Thursday, June 6, 2013

ASP.Net Webservice slow to start

This may be the smallest needle ever found... in the largest field of haystacks you can imagine.  It took us two months to track down... let me describe it to you:

IIS 7.5
Dot net framework 4.5
Windows Server 2008 R2 Web
ESXi 5.0

We run a web service from Pitney Bowes that does address validation and gives us back insurance taxing information.  Pretty important and maybe the only consolidated source of that info from one web service.  They are solid,  but a few months ago we found that when the service hadn't been used in a while (called via WCF from our program), the initial request would take 60-90 seconds to complete. After that,  sub-second response times.

Do a google search on something like [ wcf slow first startup] and you will find post after post of people having the problem,  and coming up with workarounds. No one was really fixing the problem though.  In our case,  we had recently virtualized the servers so of course a lot of fingers were pointing that way.

We also looked into DNS -- you know, maybe we weren't resolving very quickly and had to wait for a secondary server to give us the answer. Ran the best practice analyzer, made a few changes... nope.

We looked into the IIS web farm and modified the recycle times... blah, blah, blah. Nope.

We looked into changing default proxy settings (we don't use a proxy) in web.config. nope.  Interestingly enough we were blasted with Microsoft's sneaky push of IE10, that happens to control the "proxy" part of things. Not the problem.

Then I happened across a related post that talked about a setting that might help us out.  It ends up that back before 2008 microsoft starting using their server named (certificate revocation list) to verify data... but that server didn't exist anymore.  This post shows some config settings to get around it.  READ IT -- it's good. [here]

Since these are production boxes that don't like config changes too often,  we took a different approach.  By adding a static entry to our etc/hosts file on the IIS server, we didn't need the config change and the problem went away.

We added
Problem resolved. 

OK -- this is one of those WTH moments.  or maybe it's an OMG moment.  Whatever. Now on a side note,  our Exchange 2010 server will exhibit the same characteristics sometimes so we added that same static DNS entry.

So everything is better.  The service starts up first and every time in sub second response. Pitney Bowes had no idea what to do. Microsoft had no idea what to do. Bloggers had no ideas... but a little IT shop in Venice, FL figured it out.


Monday, January 14, 2013

TTS - Free Text to Speech for Digium Switchvox

The natural progression for a new telephone system will typically find it's way to some form of dynamic IVR that looks to a database for the information.  We've had our Digium Switchvox for a couple years now and feel pretty good about writing basic IVRs. Now it's time for some cool text-to-speech.

Why do we need TTS (Text to speech)?  Simple.  In a basic IVR,  you can record someone saying things that never change like "Press one to reach customer service."  If you want to have a bit more dynamic text coming back to the end user like "Your account is in great standing.  Your account balance is $123.45 and you have one pending claim...." or something.

After a few weeks of research,  I found a couple of solutions.
  1. Buy a TTS engine that runs on your server.  This will cost anywhere from $1,000 and up.
  2. Use a free TTS web service.  I couldn't find any voices that actually could be understood so this wasn't good for us. 
  3. Use a paid TTS web service.  Well, cost is always an issue but more importantly we didn't want to rely on the performance of an internet-based web service to feed a dynamic IVR.
  4. Use the TTS built into microsoft dot net framework.  Sounds great but requires a physical server with a sound card. Not good for us since we're 100% virtual server based.
  5. Write our own. 
Now option 5 seems a bit daunting.  I mean,  how do you write a TTS engine?  Simple answer is you don't.  What you can do is package some free components to make it all work.  Here's what we did:

Get the free TTS engine called eSpeak from here:
...and installed it on our IIS server.  If you want to see how it works,  just install it on your PC and try out the command line.

Then we used visual studio to write [or enhance in our case] our http listener for the TTS requests.  We wanted a REST like solution so it would integrate well into the IVR on the Switchvox.

Some code would be nice right? Here you go. This is what the listener looks like:

 Protected Sub Page_Load(ByVal sender As Object, ByVal e As System.EventArgs) Handles Me.Load

If Not IsPostBack Then
     Dim myWords As String = Request.QueryString("myWords")

     FileName &= Trim(Now().Year.ToString) & Trim(Now().DayOfYear.ToString) &              Trim(Now().Hour.ToString) & Trim(Now().Minute.ToString) & Trim(Now().Millisecond.ToString)

     FileName &= ".wav"

     Dim p As New Diagnostics.Process
     ' s = speed
     ' p = pitch
     ' a = amplitude or volume
     Dim args As String = "-v en-us -s 150 -a 120  -w " & FileName & " """ & myWords & """ "
     p.StartInfo.Arguments = args
     p.StartInfo.FileName = "d:/data/espeak/command_line/espeak.exe"
     p.StartInfo.UseShellExecute = False
     p.StartInfo.CreateNoWindow = True
     p.StartInfo.RedirectStandardError = True


     Dim ttsErrors As String = p.StandardError.ReadToEnd

     Response.ContentType = "audio/wav"
     Response.AddHeader("Content-Disposition", "inline; filename=test.wav")

Pretty easy.  If your listener is called tts.aspx,  you just call it with:

tts.aspx?myWords='Hello World'

...and he returns a wav file.

How do you integrate it into the Switchvox? Simple.  In your IVR add an action type of 'Play Sound From URL' and add the line we just made:'Hello World'

Pretty cool? YES
Free? YES
Supports VMWare servers? YES
LAN based? YES
Works well with, Visual Studio and IIS? YES