Asterisk and VoIP: Bridging the Gap Between Traditional and Network Telephony

Voice over IP (VoIP) is often thought of as little more than a method of obtaining free long-distance calling. The real value (and—let’s be honest—challenge as well) of VoIP is that it allows voice to become nothing more than another application in the data network.

It sometimes seems that we’ve forgotten that the purpose of the telephone is to allow people to communicate. It is a simple goal, really, and it should be possible for us to make it happen in far more flexible and creative ways than are currently available to us. Technologies such as Asterisk lower the barriers to entry.

The Zapata Telephony Project

When the Asterisk project was started (in 1999), there were other open-source telephony projects in existence. However, Asterisk, in combination with the Zapata Telephony Project, was able to provide public switched telephone network (PSTN) interfaces, which represented an important milestone in transitioning the software from something purely network-based to something more practical in the world of telecom at that time, which was PSTN-centric.

The Zapata Telephony Project was conceived of by Jim Dixon, a telecommunications consulting engineer who was inspired by the incredible advances in CPU speeds that the computer industry has now come to take for granted. Dixon’s belief was that far more economical telephony systems could be created if a card existed that had nothing more on it than the basic electronic components required to interface with a telephone circuit. Rather than having expensive components on the card, digital signal processing (DSP)[3] would be handled in the CPU by software. While this would impose a tremendous load on the CPU, Dixon was certain that the low cost of CPUs relative to their performance made them far more attractive than expensive DSPs, and, more importantly, that this price/performance ratio would continue to improve as CPUs continued to increase in power.

Like so many visionaries, Dixon believed that many others would see this opportunity, and that he merely had to wait for someone else to create what to him was an obvious improvement. After a few years, he noticed that not only had no one created these cards, but it seemed unlikely that anyone was ever going to. At that point it was clear that if he wanted a revolution, he was going to have to start it himself. And so the Zapata Telephony Project was born:

Since this concept was so revolutionary, and was certain to make a lot of waves in the industry, I decided on the Mexican revolutionary motif, and named the technology and organization after the famous Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. I decided to call the card the “tormenta” which, in Spanish, means “storm,” but contextually is usually used to imply a big storm, like a hurricane or such.[4]

Perhaps we should be calling ourselves Asteristas. Regardless, we owe Jim Dixon a debt of thanks, partly for thinking this up and partly for seeing it through, but mostly for giving the results of his efforts to the open source community. As a result of Jim’s contribution, Asterisk’s PSTN engine came to be.

Over the years, the Zapata Telephony interface in Asterisk has been modified and improved. The Digium Asterisk Hardware Device Interface (DAHDI) Telephony interface in use today is the offspring of Jim Dixon’s contribution.

[3] The term DSP also means digital signal processor, which is a device (usually a chip) that is capable of interpreting and modifying signals of various sorts. In a voice network, DSPs are primarily responsible for encoding, decoding, and transcoding audio information. This can require a lot of computational effort.

[4] Jim Dixon, “The History of Zapata Telephony and How It Relates to the Asterisk PBX” (