Posts Tagged xml

Upgrading from Cisco

In case you weren’t aware, I am a VoIP nutcase.  I have an Asterisk phone system at home, and all the phones in the house are VoIP of some description (either real VoIP devices or analogue handsets through an ATA).  While I haven’t converted to VoIP as a replacement for PSTN, I have some connectivity to VoIP providers both here and overseas (and soon to be more, to help the phone-home situation while I’m overseas).

I’ve been a user of Cisco IP phones, buying 7960s and a couple of 7970s through a well-known internet site (maybe it starts with an “e”, not sure).  The phones have been excellent, and I’ve even written a few XML apps to supplement their use here.  The 7960s are getting a bit dated now, however, and I found myself contemplating buying 7971s (or even something newer, like the 7965 or 7975).  Before I committed myself further into the relationship with Cisco, though, I thought about what I was really getting out of using Cisco phones.

Like many users of second-hand Cisco gear, I only purchased the hardware.  I do occasionally succumb to a nagging feeling of being an “outlaw” (at least in the eyes of Cisco), but admittedly that feeling usually only comes when I find out that Cisco has released another new version of SIP software that I can’t get because I haven’t paid for SmartNet.  The last time I had this thought though, I had a realisation: even if I did pay for SmartNet, the only thing I’d get would be the firmware: Cisco will only support their phone software when connected to their CallManager server (yes, even the SIP firmware).  Anyone running Cisco phones against anything other than CUCM gets no support from Cisco in the event something doesn’t work–and based on the information floating around, the problems are many.

So basically I would be paying Cisco to allow me to run one of the worst SIP implementations in embedded existence, with no opportunity to report problems with it in my environment.  Hmm, let me think about that for a minute…

At around the same time, I happened across the NerdVittles site, and in particular the post where NerdUno nominated the Aastra 57i as the “World’s Best Asterisk Phone“.  I started to do some research into it, and was astounded at the level of support the manufacturer (a Canadian company which a few years ago acquired the telephony business of a little mob called Nortel) and the community provide for this phone and Asterisk.  Looking through the phone manual, I found functions that only work with Asterisk! I found a full set of integration scripts that provide XML applications, right through to automatic provisioning tools.  Possibly the best thing was that on the product page for their phones — right there on the page that descibes the product — are links to current versions of firmware, documentation, XML application development guides, even a Linux-based application to encrypt the phone configuration files.  Not hidden in some obscure hard-to-find portal, or behind a registration-only support site.

I started to think of the possibilities…  I’d be able to freely modify the phone configuration (even via a HTTP interface if I so chose), without having to make trial-and-error changes to a cryptic and totally undocumented configuration file.  I’d be able to write XML apps without having to do laborious debugging to cater for why the parser was choking on XML that was perfectly okay according to the documentation but apparently tripped over an undocumented field length restriction or character encoding limitation.  I could get access to things like Visual Voicemail, BLF, integration with Asterisk functions like day/night mode and call parking.  I could keep the phones up-to-date for new functions and bug fixes.  With a click of a mouse I could get proper Australian tones!

So, I decided to give one a try.  Finding nothing on that “e” site I went looking for a vendor locally, and found several places that would sell one to me (legitimate e-tailers, no less!  Zounds!  A VoIP phone with a warranty?  You jest!).  It took a while for my chosen vendor to source it for me, but I’ve had it now for a couple of weeks.  It’s probably going to take a while for it to live up to it’s full potential in my installation, but since that potential is so much greater than what I have been able to do with the Ciscos I think I’m already ahead.

More in the coming weeks as the Aastra settles in.

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BOM Radar for Cisco 7970

I’ve written an XML app to display rain radar images from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology on the screen of a graphics-capable Cisco IP phone. It seemed like it would be simple to do, and I couldn’t work out really why no-one had done it. Well it wasn’t hard to do, but I can see now why it hadn’t been done…

While the screen of the 7970 looks nice on it’s own, and is certainly a drastic improvement over the 7940/7960, it doesn’t have the resolution to be able to display anything useful other than text and simple images. The BOM images are 524×564, while the largest image the Cisco can show is 298×168.

Here’s an example of my app in action:


Because the phone’s image viewer can’t scroll a large image I’ve had to scale and crop it, losing a fair amount of detail in the process (I did try just scaling it to fit the entire image, but it was totally useless to view). Plus, one of the key attractions of the BOM radar site is the animated images, and the phone has no way to display animations.

So what do you think, lazyweb? I’ve learned a bit more about coding Cisco XML apps, but other than that have I wasted my time? I will put it up on my Projects site eventually (once I’ve put in some more error handling etc), but let me know with a comment here…

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Cisco XML apps: things made of fail

Since I have a few Cisco phones around here, I’ve played with XML apps. I have written a timezone calculator, an LDAP phone directory lookup utility (which hooks into the “external directory” function of the phones), an app that uses Qantas’ WAP interface to get flight arrival/departure information, and the obligatory RSS reader. They work, in some cases very well, but the inconsistency of the XML interface between different levels of the Cisco firmware makes it a trying exercise.

My latest exercise was an update to the RSS reader I’ve used for ages. I found RSS2Cisco ages ago and have used it quite successfully, but I’ve never really been satisfied with its way of displaying the whole feed in one text page. It works well for news feeds, where all you get is a headline and a teaser, but for things like blogs it’s not suitable (you’re lucky to get through one posting before hitting the limit of a Cisco XML text page). I wanted an interface like a “normal” RSS reader, where it lists the items in the feed in a menu and you then choose an item to be displayed.

Sounded simple, and wasn’t too hard to hack rss2cisco around to make it do my bidding (it’s not optimal yet as every time you read an item it pulls down the entire feed again). The problem I faced was in making the thing work consistently between the 7960 phones and the 7970s.

All my phones are running fairly recent SIP code, but for some reason the 7960 has an ancient XML parser. By ancient, I mean that the level of the XML SDK it supports is tied back to Call Manager 3.0. The 7970s, on the other hand, have support for a much more recent SDK and support some of the fancy operations that you can’t do on a 7960 unless you’re running SCCP firmware. At first I thought that there might have been a hardware limitation and that Cisco couldn’t fit the extra smarts of a client for later SDKs, but the SCCP code can’t be that much simpler than SIP that they’d have more room to fit a better XML browser and all the other features the SCCP code has over SIP…

So the SIP firmware for 7960 has a junk XML browser. You’d think, then, that the 7970 was easier to work with than the 7960… Wrong! Valid XML that worked quite happily on the 7960 would fail with a cryptic “XML Error[4]: Parse Error” message. It took quite a bit of time and quite a bit of trial-and-error to work out some of the dependencies (32 seems to be a magic number, folks…).

Call Manager XML (CMXML) is supposed to be really simple, but I can only imagine how complex it might get to deliver an app with a consistent interface if you had a number of different phone models to support — I have only two, and I’m looking at two different versions of my app!

In their defence, Cisco have provided a way for the phone to identify itself and its SDK level when it makes a request. A set of HTTP headers identify the device, and one specifically states the SDK version supported by the phone client. Reading these headers would allow a developer to adjust the output of their app to cater for the various phones — one app, but multiple output capabilities.

It strikes me though as a heck of a lot of work for limited return. These are phones intended for corporate installations, so it’s almost a given that there will be a full-function computer at the same desk. Why would a company invest that much effort developing and supporting an internal application for a single platform that’s tied to desks, when they could write it as a web app and deliver it practically anywhere? I’m starting to see why the Internet is not exactly awash with sites selling CMXML apps…

Having said that though, I love my timezone calculator. With three button presses I can find out the time in any of my six favourite timezones, and I can find any timezone in the world with only a few more presses. An application somewhere on the web couldn’t be anywhere near that speedy for me, and a desktop app would have to be some kind of widget already running and configured (or be the KDE Clock applet, all it takes is a mouseover… shame I’m stuck with GNOME for my work desktop).

So I’m not too keen to apply much development effort to my XML apps. I will stick them on my development site some time soon, but I don’t think it’s worth the effort to keep them functional. The Qantas one, for instance, is totally dependent on the URL and query format of the Qantas WAP application, which is obviously subject to change at any time. I wonder sometimes if a WAP-XML gateway would be useful, but then I think about the effort of writing a system to translate pages delivered over a dying protocol to an interface that never got off the ground…

In case you’re curious what the RSS reader looks like:

and something a bit more voluminous from my blog:

Yes, I am a bit proud of it, even though it’s rubbish… 😉

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