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Welcome To Zapata Telephony!

zapata-telephone.jpg (25235 bytes)
Gen. Emiliano Zapata, our inspiration

Zapata Telephony, dedicated to bringing the world a much-needed reasonable and affordable Computer Telephony platform, and hence a revolution in the arena of Computer Telephony. Updated July 2009.

Click Here for the original (Ancient, circa 2002) Zapata Telephony Website

Click Here to see one thing I (Jim Dixon) have been working on for the past few years

History of Zapata Telephony and how it relates to Asterisk PBX
By Jim Dixon, WB6NIL <>

About 25-30 or so years ago, AT&T started offering an API (well, one to an extent, at least) allowing users to customize functionality of their Audix voicemail/attendant system which ran on an AT&T 3BX usually 3B10) Unix platform. This system cost thousands of dollars a port, and had very limited functionality.

In an attempt to make things more possible and attractive (especially to those who didnt have an AT&T PBX or Central Office switch to hook Audix up to) a couple of manufacturers came out with a card that you could put in your PC, which ran under MS-DOS, and answered one single POTS line (loopstart FXO only). These were rather low quality, compared with today's standards (not to mention the horrendously pessimal environment in which they had to run), and still cost upwards of $1000 each. Most of these cards ended up being really bad sounding and flaky personal answering machines.

In 1985 or so, a couple of companies came out with pretty-much decent 4 port cards, that cost about $1000 each (wow, brought the cost down to $250 per port!). They worked MUCH more reliably then their single port predecessors, and actually sounded pretty decent, and you could actually put 6 or 8 of them in a fast 286 machine, so a 32 port system was easy to attain. As a result the age of practical Computer Telephony had begun.

As a consultant, I have been working heavily in the area of Computer Telephony ever since it existed. I very quickly became extremely well- versed in the hardware, software and system design aspects of it. This was not difficult, since I already had years of experience in non-computer based telephony.

After seeing my customers (who deployed the systems that I designed, in VERY big ways) spending literally millions of dollars every year (just one of my customers alone would spend over $1M/year alone, not to mention several others that came close) on high density Computer Telecom hardware.

It really tore me apart to see these people spending $5000 or $10000 for a board that cost some manufacturer a few hundred dollars to make. And furthermore, the software and drivers would never work 100% properly. I think one of the many reasons that I got a lot of work in this area, was that I knew all the ways in which the stuff was broken, and knew how to work around it (or not).

In any case, the cards had to be at least somewhat expensive, because they had to contain a reasonable amount of processing power (and not just conventional processing, DSP functionality was necessary), because the PC's to which they were attached just didnt have much processing power at that time.

Very early on, I knew that someday in some "perfect" future out there over the horizon, it would be commonplace for computers to handle all of the necessary processing functionality internally, making the necessary external hardware to connect up to telecom interfaces VERY inexpensive and in some cases trivial.

Accordingly, I always sort of kept a corner of an eye out for what the "Put on your seatbelts, youve never seen one this fast before" processor throughput was becoming over time, and in about the 486-66DX2 era, it looked like things were pretty much progressing at a sort of fixed exponential rate. I knew, especially after the Pentium processors came out, that the time for internalization of Computer Telephony was going to be soon, so I kept a much more watchful eye out.

I figured that if I was looking for this out there, there *must* be others thinking the same thing, and doing something about it. I looked, and searched and waited, and along about the time of the PentiumIII-1000 (100 MHz Bus) I finally said, "gosh these processors CLEARLY have to be able to handle this".

But to my dismay, no one had done anything about this. What I hadn't realized was that my vision was 100% right on, I just didnt know that *I* was going to be one that implemented it.

In order to prove my initial concept I dug out an old Mitel MB89000C "ISDN Express Development" card (an ISA card that had more or less one-of-everything telecom on it for the purpose of designing with their telecom hardware) which contained a couple of T-1 interfaces and a cross-point matrix (Timeslot- Interchanger). This would give me physical access from the PC's ISA bus to the data on the T-1 timeslots (albeit not efficiently, as it was in 8 bit I/O and the TSI chip required MUCHO wait states for access).

I wrote a driver for the kludge card (I had to make a couple of mods to it) for FreeBSD (which was my OS of choice at the time), and determined that I could actually reliably get 6 channels of I/O from the card. But, more importantly, the 6 channels of user-space processing (buffer movement, DTMF decoding, etc), barely took any CPU time at all, thoroughly proving that the 600MHZ PIII I had at the time could probably process 50-75 ports if the BUS I/O didnt take too much of it.

As a result of the success (the 'mie' driver as I called it) I went out and got stuff to wire wrap a new ISA card design that made efficient use of (as it turns out all of) the ISA bus in 16 bit mode with no wait states. I was successful in getting 2 entire T-1's (48 channels) of data transferred over the bus, and the PC was able to handle it without any problems.

So I had ISA cards made, and offered them for sale (I sold about 50 of them) and put the full design (including board photo plot files) on the Net for public consumption.

Since this concept was so revolutionary, and was certain to make a lot of waves in the industry, I decided on the Mexican revolutionary motif, and named the technology and organization after the famous Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. I decided to call the card the "tormenta" which, in Spanish, means "storm", but contextually is usually used to imply a "*BIG* storm", like a hurricane or such.

That's how Zapata Telephony started.

I wrote a complete driver for the Tormenta ISA card for *BSD, and put it out on the Net. The response I got, with little exception was "well that's great for BSD, but what do you have for Linux?"

Personally, Id never even seen Linux run before. But, I can take a hint, so I went down to the local store (Fry's in Woodland Hills) and bought a copy of RedHat Linux 6.0 off the shelf (I think 7.0 had JUST been released but was not available on shelf yet). I loaded it into a PC, (including full development stuff including Kernel sources). I poked around in the driver sources until I found a VERY simple driver that had all the basics, entry points, interfaces, etc (I used the Video Spigot driver for the most part), and used it to show me how to format (well at least to be functional) a minimal Linux driver. So, I ported the BSD driver over to Linux (actually wasnt *that* difficult, since most of the general concepts are roughly the same). It didnt have support for loadable kernel modules (heck what was that? in BSD 3.X you have to re-compile the Kernel to change configurations. The last system I used with loadable drivers was VAX/VMS.) but it did function (after you re-compiled a kernel with it included). Since my whole entire experience with Linux consisted of installation and writing a kernel module, I *knew* that it *had* to be just wrong, wrong, wrong, full of bad, obnoxious, things, faux pauses, and things that would curl even a happy Penguin's nose hairs.

With this in mind, I announced/released it on the Net, with the full knowledge that some Linux Kernel dude would come along, laugh, then barf, then laugh again, then take pity on me and offer to re-format it into "proper Linuxness".

Within 48 hours of its posting I got an email from some dude in Alabama (Mark Spencer), who offered to do exactly that. Not only that he said that he had something that would be perfect for this whole thing (Asterisk).

At the time, Asterisk was a functional concept, but had no real way of becoming a practical useful thing, since it didnt, at that time, have a concept of being able to talk directly (or very well indirectly for that matter, being that there wasnt much, if any, in the way of practical VOIP hardware available) to any Telecom hardware (phones, lines, etc). Its marriage with the Zapata Telephony system concept and hardware/driver/ library design and interface allowed it to grow to be a real switch, that could talk to real telephones, lines, etc.

Additionally Mark has nothing short of brilliant insight into VOIP, networking, system internals, etc., and at the beginning of all this had a great interest in Telephones and Telephony. But he had limited experience in Telephone systems, and how they work, particularly in the area of telecom hardware interfaces. From the beginning I was and always have been there, to help him in these areas, both providing information, and implementing code in both the drivers and the switch for various things related to this. We, and now more recently others have made a good team (heck I ask him stuff about kernels, VOIP, and other really esoteric Linux stuff all the time), working for the common goal of bringing the ultimate in Telecom technology to the public at a realistic and affordable price.

Since the ISA card, I designed the "Tormenta 2 PCI Quad T1/E1" card, which Mark marketed as the Digium T400P and E400P, and others have and still are as different part numbers, also). All of the design files (including photo plot files) are available on the this website for public consumption.

As anyone can see, with Mark's dedicated work (and a lot of Mine and other people's) on the Zapata Telephony drivers (now called "DAHDI") and the Asterisk software, the technologies have come a long, long way, and continue to grow and improve every day.

"We don't need no stinkin' DSP!!"

Zapata Technology -- Design Philosophy

The Zapata Technology is based upon the concept that computer hardware is now fast enough to handle all processing for computer telephony applications, including that which was traditionally limited to DSP's and embedded controllers.

DSP's are optimized for signal processing applications and functions, and do so far more efficiently then traditional general-purpose processors, such as those found in PC's and standard computer systems. Despite their serious advantage in these types of applications, they have many logistical deficiencies that often make their use far out of reach of the common mortal. These deficiencies include entirely proprietary architectures, both hardware and software, requiring specialized knowledge and experience, not to mention extremely specialized (and way way expensive) development hardware and software. As a result, the use of DSP's has become limited to environments where the extreme expense of the requirements of their use (both development environment and personnel/expertise, and in some cases the DSP parts themselves) can be recovered.

Unfortunately, what this also does, is completely discourage the open-source concept in any of these technologies, since it would be impossible to recover high costs, and even if source code for DSP's was made available,very few could afford the equipment necessary to develop it.

The Zapata Technology is an attempt to address these issues. Even the simplest personal computers are quite fast these days. Even if DSP-style processing is only possible in an inefficient manner (on this type of architecture), and bus-I/O is HORRIBLY SLOW (for example, on a 48 port system with the Tormenta ISA card, a 550Mhz Pentuim-III system spends OVER 1/3 of its time halted, waiting for bus-I/O to complete), there still is plenty of time for applications to run and operate in a reasonable manner. Certainly it is a horrible waste of processor time, but it would certainly appear the the serious advantages of this approach outweigh the wastes. Besides, processors are getting faster all the time. As a result, the waste and inherent architectural inefficiencies will become less of an issue over time. In addition, a PCI version of the card helps this a great deal.

The truly beautiful part of this technology is that since all processing takes place within the main CPU(s), there is absolutely minimal hardware necessary (just enough to make the T-1 data accessible via the bus), keeping costs to an absolutely unprecedented minimum (various commercial solutions list at about $10,000.00 US, give or take a couple thousand. The Tormenta ISA card used to cost $275.00 US when we were selling it directly). In addition, it allows all development issues to be put in the hands of literally anyone inclined to do so. It requires no specialized development environment or knowledge, being merely yet another driver and library, just like all the ones for other types of hardware. The Tormenta ISA card contained entirely off-the-shelf available parts, none of which require programming, thus allowing for construction by anyone (you didn't have to buy it from us, or anyone else).

Where we are now

Zapata Technology has now been used by and included in a number of software packages and a number of companies now produce Zapata Technology-Compatible hardware. It has indeed started a revolution in telephony technology and the telephony business model.

We have made a significant contribution in the area of entirely changing the face and direction of telephony, and have very much succeeded in making reasonable telephony at reasonable price available to all people, everywhere.

It's very encouraging to see that this project has met with such sucess in the last 10 years or so, and we can only hope for much more use and improvements in the years to come.

"¡Viva Zapata!"


We wish to thank the following people for their gracious contributions to this project, or whose work has greatly contributed to this technology:

David Kramer, Todd Lesser, Jim Gottlieb, Steve RoDgers, Joe Talbot, John Higdon, Clint Kennedy, Steve Thomas, Steve Underwood, Tony Fisher (may he rest in peace), Jesus Arias, Mark Balliet, Christian Mock, Christopher Lee Fraley, Julius Smith, Joe Campbell, the unknown person who wrote the ADPCM converter routines, and of course, Mark Spencer and Digium.

And Let us not forget to properly acknowledge the help of Linus Torvalds for bringing us Linux, and providing us with such helpful encouragement such as:

"Hmm.. Sounds like somebody has designed a truly crappy card. Everything is allowable in the name of being cheap, I guess ;)"
-- Linus Torvalds, Feb 5 2001

See original post on Linux Kernel Mailing List


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