Conversations with rant on Vocal
Hi, rant, thank you for taking the time to
read my diary entry and post a response to it. You make
some good points, but I think you also miss some points of
First of all, Vocal is released under a
license. Your comments don't make it clear whether you
understand this--you write as if Cisco were expecting help
with a closed application. I think you got the point, but
I figured I should repeat myself just in case you didn't.
I'll elaborate below.
Second, Vocal runs on Linux. You can sniff its
communications using ipgrab and
Tricorder. You don't need any dedicated
hardware to run a Vocal installation. Cisco route
rs are useful for peering to the "public" phone system,
but that's not necessary. You can route calls exclusively
over the Internet.
The last major point is that I'm more frustrated more with
lack of adoption than with lack of development. I didn't
really expect the free software community to start fixing
bugs in Vocal, adding features to it, or
otherwise contributing code. However, I'm a disappointed
that no one took the code and tried to make a running
installation--i.e. set up a server that would let people
make free phone calls. For various reasons, a Vocal
installation would be more flexible and offer a higher
coolness factor ;) than other no-cost telephony resources
Explaining all those reasons would entail a medium-sized
marketing campaign, which is part of my frustration: Cisco has chosen to market
to companies and not to the community. That strategy
probably makes good business sense--what volunteer-run free
Vocal installation is going to buy 200
3660s with voice modules? The business point of
Vocal is, again, to sell routers. Then again, it may not
be such a great strategy: Cisco may be underestimating the
long-term uptick in sales that widespread adoption would
bring. When Vovida started, our business people were
talking about being "the next Apache", the de facto
standard that dominates the market. Apache got where it is
was by scoring many, many installations by lovers of free
Anyway, sound or flawed, the Cisco strategy has not helped
solve the problem that the community does not use Vocal.
Few people have even heard of it; fewer know the benefits
of using it. As I wrote in my earlier entry, it gives you
all the flexibility that software gives you over hardware,
applied in the realm of telephony. That's probably the
best way to sum it up. If you can imagine doing something
with voice communications over the Internet, you can
implement it in Vocal. In many cases you don't even need
to hack C; you can just write VXML.
Having clarified the point about installations versus code
development, I'll switch to talking about code development,
since that seems to be the point of your comments:
Qbert: There are may reasons why "the
community" doesn't pick up such stuff:
Why should people work for free for Cisco or another
company? All too many companies think free software
developers are idiots. If a company wants to have that
stuff maintained, they should use their own resources.
Well, Cisco is definitely not standing still waiting for
free software hackers to do its work. It is using its own
resources. The current
Vocal release is about 12 MB, all of which was written
by developers at Vovida who now work at Cisco (modulo
layoffs), except for a couple of included libraries like
I'm not sure what you mean by stating All too many
companies think free software developers are idiots.
Are you saying that Cisco views free software developers as
idiots? If that's the case, why would Cisco solicit their
Maybe you mean that companies view free software hackers as
suckers rather than outright idiots, because they will work
on code for free. I think it's pretty obvious to Advogato
readers how contributing to a free project can benefit you
in the long run, so I won't belabor the reasons. How do
those reasons change if the free software was produced by a
company? It's still free, as are the changes you
In fact, you don't have to contribute your diffs to Cisco.
Software License is a nearly verbatim BSD license, so you can keep you changes
to yourself, share them with others but not with Cisco, or
even sell a closed product based on them. When we made the
decision to adopt the BSD license, we reasoned that people
would ultimately find it in their own interest to
contribute back changes. That way Vovida (now Cisco)
maintains the changes for free, keeping them in sync with
every new version; the onus of ongoing development is
removed from the contributer. We felt no need to coerce
people into contributing their changes by, e.g., licensing
Vocal under the GPL.
The telecommunications world is a closed world. Most of the
dino companys in that business would rather go bankrupt,
than sharing knowledge with each other. Free software is
alien to them, and doesn't fit into their culture. As a
consequence, they don't give anything back to the
community. Why should the community give something to them?
You're right, the telecommunications world is largely
closed. It's a problem. I don't see why you should make
the situation worse by penalizing the one company that is
trying to do things right by offering a major open-sourced
If you're saying that this is part of the reason no telecom
companies have worked on Vocal and given changes back to
Cisco, you're right. If you're saying we should punish the
telecom industry at large by refusing to contribute to a
application even though it's open-source, I don't
understand you. It's comments like this one that make me
wonder whether you missed the fact that Vocal is free
There is no incentive in working at that code. No fame to
gain, no recognition, no itch to go away.
That may be true. On the one hand, there's a large
codebase already. No is going to become famous for writing
Vocal; it's already been done. Hmmmmmmnn. I think you may
have hit on one big reason free projects by commercial
companies receive so little developer attention. On the
other hand, it doesn't explain why people continue to make
small contributions to Linux and FreeBSD. Maybe we're
dealing with two different kinds of fame-seekers here. One
kind wants to write a major project with relatively little
help. The other is content to contribute to an already-
famous project (which is almost always much more useful).
Neither kind would want to contribute to Vocal, since it's
not famous. Maybe if more free software developers worked
on Vocal it would be more famous, but we have a chicken-and-
egg problem with these particular coders who are motivated
On the other hand, I do think the first free Vocal
installation could cause a stir. Imagine the coolness
value of announcing, "Here's a server you can use to talk
with your friends long-distance. It's free, like IRC. Oh,
by the way, it's based entirely on open-source software."
I also think there are itches to scratch with free voice
over IP applications. How about the ability to talk to
relatives in other countries for free? Hmmmnn, that sounds
pretty appealing to me. Sure, you can do it with Dialpad et al.,
but you can also serve HTTP with Cern or one of these.
You can do it better with Vocal, just as you can do it
better with Apache.
People in need for such stuff are usually working for the
Ay, there's the rub. We hoped that we could widen the
interest to include people who don't write telecom software
for a living. So far, we've failed. We also hoped we
could convince competitors or partners to use our software,
since it's free, standards-compliant, already written and
tested, and high-quality. If we could get them to use
Vocal, we would know that we had systems that were
compatible with Cisco's SIP-
running routers, which would mean we might be able to sell
some routers. Hardware competitors would want to use their
SIP-running routers instead, but software competitors...
Well, they'd have to add some value to compete with our
free product, but if they could do that, they could keep
that value proprietary and buy our routers. It remains to
be seen how well this strategy will work.
They have their own systems and implementations to take
care of. Which is already difficult and tedious, even if
you have full control over the development process. Why
should people work on competetor's stuff?
Well, it depends. If you're using your own legacy
codebase, you'll probably find it easier to build on that,
instead of using Vocal. On the other hand, if you're
starting from scratch and you need the functionality of one
of the many protocols for
which Vocal provides stacks, or if you want a
softswitch, why would you not use Vocal?
You see, part of our strategy was to enable new service
providers to rise and challenge the "dinos" of circuit-
switched telephony, as you rightly call them. We wanted to
create "disruptive" software. In this respect, we've been
moderately successful. At least one company is
offering professional services for Vocal (among other voice
over IP software). We also hoped that ISPs would adopt our
software and use it as a competitive edge, since vanilla
Internet service is so commoditized.
Voice over IP Signalling Protocols
Telecommunication protocols are huge, complex, and
described in fscking pervers standards.
I don't know, what's so bad about telecom standards? H.323 is admittedly pretty gnarly, since it
depends on ASN.1
encoding. (H.323 is also not an open standard by my
standards ;) , since you have to pay the ITU to view the
specs, let alone to contribute to their definition). SIP was
invented partly as a fix to these problems. It uses text,
so it's human-readable on the wire. In fact, it's designed
to mimic HTTP
for maximum readability and ease of implementation. It's
an IETF standard, so it's as open as you can get. Try
reading the specification; it's remarkably simple. I read
it during my first week at Vovida and grokked it right
away, with no experience in protocol design or telephony
(just a general programming background from college).
It's no accident that Cisco chose SIP as its preferred
standard for voice over IP. Around mid-1999 the industry
at large made the same choice, for the same reasons.
Why should people expose themself to that pain without at
least getting paid?
Why should people write any software without getting paid?
Do you think that the W3C standards Mozilla uses are
less "perverse" than SIP? Yet Mozilla gets a lot more
attention from hackers and users than Vocal. Something
else is going on.
You don't get most of the standard documents for free. Why
pay a fortune for this horrible stuff out of your own
Well, that's an excellent point. It's a pity that H.323 is
not free. On the other hand, MGCP and SIP are.
You need just one to implement a full soft switch; they're
competing protocols. (You know, the great thing about
standards is there are so many to choose from. ;) ) As I
mentioned before, SIP is winning, largely because it is the
easiest for humans to understand.
People just don't have the equipmment to test or make use
of the protocols. When was the last time you build your own
terminals or switches? How many real time protocol
analysers do you have at home?
You don't need a hardware real-time protocol analyser; you
can use ipgrab
and Tricorder. Likewise,
Vocal runs under Linux, not on
Anyway, thanks again for reading my diary and responding.
It's good to have feedback; it's certainly stimulated me to
add some detail about Vocal, and it's helped me see where I
omitted information I should have included (e.g. the bit
about VXML.) If
nothing else, at least one more
person is paying attention to Vocal