D.I.Y. Asterisk Appliances: A Question Of Scale

7. Net-Tops

Net-tops are essentially a new kind of desktop system that leverage the kind of hardware that was developed for the netbook market. They are in effect, a new kind of very-small-form-factor desktop. The Acer Aspire Revo is typical of this class of hardware.

Such net-tops tend to be based on the Intel Atom processor, which runs in the 1.2 GHz to 1.8 GHz range. It’s most commonly a single core chip, but the higher end models are dual-core. It’s a startlingly capable processor for use in an Asterisk appliance.

Net-tops can often be stuffed with up to 4 GB or memory and include a small internal hard drive. By small I mean physically a 1.8″ or 2.5″ drive form factor, with storage capacity typically in the 80-160 GB range. That’s more than adequate for any Asterisk system.

Of course, using a hard drive in the system takes it out of the running of my personal definition of an “Asterisk Appliance.” I accept that your definition might not be a rigid as my own, or…budget be damned…you may elect to replace the hard drive with a solid state disk.

In truth, these little net-tops are likely the most capable of systems being considered in my little overview. With list prices in the $300-400 range they are also at the top of the price range that I was considering, but that’s only if you look at list prices. Refurbished offers on the Acer Aspire Revo can often be found around $180. Here’s just one recent example from Tiger Direct.

The Acer Aspire Revo was actually brought to my attention by Ward Mundy of Nerd Vittles fame. On a recent VUC guest appearance Ward indicated that the little Acer net-top was a very good platform for his PBX-In-A-Flash and Incredible PBX distributions. Both of these are “heavier” distributions than I might consider for an true appliance, but they do highlight the considerable capabilities of the hardware platform.

My own experience with net-tops involves a slightly more expensive device called the FIT-PC2. This little box is essentially an industrial version of a net-top. With a 1.6 GHz Atom,1 GB of memory and a 160 GB SATA hard drive the Fit-PC2 runs cool and draws only 10 watts, even under full load when playing an HD movie trailer.

I have had a FIT-PC2 loaded with various software packages, including Astlinux v0.70. It can easily handle all the calling needs of a small office.

As you might surmise, the FIT-PC2 is is the second generation of industrial net-top from CompuLab. For those who are more cost-conscious their original FIT-PC model has been renamed the FIT-PC Slim and can be purchased for under $200. The FIT-PC Slim shares the same 500 MHz AMD Geode LX CPU as the embedded PC systems considered previously, but comes in a nice compact little package.

Unlike most of the embedded PC boards the FIT-PC Slim includes an IDE interface and a small hard disk, making it more like a small PC than a real embedded system.

6 thoughts on “D.I.Y. Asterisk Appliances: A Question Of Scale”

    1. boerner,

      I’m aware of these devices. However, at the start I made the conscious decision not include commercially available Asterisk appliances. There are many such devices available. I wanted to keep a decidedly D.I.Y. approach in mind. Further, I suspect that all of the commercial offerings are more costly than the platforms I wished to consider.

      I must admit that part of the appeal of the thin clients is that I was recycling hardware that was headed to the dumpster. It was at least a little green-ish.

      I do agree that David Rowe‘s work is awesome. We even had Steven Song from the Shuttleworth Foundation / Village Telco as a guest on a VUC call late last year.

  1. Another plug for the IP0X series, especially the very low cost IP01s & IP02s.
    They are so cheap that they are a good choice for the hobbyist / home enthusiast that wants to try out Asterisk.
    Here in New Zealand, we pay less than NZ$300 for an IP01.
    One nice thing about them is they include everything you need.

    On a related note, I once tried getting Asterisk working on a Linksys SLUG (the NSLU2) It was a royal pain. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NSLU2

    I love the idea of an appliance to run Asterisk – no hard drive and no PC power supply to fail. And no noise and very low power consumption.

    My challenge is that I really like “HD Voice” (G.722) so want to run Asterisk 1.6 on an appliance – that has enough grunt to trasnscode G.722 to G.711 etc. Only need to support 3 or 4 concurrent calls at max though.

    1. Andrew,

      Almost all of the platforms that I described will run Asterisk v1.6 and support the use of G.722. Certainly the last three types described (thin clients, SBCs and net-tops) all have more than enough power to handle such matters.

      I know that the latest release of Astlinux uses Asterisk v1.6 and runs happily on the Fit-PC or and older Soekris Net4801. I’ve done both myself.

  2. Excellent read, I just passed this onto a colleague who was doing a little research on that. And he really bought me lunch simply because I discovered it for him smile So let me rephrase that: Thanks for lunch!

  3. Hey Michael,
    Excellent writeup. As I said, your site’s almost as addictive as Wikipedia. A note on REVO 3610.. I am using it as a media center, running regular Ubuntu Lucid with XBMC, playing Hi-Def content with barely getting into 20% CPU usage (720p). It’s a very powerful platform, that runs very little juice. For a proper office setup, you can easily use the Sangoma USBfxo unit, which (according to a quick ebay check) runs for about $125. The manufacturer offers driver source code for download. I haven’t tried working with it yet, but it’s a very interesting option for a hybrid setup.

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