Hopefully I'm in one of the right places to post this. To hedge my bets I've crossposted it in a couple of places, so I apologise in advance. I intend to report on whatever I learn and my decisions in the places I have posted this.
This post turned into an epistle, so here's the absolute minimum executive summary:
I need an Internet-enabled answering machine for a single phone line that will record a message and email the audio file to me. (I need this in a small country where the various virtual phone number companies don't provide phone numbers.) It must be small and silent; repurposing an old computer will not do. If possible I'd like this device to run a full Linux install (CLI) as well so it can be used for other networking-related things. My budget is in the range of US$200-300, but I'll spend a bit more if necessary. Options I'm considering include the following, but I'm looking for suggestions that meet my additional requirements (further down):
With that out of the way, my original, more detailed spec follows.
I'm hoping someone can point me in the right direction to help me find what I'm looking for. I'll start by saying that I'm going to try to avoid using telephony terminology that I don't fully understand so as to avoid confusion — mine and yours. However, while I have zero experience in the world of telephony (other than, you know, being able to use a telephone!), I do have years of experience using *nix (mostly Linux) at the command line. Hopefully that establishes my level of "newbiness" in those two areas. :) I also did some research on this about six months ago (more on that in a moment), but given the pace at which things change I see that what I was drooling over back then is "out of stock" now. However, one result of that research is that the budget I have had in mind for the past few months is in the range of US$200-300.
Due to the length of this I've split it into three sections:
- Minimum requirements
- Additional requirements
- My research so far
I am in need of a system (hardware and software) that will essentially be an Internet-enabled answering machine on steroids for a single phone line, which accomplishes the following, at a bare minimum:
- Answers calls with an outgoing message — e.g., "You've reached .... Please leave a message at the sound of the tone."
- Sends the recorded message to an external email address.
Therefore, this machine will have three wires attached to it:
- One phone line from the wall connected to the local POTS.
- Ethernet cable to router.
Size and noise are major considerations; it needs to be small and quiet. Therefore I'm expecting it will use a solid state drive and be fanless. Essentially, I'd like something about the size of a typical home or small office four-port router (think Linksys WRT54G), although looking at some of what seems to be available I'm certainly not opposed to something smaller. I could go out and buy a nettop or mini PC, but RJ-11 ports (and FXO modules, which I'm assuming I'll need) aren't exactly standard components on these. Therefore I'm expecting to have to buy specialised hardware, not something off the shelf at your local mass retailer. Given my size and noise requirements, I can't just reuse an old, unused machine.
I'm willing to buy a bare-bones system — with all the right hardware, of course, which means there must be Linux drivers and kernel support for it — that just needs an OS, and do all the work of selecting and installing the Linux distro, Asterisk (or something else) and supporting software (web-based GUI, etc.), but I'm also willing to buy a complete working system as long as I have the ability to tweak it extensively. (I won't say "hack" it, because that would imply skill on the programming level that I don't have.) I'm less inclined to buy a pile of parts and start from scratch — not because I don't want to, but there are only so many hours in a day.
Back to functions. In addition to the above two bare minimum functions, I'd expect an Asterisk (or similar)-based system would also likely do some or all of the following, in roughly descending order of importance:
- Upon power restoration after a power failure (a regular occurrence where this device will be located) the device must reboot itself without human intervention. (For various reasons, a UPS isn't a viable or necessary option.)
- I must be able to maintain it remotely as much as physically possible, as this machine will be on the other side of the world from where I am most of the time. If necessary I can have someone push buttons, insert memory cards or flash drives, etc., but considering this will be a headless system, anything else has to be done via SSH or web-based access. An RS-232 port for console access would be a good idea though, but hey, if it all fits, doesn't generate too much heat or use power unnecessarily, and doesn't significantly increase costs, I'm not opposed to K, V and M ports.
- Have a greeting system allowing callers to press 1 to leave a message for sales, press 2 to leave a message for support, etc., and then email those audio files to sales@mydomain and support@mydomain respectively.
- Allow me to log in remotely with a softphone and make and receive calls over the local POTS.
- Allow me to record greetings on one computer and upload the audio file to the device, rather than requiring me to record them over a phone connected to the device.
- Assuming this system runs a full Linux installation, I'd expect it to be able to have the resources left over to do other things too, like run a slave nameserver, cron jobs and whatever other small jobs I might find for it to do.
- Automated voice mail transcription — in English and assuming acceptable audio quality — emailed to a specified address would be nice. I see some of the various providers of virtual phone numbers now offering this in addition to emailing an audio file.
MY RESEARCH SO FAR
Lastly, research so far has led me to the following (specifically excluding anything over US$1000, although my budget is much less than that), in addition to various mass market mini PCs which wouldn't meet my requirements without heavy modification. My comments on these are included:
- IP0X IP-PBX (and others): http://www.rowetel.com/wordpress/?page_id=445
- The IP01 IP-PBX with a single-port FXO module looks like it would meet my minimum requirements, and the price is right.
- However, it looks like it might fall short on some of my additional requirements, particularly in that it's a single-purpose device, and not running a full Linux installation that I can use for other functions. I'm also concerned about storage for voice mails.
- Mini-Box M200-LCD (and others): http://www.mini-box.com/Mini-Box-M200-LCD
- This one had me excited six months ago, due to comments on another website I have since lost.
- However, besides the fact that it and others like it on the site are all "out of stock" (leading me to believe they're history), they'd obviously require some modification from the stock configurations to include VoIP hardware.
- trixbox CE Micro Appliance: http://www.888voipstore.com/trixbox-ce-micro-appliance.html
- This looks very cool, like a tiny machine with power and features to rival the notebook I use as my primary computer.
- Besides the fact that it's about twice my budget and the hard drive is probably not solid state, I'm confused about the lack of an RJ-11 port. Maybe I don't understand what this does compared to what I'm seeking. Any thoughts?
- PlugPBX: http://www.plugpbx.org
- Again, where's the RJ-11 input? It's all very cool getting an OS running on something the size of my wallet, but if you can't connect it to anything, what's the point?
- PIKA WARP Telephony Appliance: http://www.pikatechnologies.com/english/view.asp?x=347
- Looks good, although some reviews suggest it's overpriced for what you get.
- Can't seem to find anyone who actually sells this, but the one source I did find (and then lose) for pricing suggests this is two to three times my budget.
- I see systems from here referenced all the time, but I wouldn't know where to start with building a system with parts sourced here. Hardware is not my forte.
- Various other mini PCs:
- A dizzying array of options.
If you've made it this far, well done! Thanks in advance to anyone who can get me moving in the right direction. Much appreciated.