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Thread: Building an AllStar Link Node

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    Default Building an AllStar Link Node

    BACKGROUND

    In August 2010 I finally tackled a "To-Do" list item that had been sitting on the back shelf since the first part of the year. I was introduced to IRLP/Echolink shortly after getting my Amateur License in 2007. I found a significant benefit to being able to connect around the world using a simple VHF or UHF radio and a DTMF microphone. Fast-forward to early 2010, I ran across the website for the AllStar Link system and immediately became interested in building a node.

    AllStar Link combines the best features of Echolink, IRLP, an autopatch, and a high-end repeater controller into a simple, freely obtainable software package that can be quickly installed and set up, utilizing a variety of computer and radio hardware combinations. Since much of the "heavy lifting" is done in software, the cost of setting up an AllStar Link node is very low, especially compared to setting up a similar station using traditional hardware-based methods. I set up an AllStar Link node complete with VOIP autopatch for less than $300 in parts and less than 48 hours of my time.

    GETTING STARTED

    Before you get started on this project, there are a number of websites you should visit to get background information and specifics on various aspects of creating an AllStar Link node:

    AllStar Link System - http://www.allstarlink.org/

    This website is the home of the AllStar Link system. In addition to everything you need to know about the AllStar Link system, this website will also allow you to create your own custom configuration files you can download to your AllStar Link node computer.

    The Repeater Builder's Technical Information Page- http://www.repeater-builder.com/rbtip/

    This website contains virtually everything you need to know about building a repeater system. Specifically, this site is an indispensable source of information for configuring commercial-grade radios for amateur use. Commercial radios are ideal for repeater/node use due to their rugged construction, affordable prices (used), and their abundance.

    DMK Engineering - http://www.dmkeng.com/

    This website is the home of DMK Engineering, the makers of the USB Radio Interface (URI). The URI is the quickest, and easiest way to connect your radio to your AllStar Link node computer.

    QRV Communications - http://app-rpt.qrvc.com/

    This website has an excellent documentation section on configuring Asterisk (the PBX software behind AllStar Link) via the "How-To" links on the right side of the webpage. There you will find a complete library of configuration explanations for the various features of Asterisk. This is not a bad place to start reading if you're new to AllStar - it will quickly give you an idea of the potential uses of an AllStar Link system.

    SELECTING HARDWARE

    There are three major hardware components to any AllStar Link system: radio/antenna, computer-radio interface, and computer. In this section I'll first cover some of the available options with each portion of the system, then discuss in detail my specific configuration:

    Radio

    The AllStar Link system is easily used with a wide variety of radios. Any radio is suitable for basic use as long as you can tap into audio out of the radio (external speaker or headphone jack) and can put audio back into the radio (microphone jack.) Commercial radios with utility pinouts on the back add a number of additional features that are useful for a heavy-duty setup, but almost any radio will work with the AllStar Link system. If you are considering a commercial radio, spend time at Repeater Builders doing research on your selected radio. Many radios may require hardware modifications to work in the amateur bands, and you'll want to be familiar with the programming software requirements/limitations of your selected radio prior to purchase. Some radios are much easier to work with than others - do your homework!

    Computer-Radio Interface

    As mentioned above, the DMK URI is definitely the quickest, easiest, and best documented solution for getting your node on the air. At $69.95/unit, it's also the mid-priced option for making the connection. There are three main ways of making this connection. For commercial applications, you'll want to look at the Quad-Radio PCI Card (http://qrvc.com/radiocards.html), which allows up to four radios to be connected to a single Server computer. At $895.00 per card, this option is best reserved for clubs, or commercial-grade repeater systems. On the low end of things, a USB sound fob with a CM108 chipset (easily obtainable at a popular Internet auction website for less than $10.00) may be hand-modified to function as a radio interface (http://app-rpt.qrvc.com/node/27). Although less expensive than a DMK URI, creating your own interface is a time-consuming process, and unless you are sure the USB sound fob you are purchasing has a CM108, CM109, or CM119 chipset in it, you may create more frustration trying to build your own interface than is worth the few extra dollars you'll spend on the neatly fabricated and well-documented DMK URI. Fortunately the three pricing tiers and performance levels pretty much cover the amateur spectrum, so you're sure to find the one that fits you.

    Computer

    A wide variety of computers will fit the bill for an AllStar Link node. There are two major ways to run the system: a traditional desktop computer running the ACID Linux distribution, or a mini-ITX computer running Limey Linux. I'll discuss both options briefly:

    a) The ACID Linux option is well-suited for those who have a spare desktop sitting around and want to use it for their AllStar Link node. If you choose to go this route, a computer with USB 2.0, a 1.2GHz Processor, and at least 512MB of RAM is recommended. The ACID install takes up about 1.6GB of hard disk space, so anything 2GB or over should work well. (You could probably even install this to a USB drive and run it, although I haven't tried it.)

    b) The Limey Linux option was designed to be installed on a bootable CompactFlash card and run on a mini-ITX form factor motherboard. Mini-ITX is well suited to many remote, dusty, dirty mountain-top locations, as most mini-ITX boards are fanless (large heat sink, but no moving parts) and can run off an OS placed on a CompactFlash card (also no moving parts.) Via chipset mini-ITX boards should be avoided, as they aren't powerful enough to run the USB bus at a rate which will guarantee communication-grade audio. The newer Intel boards seem to have good support with Limey.

    MY INSTALLATION

    IMG_20100831_113015.jpg

    For my radio hardware, I purchased a pair of Kenwood TK-830 32-channel UHF radios off a popular commercial auction site for about $60 (including shipping). I obtained the programming software from the same website, and searched the Internet briefly for a programming cable for the radio which I found at kawamall.com for almost as little as I'd pay to build the cable myself. (Pinouts for most cables are available at Repeater Builder's or via other online resources.)

    My node uses a Jetsream JTB-2 VHF/UHF antenna which has about 8dBi gain on UHF. If you're creating a "backyard node", don't skimp on a node antenna, as gain and height are the two factors that will give range to your setup.

    To connect the radio to the URI, you will have to build your own custom cable. The URI connects to your computer with an included USB cable. The other end of the URI accepts a DB25 connector. The pinout for that connector is listed right on the URI. The other end of the DB25 cable will be a custom connector(s) that will vary from radio to radio. Pinouts for commercial radio connectors are generally available at Repeater Builders, or via a web search.

    IMG_20100831_180835.jpg

    The computer I am currently using is a spare tower and 8GB hard disk I had sitting in the garage. I used a monitor and keyboard for the initial node software install, but once the software is installed, the ACID distro automatically configures SSH, so you can remote into the box via Linux CLI or PuTTY from a Windows machine.

    I already had an active VOIP account since that's what I use as my primary home phone service. If you don't already have a VOIP service provider, you can pay $5/mo. to the AllStar Link folks and they'll get you an unlimited account which is configurable via the AllStar Link website. (See the website for details.)

    The AllStar Link system allows an AllStar Link node to function as an AllStar, Echolink, and IRLP node all at the same time. Once properly set up, you can use your AllStar Link node to access nodes on any of these three systems with a few DTMF presses. Conversely, others can easily connect via any of these systems to your node. Internet linking has never been easier than with AllStar Link systems.

    ACCOUNTING

    Here's a quick rundown of the cost of my system:

    Two Kenwood TK-830 radios: $60 (used)
    DMK Engineering URI: $69.95 (new)
    Laptop to program radios: $25 (used)
    Radio programming cable: $6 (new)
    URI-radio cable components: $10 (DB25 & Molex connectors)
    JTB-2 antenna & coax: $100 (new)
    Computer: $0 (Recycled spare parts)
    Linksys WRT54G Router: $25 (used)

    Grand Total: $295.95

    SUMMARY

    Overall, I really enjoyed building my AllStar Link node and am amazed at the capability it brings at such an affordable price. I hope this how-to gets you motivated to experiment with an AllStar Link node of your own. It was a great amateur radio growing experience for me, and I hope you find the same.

    73 & see you on the Link,
    Kurt
    KE7KUS
    AllStar Node 27115
    Echolink Node 504516

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    Default Allstar Link Update

    Apparently, as of yesterday, Dave Cameron, VE7LTD, the inventor of IRLP, has requested that all support for IRLP connectivity be removed from the AllStar Link system. The source code has been amended and AllStar Link now supports Echolink and native AllStar node connections.

    Although this is sad news, it is not entirely unexpected, since Dave has long adopted a proprietary mindset towards IRLP and has been resistant to open-sourcing the hardware while charging upwards of $100 for his self-produced parts worth a fraction of that price. I'm not saying that Dave isn't entitled to do that...IRLP was his idea, and he's certainly welcome to handle it however he wants. That being said, Dave should not be surprised that systems like Echolink and AllStar quickly surpass IRLP in popularity due to their low cost of entry, flexibility, and minimal system requirements. When initially introduced, I was a much stronger fan of IRLP due to its Linux and radio-only based approach to Internet linking. I quickly realized the cost of entry was quite high and not coming down, while systems like AllStar Link will quickly make IRLP obsolete with their amazing flexibility and utility with low cost-of-entry. Such is the way of technology, and AllStar is an amazingly powerful system that's easily expandable. Welcome 21st century radio!

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    4x4 Ham Member WB7PZH's Avatar
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    Default

    Do you have a freq. pair for the repeater?

  4. #4

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    Quote Originally Posted by WB7PZH View Post
    Do you have a freq. pair for the repeater?
    KE7KUS 27115 445.7875 151.4 Phoenix, AZ United States West Phoenix
    Virgil - K7VZ
    Offroad and on the air.

  5. #5

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    Couple questions:

    You purchased 2 radios, but only used 1?

    If I'm looking at it properly, your node is a simplex node?

    Why did you need the $25 laptop to program radios? Couldn't you have programmed them with any workstation? Is the laptop dedicated to that purpose? I don't understand it's function.

    What function is the router doing? I understand the system needs to be networked, but if I have an open port on my existing home network, could I just use that?
    Virgil - K7VZ
    Offroad and on the air.

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    I did purchase two radios. I figured I'd set up the simplex node first to keep the initial setup simple. I have the second radio programmed...I am just waiting for a free weekend to get it installed. After the initial install, I discovered that setting up a full duplex system was trivial - you simply plug a few pins on one harness into the back of one radio and a few pins on a second harness into the back of the other radio, instead of putting all the pins in one connector on one radio. One of the problems I found out rather quickly with the simplex node is that if you start playing back something like Amateur Radio News on a simplex node by using a DTMF command over the air, it's very easy to lock yourself out of the system, since the node transmits until the audio stops (20-25 minutes or so). While the simplex node is transmitting, you can't get any other control codes into the node until the transmission is done. I later found that the node software has a setting you can change to break up the transmission to periodically receive commands, but the better way, in my opinion, is to run a full duplex repeater.

    I bought an old (P75) laptop because a lot of the software to program the commercial radios was written back in the old DOS days. The poorly written stuff requires that a slower processor be used, and some software will flat-out brick your radio if you try to use it in outside of a "pure DOS on a slow processor" environment. (Motorola RSS is very temperamental in this respect. The Kenwood software I used for my node radios was a little more forgiving.) Based on the potential pitfalls, I figured the safe way to program all the commercial radios was to get a dedicated computer just for that and load all the programming software on it. In addition, none of my current home computers have a DB9 serial port, which most of the older radios need to program them up. I figured I'd get the serial port and a safe programming environment for a minimal investment. I saw Dennis, KE7EJF, using something similar back at the Thunderbird hamfest last February when he was tinkering around with some 900MHz HT's and it seemed like a good idea, so I stole it.

    If you have an open port on your home network, you could easily use that to connect the node to the Internet. My house is too old to have network cables run in the walls, and where I set up the node is nowhere near my home network router, so I took a spare WRT54G I had sitting in the closet and turned it into a dedicated 802.11 client and hard wired the node computer to that. If you can set up the node near your home router and run a straight cable to it, I would highly recommend that, since you don't have to deal with firewalling on two separate routers.

  7. #7

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    Very cool Kurt. I've looked into the links about how to setup a node and I already have most the parts at home in the "junk box". I might try to put one together.

    Here's a good link I found that shows online nodes.
    http://stats.allstarlink.org/

    Are all nodes 1 to 1 connections? Is it possible to have a many to 1 connection? Is that what they call a hub?
    Virgil - K7VZ
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  8. #8
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    A hub does allow many-to-one connections. I haven't found very clear documentation on how to set up a hub yet, but am planning on chasing that down once I get my node duplexed. Setting up a hub would allow us to have that ever-so-popular Echolink node for 4x4 Ham nets. I need to check and see if I have the bandwidth available to support such an animal, as well.

    I'm considering investing a little $$$ and seeing if I can't build an mini-ITX box with a CompactFlash drive and use it to drive a node that mounts in a standard rack space. Getting some "high site" space would allow us to set up our own 4x4 Ham repeater, which would be kinda' cool, if you ask me. Then all we'd need is either on-site Internet, or a decent wireless link down into the Valley and we'd be in business for autopatch, linking, etc. So many ideas...so little time and money...

  9. #9

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    I have a stack of computers in the garage that I need to thin out. Some of them are half way decent systems. Let me know your system requirements and I might be able to donate a computer to you.
    Virgil - K7VZ
    Offroad and on the air.

  10. #10

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    Received this question via email.

    Hi
    I read your info on setting up a link. here in yuma I run a echolink repeater for about six years now.
    I also have a radio and interface and computer extra stuff as I was running a simplex link at one time
    can I use this equip for a allstar link ?
    Ralph k7yum
    Virgil - K7VZ
    Offroad and on the air.

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    I'd need to know what the radio interface to the computer was before I can answer the question. Out of the box, the system comes with drivers for any interface based off a CM108 or derivative audio chip. I've read threats on internet forums that deal with other types of interfaces, but I'd need specifics before I could answer more definitively.

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