've been trying to do is use the Internet connection. I'm staying at the Best Western and did so largely because they advertised free high-speed Internet (they were also cheaper than others). First annoyance was discovering that I was too far away from their APs to use wireless, but since I had an ethernet cable I just plugged into the wall jack and expected to get access. The very first time I connected, I did get an IP address and could see an entry in my routing table for the default gateway. However, I couldn't ping it.

Being rather used to network troubleshooting, I did the usual things... bringing the interface up and down, disconnecting and re-connecting the cable. I even went to the hotel lobby and got a new cable in case the issue was with my portable/retractable cable.

Nothing. No net.

In desperation I did the thing that tech support always tells you to do but I avoid... reboot. Nothing.

So finally this morning I got on the phone to the Best Western tech support and after waiting, oh, 20 minutes or so I got through to a tech and ultimately we figured out the problem:


More specifically, all the bizillion connections that Skype was making out into the P2P cloud. The tech reset the switch and asked me to connect again and his immediate response was "Whoa! Something on your computer is generating an incredible number of sessions out to the Internet! You are tripping our filters and it is blocking out your MAC address." With him on the phone, we tried some experimentation. I shut down Skype, at which point he said I was generating much more normal traffic. As soon as I launched it again, he noticed a very large jump in the number of session connections I was establishing. He said it was something like 396 sessions he was seeing coming from my computer. He also said that I'll keep being locked out of their system if I keep Skype running.

So I shut down Skype. Which, of course, is annoying. Part of why I wanted to use the high-speed Internet is to use Skype for IM and for voice/video calls.

I find it a bit odd that Skype was generating so much extra traffic, but then again I am pretty much always connected into several persistent group chats and had maybe 8 or 10 individual chat windows still open that I'd left open from when I'd last been chatting with the person. (The Mac Skype client makes this easy to do, but I'll write about that sometime.) The persistent group chats, especially, do generate a good number of connections as they link out into the P2P cloud. Perhaps if I closed all of those windows and killed off all my individual chat windows Skype might have behaved better. (Or perhaps not, I might have had to leave the persistent chats in order for Skype to stop making those connections.) I don't want to try it out, because I do want to keep my Internet connection up right now.

In any event, should you be at a hotel and find yourself unable to connect... it might be a P2P app like Skype tripping off the hotel's filters and blocking your access. Fun, fun, fun....

My MacBook seems to be stuck in "Borg emulation mode" (red light) with no access to the built-in speakers

200709290557So it seems I've done something to mightily mess up my new MacBook Pro. The other night while in my hotel room at AstriCon, I was using my headset for some Skype calls and then had it in when I started to play some music. Wanting to listen on the built-in speakers, I just pulled the headset out and was then surprised to hear no audio. If I plugged the headset back in, I could hear audio fine. Remove it, no audio. It was about then that I noticed the red light coming out of the side of the MacBook Pro. I didn't know what this was and tried several other things before finally just forgetting about it.

The next day at AstriCon, I was on the IRC backchannel when someone else in the same physical room as I was figured out who I was and then asked why my MacBook had a red light coming out of the side. In further discussions with others on the channel, it turns out that Apple has done something that on one level is rather cool. They've overloaded the functionality of the headphone jack so that it is both a regular 1/8" audio jack and also a S/P-DIF "digital output", essentially an optical connection. I'm assuming you'd do this if you had high-end audio equipment and wanted a very pure signal going out to that equipment.

In any event, I seem to be stuck in S/P-DIF mode with no access to the internal speakers. I'm not alone, though, as I found two other mentions (here and here) in the Apple Support forums. But, get this, the answer seems to be:

simply take the headphones and place them in and out the socket until the light goes off.

Yes, indeed - keep plugging and unplugging your headphones until the MacBook clues in to the fact that you don't have a S/P-DIF cable connected! They were joking, right? Apparently not, because one person said this fixed it for them.

Alas, this did not work for me... I inserted and removed my headphone jack a dozen times with no effect. In fact, I took out another headset and tried it a dozen times, too. Tried different intervals. Thought about trying to say some magic words. (The words I was saying would be unprintable in a family magazine.) Looked around for a goat I could sacrifice while bowing in the general direction of Cupertino but couldn't find any (and that would be rather messy in a hotel room in any event)...

So there I am... with a MacBook that still looks like something out of the Borg of Star Trek, beaming it's read light at all around me. I did try mucking around with the MIDI settings, which others seemed to say fixed it, but that, too, seemed to have no effect. I guess I'll be visiting the Apple dealer from whom I bought this two weeks ago when I get back to VT.

Any MacBook users have any other thoughts? suggestions? magic incantations?

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Digium buys SwitchVox and gets presence, Web 2.0 interface, mashups to Google Maps,, SugarCRM...

200709262246Imagine you are a customer service rep (CSR) at a small/medium company and a phone call comes in from a customer. As your phone rings, up on your screen pops all the information about that customer, pulled from your CRM database in or SugarCRM, plus other information from other databases and finally a nice Google Map showing you where that customer is located and potentially other information like the locations of your nearest offices. During the call, the CSR needs to bring in a subject matter expert so the CSR consults their web panel and looks at the presence information displayed for each of the other people in the business. The CSR can then contact someone showing as available and potentially bring them into the call.

Now imagine that all that is running on top of open source telephony... specifically Asterisk.

You can now stop imagining, because Digium just bought the company that does precisely that. There will undoubtedly be much attention today (at the very least in the VoIP blogosphere) about Digium's announcement here at AstriCon today that they have acquired SwitchVox. I am going to bet that much of the reporting today will focus on angles like these:

  • Digium now has very competitive offerings (SwitchVox SOHO and SwitchVox SMB) for going after the small / medium business market.
  • Digium bought themselves a very sophisticated/simple/easy GUI/management interface that moves them forward dramatically in making Asterisk easy to use, deploy and manage.
  • Digium just got 1400 paying customers with over 65,000 endpoints.
  • Digium bought themselves parity (or more) in their ongoing competitive feud with the folks at Fonality/Trixbox.

All of that is true. The SwitchVox products offer a very seriously competitive list of features (you have to go through and expand the subsections to see all the features). The GUI is very well done and simple. The price is quite compelling for the servers and also the support. I mean, for $1200 ($995 server plus $199 support) an SMB gets an IP-PBX with a very broad range of features and an unlimited number of users! Yes, the business still has to pay for IP phones, but they can buy any of a wide range of phones at varying price points to suit their needs. Considering that almost all the mainstream IP-PBX vendors charge on a per-user basis for licenses, the unlimited user model is certainly disruptive in its own right. (Digium has also been doing this with their Asterisk Business Edition.) And yes, Digium now has an answer to the growing competitive threat of Trixbox and it's management interfaces, support, hybrid model, etc.

All that is true - but it's not the really interesting story.

200709270943To me, what is far more compelling is that Digium just bought themselves a whole group of people who "get" the world of "unified communications", business process integration, Web 2.0 mashups, etc.

Digium has had no story at all around "presence" within its core offerings. Now it does. While Asterisk has always been a platform play where you have the ability to integrate Asterisk with other apps, doing so has not exactly been for the faint-of-heart. Hire yourself some programmers and you can do pretty much anything with Asterisk... but that's not something that many businesses want to get into. SwitchVox now gives Digium a way to do easy integration with databases and web sites. The integrations to and SugarCRM are slick. The Google Maps popup is a seriously cool mashup! (And where is that on the roadmap of the mainstream vendors?)

200709270953Throw in a "click to call" add-in for Firefox to let you dial any number you see on any web page, plus a plug-in for Outlook, and you've got a very compelling offering. For a very nice price. My only knock (other than the fact that I can't find a picture of their Google Maps mashup anywhere on their website) is that it doesn't seem like their presence capability is yet integrated with existing instant messaging services. Given Asterisk's XMPP (Jabber) capabilities, this seems an obvious path that could get them connected to Jabber and GoogleTalk presence information. If they don't have that yet, I hope they add it soon, as we really do NOT need yet another place to change/update our presence info.

Regardless, this integration capability is, to me, the real story. Phones are being commoditized. I have to believe call servers/IP-PBXs are on their way to being commoditized. (Folks like Microsoft are going to help in pushing those prices down.) The money will ultimately go away from those areas.

The future of "unified communications" is about platforms. About mashups. About web services. About exposing APIs. About making it easy to combine different sources of data into interfaces that make people more productive. Microsoft gets that. Some of the traditional IP-PBX vendors get that. Digium has always known that, but this acquisition gives them a far better ability to make it happen.

Congrats to the folks at both Digium and SwitchVox for making this happen... I very much look forward to seeing where it evolves! (And in the meantime, I'm going to have to go down to the AstriCon exhibit hall and get some video of the Google Maps mashup to show how very cool it is...)

Read more:

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Zoiper - a free SIP / IAX softphone for Windows, Linux or Mac

200709270034In watching Jay Phillips do his great presentation here today at AstriCon about Ruby and his Adhearsion package, I found myself wondering what the interesting little softphone was that he was using. It turned out to be "Zoiper", an IAX or SIP softphone that was previously called "Idefisk". (I can understand perhaps why they changed the name... "Idefisk" does not exactly roll off your tongue.) There turn out to be two versions (comparison chart here): a free version and a "Zoiper Biz" version which includes more functionality and starts around 30 euros.

Clearly built for Asterisk, it was interesting to note that it supports both SIP and also Asterisk's own IAX protocol. Anyway, I just thought I'd share that this softphone is out there if you were not aware of it.

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Astricon... way too much to write about...

Great sessions out here at AstriCon... way too much to write about - my head is exploding a good bit! It's been a bit frustrating to try to blog from the conference rooms, though. The hotel WiFi is struggling a good bit under the strain of all the people here with laptops.

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AstriCon kicks off with "Developer 101" and "Asterisk 101" pre-conference sessions

200709251303Here in Phoenix, Arizona, AstriCon has kicked off with two pre-conference sessions that run all day. "Asterisk 101" is running next door and providing a basic introduction to Asterisk. I'm sitting in the "Developer 101" session (pictured) where there are about 100 people gathered in the room. It turns out that this is about developing with the Asterisk code base, i.e. "how to become an Asterisk developer" versus what I was personally thinking it was, which was "how to develop apps that work with Asterisk"... although that is really just an extension of the first. So far, an hour into the session, lead developer Kevin Fleming has been discussing the various tools you need to use in order to work with the Asterisk code base (ex. subversion, makefiles, etc.). Right now he's been dealing with the fun subject of licensing code, the GPL, and the requirement of developers to sign a disclaimer over to Digium that: a) asserts that the developer can contribute the code (i.e. it is original), that it is not patent-encumbered, etc. and b) gives Digium the right to redistribute the developer's code under a different license.

One interesting note - Kevin stated very definitively that Digium has NO plans to move GPLv3. They are quite happy with GPLv2 and see no reason yet to move.

The afternoon session sounds interesting as they will be getting into the overall Asterisk architecture, diving into the code, talking about APIs and debugging. Certainly a day to feed my inner developer...

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Digium launches their "Inside the Asterisk" group weblog

200709251222Earlier this month, the folks at Digium rolled out their own group weblog, "Inside the Asterisk", which gives a view of activities inside Digium. A true group weblog, there are posts from a number of different people, including Digium CEO Danny Windham (ex. talking about his first days) and many others on staff.

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Telephony is disrupted because voice no longer matters... (as much)

200709240820Does "voice" communication really matter as much today in business communications?

Think about it. When you need to reach someone today, what do you do? Do you call them on the phone? Or do you send them email? Or a text message? or IM?

I know personally that my normal communication flow usually goes something like this:

  1. Instant Messaging - I check first to see if I can reach the person on some form of IM. For me, I usually use Skype, GoogleTalk or WLM/MSN, although I do have accounts on other services as well. I use IM because I can see the presence of the other person. If they are online and available, I'll shoot them a message. Sometimes the question may be dealt with entirely within an IM exchange. Other times I use the IM chat as the precursor to initiating a voice call, i.e. "Ping... do you have time for a call?"
  2. SMS - If the matter is relatively important and I want to talk to someone, I might send an SMS next to their cell phone, again often to see
  3. E-mail/Facebook/Twitter/other - Unless the matter is really urgent, the next mode I'll use is some form of "asynchronous" communication. Previously that would have just been email, but these days I find myself very often sending messages via Facebook or Twitter.
  4. Phone Call - If I can't reach someone any other way I'll pick up the phone and call someone... and typically wind up leaving a voicemail message

Now, this flow changes if something is urgent. I believe voice is still critical when you have something to convey that might have emotional undertones (ex. negative feedback on a project that might be misconstrued in email) or when you really need answers right now on some matter. If I have to urgently get in touch with someone, the flow is usually more like:

  1. IM - Check the person's presence and try to get in touch with them.
  2. Phone call - Call the person via cell phone or a service like Skype.
  3. SMS - If, as usual, I had to leave a message, I may send an SMS to the person's cell phone.
  4. E-mail/Facebook/Twitter/other - I may followup with an email asking the person to call me.

Why don't I just start out using the phone? Really for the reason I mentioned above:

whenever I call someone I almost inevitably wind up leaving a voicemail message.

I don't remember the statistic from the messaging presentations I attended, but I seem to recall the stat being that something like 80% of phone calls wind up going to voicemail. The reality is that most of us aren't usually available to take phone calls.

Presence can help us with this. Many of the "unified communications" solutions out there have the ability to give you "telephony presence" information, i.e. is the person on the phone or not. This can help avoid the case of your phone call going to voicemail because the person is busy on the phone. (It does not help with case of the person sitting there at his/her desk not on the phone but not wanting to take the phone call.) So we can know not to initiate the call and to use some other mechanism. (such as IM'ing them "can you call me when you are done?")

Now I recognize that I'm often in the early-adopter/bright-shiny-object-chaser category, but in watching colleagues at work and how they communicated, I saw the same pattern play out. IM or Email ruled for most all communication, with IM taking an increasingly larger role. Voice was somewhere farther down in the list of communication modes.

So what does that mean for those of us in the world of telephony? I'll suggest the following:

  1. Presence is critical. We want to know if we can reach someone and how: IM? voice? mobile/cell? video? Communication systems must have presence capability.
  2. Multi-modal communication is key. Communication systems should let us seamlessly flow between modes of communication. I should be able to start off in IM, move to a voice call, continuing using IM to pass along URLs, files, etc., potentially add video or web/data collaboration, and then when the voice/video/datasharing call is over, the IM channel still lives on as a way to send any follow-ups. Naturally, we need to have presence information over all those modes.
  3. Context is important. If I am in a meeting, I may only want to be reached via IM. Or may only want to be reached by certain people. I want to be able to specify who can reach me when and by which mode of communication. There are a whole number of companies playing in this space right now, trying to solve this particular beast.
  4. The bar has been lowered for new entrants. If voice is now just one of many modes of communication, and an often lower-priority one at that, it follows that newer entrants into the communication space don't need to care as much about voice. They don't need the x-hundred features of traditional telephony solutions. Due to the degree to which mobile phones have lowered our expectations around audio quality, they don't even have to be as worried about that traditional concern. (Nor even reliability - look how quickly Skype recovered after their two-day outage!)

This last point is to me why I think we are seeing so much disruption happening within the world of telephony. The fact that voice is no longer quite as critical gives us the freedom to explore how it can be used in different ways. Plus, we need to answer the question - if voice isn't the most critical way to communicate, what is? How do we integrate it all together?

What do you think? What is your communication flow? What do you use as the first way to reach someone? Do you pick up the phone? Or do you IM? or email? Do you agree that voice is less important than it once was for regular communication? What lessons do you think we need to draw from that?

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