Portions of this article were UPDATED July 20, 2016, mostly to include information about Raspivo.
To the best of our knowledge there are five projects that will allow you to run a PBX on a Raspberry Pi. They are:
In this discussion we are only going to consider the first four, because FusionPBX runs on top of FreeSWITCH, not Asterisk. And we have nothing against FreeSWITCH, but it’s never been big among home users and experimenters. Perhaps that should change, but for now we just want to consider the Asterisk-based distributions.
It does not seem as though µElastix ever really caught on with a significant group of English-speaking users, and therefore it would be difficult to offer any sort of opinion. But we will note that new users and those not all that familiar with Linux may have a bit more trouble with the installation process, since there is no image file provided as is the case for some other distributions. One potential advantage of µElastix is that it will run on a Raspberry Pi, PicoSam, or Mcuzone, though you are not likely to run into the latter two boards anywhere in North America.
As for Incredible PBX, this takes the typical Nerd Vittles/PBX in a Flash “throw in everything but the kitchen sink” approach, but then offers this ominous-sounding advice:
Here’s everything you need to know about security for Incredible Pi:
1. ALWAYS RUN INCREDIBLE PI BEHIND A SECURE HARDWARE-BASED FIREWALL/ROUTER
2. NEVER EXPOSE ANY INCREDIBLE PI PORTS DIRECTLY TO THE INTERNET
3. NEVER MAP INBOUND INTERNET PORTS FROM YOUR FIREWALL TO INCREDIBLE PI
What this basically means is that you can’t have any off-site extensions that register with your Asterisk server, if you heed their warning. Well, you CAN, but not in any way that’s convenient for end users. The problem apparently is that a few years ago someone connected with that project got hold of an article or two where someone got a huge phone bill by having an unsecured PBX, and had a major freakout about it. There were probably several security failures associated with those incidents, but here is our question: Since nobody in ANY other PBX project we’ve ever encountered gives advice like this, does this mean that Incredible PBX is incredibly insecure by design, and the only way to properly secure it is to take extraordinary steps such as these?
We’re not saying that all of this advice is out of line – the first point is probably a very good idea whenever possible – but most home users will be doing that anyway. But it’s #3 we particularly take issue with. If you want to have any external extensions, you pretty much need to forward UDP ports 5060 and 10000-20000 to your Asterisk server. And the Incredible PBX people specifically tell you not to do that, rather than recognizing that for some users that is simply not a viable option.
The other issue we have with Incredible PBX is that it includes a lot of what we would consider frivolous add-ons. The main reason people generally install a PBX is because they want to use it to make phone calls, and perform a few other basic functions such as record voicemail, let callers select a destination from an auto-attendant, and so on. All of these basic functions are provided by FreePBX, and all the other add-ons are pretty much useless unless you are just installing a PBX to play with features. We can just about guarantee you that 99 percent of your users will not care that they can dial a code and get tide reports, or some similar nonsense. On a regular server that has a lot of CPU power and storage space, having a bunch of extras may not be a problem. On a Raspberry Pi, however, you are probably going to want a lean, trim installation that doesn’t get in the way of the basic functionality of a PBX.
I’ve seen reports in mid-2016 that Incredible PBX will soon (and perhaps already does) offer a menu at installation where you can select which features you want. However you will need to choose carefully because if you reject an option and then later decide you want it, you might need to reinstall from scratch to get it. New users might not know which features are actually useful and which are needless bloat, but at least it appears some effort is underway to stop forcing users to take all or nothing.
Raspivo is based on XiVO, which has been around for a while but was relatively unknown in the English-speaking world until fairly recently. However it has generated a lot of interest due to users desiring an alternative to FreePBX, which seems to be getting less “free” (in all senses of that word) as time goes by. There is a discussion about XiVO on DSLReports that you may wish to read, which in turn contains several other useful links. My understanding is that the “official” English language translation of the installation instructions are somewhat out of date, so you may find that RonR’s instructions on DSLReports are easier to follow. Like FreePBX, XiVO is a GUI interface for Asterisk, so any custom dialplan you have written for another build of Asterisk should be usable (perhaps with minor modification) in Raspivo. It appears that you must have at least a Raspberry Pi 2 or newer to run Raspivo.
If you have no experience at all with software PBX’s and are just getting your feet wet, but you are not unfamiliar with programming, XiVO is the one I’d suggest. It makes repetitive tasks easier but doesn’t get in your way when you want to customize your system to the same degree that FreePBX does. However if you just want everything to be as easy as possible, and you never want to do any dialplan customizations (or only very limited ones), then you may want to consider Asterisk for Raspberry Pi, also known as RasPBX.
The RasPBX distribution includes Asterisk and FreePBX, with additional scripts that will optionally let you install HylaFAX and/or Fail2Ban. There is also a related version of this software for the BeagleBone Black. This software is relatively easy to install, comes with no ominous security warnings, and doesn’t include a lot of “bloatware”, which we think is a definite advantage. They also have a semi-active discussion forum where you can find several installation and usage tips. And it is possible to run RasPBX from an External USB HDD or Thumb Drive, in case you are worried that running a PBX off of an SD card might not be reliable, although there are ways to minimize writes to the SD card if you prefer not to have the added power drain of another device.
We realize that none of these distributions are absolutely perfect, and everyone will have their own reasons for picking one over another. The PBX in a Flash forum used to include a Raspberry Pi board, but it was apparently lost in their “Great server crash of 2013”, and they never bothered to reinstate it. So it seems that for them, the Raspberry Pi is just one of many platforms they are attempting to support, and it does not appear to us that they are making much of an attempt to optimize their software specifically for the Raspberry Pi. We might receive a few less than gracious comments for saying that, but that’s simply our observation, and others are free to disagree – we just recall the old saying, “Jack of all trades, master of none” and feel it might apply in the case of putting out a version of Incredible PBX for the Raspberry Pi that includes pretty much everything that the versions intended for larger servers include. For performance reasons, we’d prefer to stick with a distribution designed for the Raspberry Pi from the ground up, and therefore our preference has always been Asterisk for Raspberry Pi / RasPBX, though nowadays we’d suggest that anyone that wants to have complete control over their system might also consider Raspivo. Just be aware that the learning curve with Raspivo might be a bit steeper.
If you disagree, feel free to try any of the other distributions mentioned. That’s the nice thing about having choices – you can try various programs until you find one that meets your needs, and maybe even your wants.
One final point – since this article was originally written in 2013, new versions of the Raspberry Pi have appeared, and some of the above-mentioned software may have been updated to only run on newer models. Or they may run, but only painfully slowly, if you have an original Raspberry Pi. In particular, it appears that Raspivo will only run on the Raspberry Pi 2 or newer. So if you have a first-generation Raspberry Pi, pay attention to the system requirements for the software you are downloading, because you might need to seek out an alternate or older version of the software.