Do It Yourself PBX: Are You Up for the Asterisk Challenge?

What is a DIY Business Telephone Phone System?

In the old days, the business phone system was the odd duck in your company’s data closet. It was very important technology because it handled all of the company’s voice communications. However, voice occupied an area made for data and populated by IT personnel.  It was foreign to the data guys and they left the care and feeding to the voice specialists. The duck just sat in the corner.

Fast forward to the new century and a new player arrived. One that created a new business telephone system based upon known data technologies instead of proprietary telecom technologies. This player was Digium, the creator of the open source PBX.  They single-handedly created a market for the build-it-yourself PBX in their humble beginnings in 1999. Today, Asterisk has now gained worldwide acceptance. Organizations consider it because of its cost savings, flexibility, and unique feature attributes.

Like many other technical build projects, there are advantages and disadvantages to ‘rolling your own’ Asterisk phone system versus buying a turnkey solution

How to Build Your Own PBX Business Telephone System

Step 1:  Buy the Server

The Asterisk software is efficient and does not require a huge amount of computing resources. You can purchase a server that is adequate to support an Asterisk installation for less than $600

Step 2:  Install the Server Software

Begin by setting up a Linux operating system. In the past, this process was a bear but today, a Linux OS installation is relatively straight forward.  Depending on the version of software that you use, you may also need to install the following Open Source software:

  • kernel sources
  • kernel headers
  • bison
  • OpenSSL, OpenSSL dev
  • libnewt
  • MySQL, MySQL dev

Step 3: Install the Open Source PBX Software

You need to evaluate the three flavors of Asterisk commonly available and choose the version that best fits your needs. The leading Asterisk-derived products in this space are Elastix, PBX in a Flash (PiaF), and AsteriskNow. They all are all based on the Asterisk open source code, so they are more alike than different.


Elastix has the most refined interface and has lots of bells and whistles. They have a nice graphical user interface that is based upon the FreePBX open source software.  Further, Elastix is very popular internationally.

A listing of the popular features of Elastix:

  • Call recording
  • Conference center with virtual rooms
  • Voicemail-to-Email functionality
  • Voice synthesis support
  • Support for videophones
  • Callback support
  • Support for Bluetooth interfaces on cell phones
  • Support for call queues
  • Elastix Operator Panel (EOP)

Support:  Elastix provides support via a subscription model or on an on-demand basis, meaning that you pay as you go for support.


With over 1 million production systems worldwide, the FreePBX has the largest marketshare. Once You have a basic PBX in place you can add commercial modules to add advanced features to an already feature rich base install of FreePBX.  FreePBX also offers their PBXact commercial PBX sold and supported by FreePBX resellers.

A listing of the popular features of FreePBX

  • PBX Endpoint Manager
  • Call Center Builder
  • Outbound Dialer
  • Appointment Reminder
  • High Availability Option

Support:  Support is available via forums, hourly remote support or by a FreePBX reseller


AsteriskNOW is created and supported by Digium, the company that created Asterisk. It is a complete Linux distribution with Asterisk, the DAHDI driver framework, and the FreePBX administrative GUI.

It was built for application developers, systems integrators, students, hackers and others who want to create custom solutions with Asterisk.  AsteriskNOW is known in the community as the most reliable solution in Do It Yourself PBX.

A listing of the popular features of AsteriskNow:

  • Automated Attendant
  • Call Queuing
  • Call Recording
  • Conference Bridging
  • Database Store / Retrieve
  • Database Integration
  • Roaming Extensions
  • Spell / Say
  • Text-to-Speech (via Festival)

Support:   There are five different options for AsteriskNow support, including an option that has a guaranteed service level agreement (SLA), which is rare in the open source world.

Step 3: Connecting to the Outside World

If you plan on connecting to the public switched telephone network via analog lines or PRI, you need to add in the appropriate PTSN analog or digital gateway. Alternatively, you can utilize SIP Trunking, which has no hardware component. Beware that configuring PSTN gateways can be time-consuming.

Step 4:  Choose your Telephones

As Asterisk is based upon the Session Initiated Protocol (SIP) standard, you have your choice of business telephones from many different manufacturers.  That’s the fun part; so many choices, so many options. The challenge is in provisioning the telephones to work with your Asterisk system.  You should budget anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour per phone. Yes, it can be that challenging with firmware upgrades, multiple phone reboots, and the occasional bricked phone.  

Also, note that if you use phones from multiple manufacturers, factor in the learning time for each make and model of phone.

Advantages of DIY PBX

Besides the pure nerdy satisfaction you might get out of building your own PBX, the primary advantage of DIY PBX is, of course, cost. There is no cheaper way to go. The software is free and you can pick up decent server hardware for considerably less than a grand.  Plus, some Asterisk distribution providers offer preconfigured servers making the job easier.

The other advantages are flexibility and the ability to build out a feature set of exactly what you need. 

Disadvantages of DIY PBX 

DIY PBX requires the builder to have substantial technical skills. As Digium describes, “Asterisk is an application development framework. To build applications with Asterisk you should have basic understand of Linux/Unix system administration, be familiar with the fundamentals of VoIP and/or legacy telephony, and be comfortable with the basics of script programming.”

Also, you will need to understand PBX technologies and call handling features really well. Be mindful that there is also limited support. You get support from the open source developer community or you can purchase a support plan from the provider. When you do purchase support, it’s typically in the form of emails and being pointed to pertinent forums.  There is no handholding, nor is it likely that you will have access to a local vendor.


With the Do-it-Yourself PBX, your own phone company, and if you get into trouble, i.e. your phone system doesn’t work, you will need to fix it yourself. You will have a hard time finding a local vendor who will provide support and on-site service, as there is no business case to be made for supporting “free” PBXes. Vendors prefer to work on commercially developed products with strong manufacturer support.

So, is DIY PBX for you?  We’ve seen it work very well for many companies. They have a knowledgeable (trained and/or certified) Asterisk person on board and have the specific telecom skill sets in-house to support Asterisk. 

For organizations that just want to take the cheapest route possible and not consider the knowledge requirements necessary, the DIY PBX can be a big mistake.  When considering going down this road, you need to fully consider the responsibility you are taking on and weigh it against the savings. There is no single right or wrong answer, the right thing to do is based on your specific situation. 

Switchvox, the Superior Alternative to Asterisk?

If you’re in need of a business phone system without the perils of a DIY PBX solution for your San Francisco Bay Area business, there is a great solution that is neither Asterisk or a proprietary phone system. The Switchvox PBX is based upon the open source Asterisk but is a commercially engineered, turnkey PBX. If you’re interested in learning more about its benefits and features, we invite you to contact us for a Digium Switchvox consultation. We’d be happy to help you define and implement the best solution for your business communications needs.

Good Luck! 

We offer business-class communication solutions with responsive local support

To learn more, call us today at (510) 785-2480