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Provisioning Sucks

Angry businesswoman shouting on phone in office.jpeg(And here’s what 2600hz is doing about it)

This is the recap of our Provisioning Q&A session featuring Andrew Nagy of Provisioner.net and Francis Genet, lead engineer on the 2600hz Provisioning project. If you dig this kind of stuff you should check out our next Q&A on Database Management here.

If you have ever dealt with phones, chances are you hate provisioning. If you do it manually, it is exceedingly tedious. If you do it automatically, it can be disastrous. Many organizations opt for a homogenous equipment mix, supporting only one Manufacturer with a proprietary provisioning solution because it works and that’s good enough.

Here at 2600hz, almost all of our clients run heterogeneous infrastructures, which means we have to handle all different manufacturers so we couldn’t use the proprietary solution. Second, we work with a lot of handsets and we realized pretty early on that manual provisioning wouldn’t work for us. So we did what any self-respecting group of telecom engineers would do: we built our own provisioner! And, since we’re awesome open-source citizens, we’ve made the code publicly available HERE too! Let’s take a look at the work we’ve done and why we’re doing it:

On the shoulders of Giants

It’s worth mentioning that we are hardly the only organization to wrestle with the realities of provisioning. Our work is based on Andrew Nagy’s Provisioner.net and, to quote Isaac Newton or Linus Torvalds, depending on who you ask, “If we have seen further, it is because we stand on the shoulders of Giants”. Before we start diving into what we consider the state-of-the-art, we’d like to acknowledge the great work our predecessors have done in bringing us to the point where what we’d like to achieve is possible. Alright, let’s dive in!

Why is this hard?

(Quick note: Cisco Handsets take up to 2.1 hours per phone to provision. That’s why having auto-provisioning is so important. Source)

It’s actually not that hard to provision a single phone, or even 100 phones. Hell, it’s not that hard to provision 1000 phones if they’re at the same site and the same manufacturer. See, routers have this awesome option called DHCP Option66 which lets you point phones en masse towards a provisioning server. All of the devices that connect to the router will receive a URL in a packet header that points the phone towards the config files. This is how the process works, but it’s worth diving into how this works over the WAN in a little more detail. Let’s lay out the process for setting up a handset over a Wide Area Network:

  1. Phone arrives brand new from factory
  2. Phone has Provisioning URL added to the on-Device GUI - This is DHCP66
  3. Provisioning server creates a provisioning profile for the handset containing all of the configuration files (MAC Address used for identification)
  4. The Phone is attached to the corporate network and attempts to connect to the provisioning URL in the GUI
  5. The provisioning server recognizes the MAC ID of the handset and sends the corresponding configuration files after authenticating the phone
  6. The phone receives the firmware and if this is a secure environment, performs a checksum on the configuration files to make sure they match
  7. If everything is Kosher, the phone will begin the update process. Once complete it will enter service.
  8. Every few minutes (days) or when the phone powers on, it will repeat this process starting at step 4

This process has to work every time for every handset. Now, one would think that after the 150 years of telecom that we’ve had, there might be some standardization between vendors but that’s certainly not the case with respect to provisioning. Every manufacturer has a different way crafting their provisioning files, even down to the number required to boot a phone or even the names of the files. It’s enough to drive a developer batty, but this is what we have to work with in Telecom. Seriously go look at the Polycom firmware grid; it’s like a forest of incompatible firmwares.

The Polycom Nightmare Grid

chart2600.png

If you want to present your users with simple-to-consume services, you must first conceal complexity. That’s a recurring theme in all the work we do at 2600hz, but it’s perhaps no more true than what we’re doing with respect to provisioning.

What are we doing about it?

At 2600hz, we believe in presenting simple interfaces for complex services. When we think of provisioning, we want our clients to experience a service that “just works”. We don’t allow folks to see firmware file names because we know what works with our servers. Power users can get this functionality back with trivial difficulty, but for the majority of use cases, the default settings are perfect. Here’s what our provisioning interface looks like in our GUI:

software2600.png

You’ll notice that we request a user to select a make and model of their phone, a name and a MAC address. The only piece of really specialized information is the MAC address; everything else is immediately obvious to the user. But provisioning the handset doesn’t govern how the handset might interact with the network. That’s why we’ve included some extra tools to take the experience just a bit further. Like take segregating Voice and Data traffic without physically separate ports. That’s hard to do without VLAN tags but who wants to manually go into each phone to program a VLAN? That’s complicated, and remember, 2600hz is all about hiding complexity:

software2-2600hz.png

Here you’ll see a place to enter a VLAN tag. It really is that simple to push VLANs to all of your clients equipment.

How do we hide all this complexity?

When you check new boxes in the management interface for provisioning your handset, we make on the fly changes to the provisioning file for that phone. If you want to have a Yealink T-22 change from 1 line to 2 lines, you can execute that change NOT with a site visit to your client, but with the click of a mouse. This dramatically reduces labor and wasted time in client site visits by eliminating unnecessary troubleshooting.

In summary

2600hz has built an awesome suite of provisioning tools for our clients to use in managing their systems. Provisioning is hard because hardware manufacturers make it hard, but that’s why there’s an opportunity for us to innovate in the first place. By concealing complexity from our clients, we make things run smoother and in a much more controllable fashion.

See our Powerpoint here:

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