A lot of small companies download free Asterisk software and put it on a server, producing an instant cut-rate IP PBX . They use a tutorial to learn how to configure extensions, and then they run into trouble. Figuring out how to set up a dial plan or call flow — that is, the set of rules governing how the switch deals with incoming and outgoing calls — is very complicated. One option is to learn to program the call flow using the text-based Asterisk dial-plan syntax. If that's too hard — and for most non-geeks, it is — companies can hire someone to do it, which can diminish the benefits of free software. Or they can turn to a user-friendly GUI-based approach.
Apstel LLC , based in Los Angeles, claims its Visual Dialplan application is ideally suited to the job. "We created a visual environment and built so-called building blocks for each and every Asterisk application and function," said president Peter Simich. "We leverage a GUI to allow users to drag and drop building blocks into the work area, and then to connect those blocks to create a call flow or dial plan for inbound and outbound calls."
This approach has a few advantages over the GUI-based dial-plan tools that come with commercial turnkey Asterisk packages, according to Simich. For one, such integrated applications are not as clearly focused on the specific task of building call flows. "Those companies are selling the switch, they're bundling Asterisk with a GUI and trying to address corporate end-user needs," Simich claimed. "Their GUI is designed to configure and maintain the Asterisk switch, and there's always a trade-off. Because they're trying to target the typical switch user, they're not developing a dial-plan development tool that will access all the Asterisk dial-plan features."
Another trade-off is that such tools are typically Web-based. According to Simich, that means that they lack the rich user interface of desktop-development environments. Visual Dialplan, he claimed, works a lot like Visual Basic, so it will be familiar to those with experience developing other PC applications.
Visual Dialplan targets two groups of users. The first is small companies that have preconfigured an Asterisk switch with things like extensions and voice-mail boxes, and then need to build and maintain a dial plan. "They find Visual Dialplan provides them more freedom and access to more dial-plan features," Simich stated.
The other main category of users is "companies that are building dial plans for other companies, and are managing a number of complex dial plans," according to Simich." Visual Dialplan gives them the means to both develop powerful and complex dial plans and to sell them. Since it displays the entire call flow in visual terms, he explained, such companies "can more easily communicate the dial plan to their customer, because the customer sees graphically what inbound or outbound calls will do."
Apstel created the original version of Visual Dialplan in Java so it would run on multiple platforms. It recently introduced a Linux version, and will soon offer its newest iteration, Version 1.3. The upgrade will allow one-click deployment of new dial plans on remote Asterisk boxes — offering all the services an Asterisk administrator would normally need, according to Simich.
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