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Open source routing reality check

Mar 06, 20065 mins
Cisco SystemsLinuxNetworking

Open source software has become an integral part of an array of network and IT products, but making a business out of a free Linux-like WAN router operating system and commodity PC hardware will be a challenge, observers and experts say.

Facing a mature market with technology that is mostly a commodity, Vyatta is looking to make a go of it anyway. The start-up offers a free, open source WAN router software image and announced the first beta version of the software at the end of February.

The vendor, funded by Panorama Capital and led by CEO Allan Leinwand, a former Cisco engineering manager, recently came out of stealth mode offering a free download of its code. Based on the eXtensible Open Router Platform (XORP, pronounced zorp by its developers), the code runs on commodity Intel PC hardware.

Vyatta says it will announce its business strategy later this year, which should resemble the approach of other open source vendors – offering free software but charging fees for service, support and consulting.

The company says it will eventually give large and midsize enterprises a way to deploy routed WANs at as much as 90% the cost of a Cisco- or Juniper-based network.

Whichever way Vyatta plans to make money, some industry observers say the outfit will have a tough time breaking into the market for WAN routers, a mature technology that is largely commoditized.

“The commoditization of routing occurred along time ago,” says Frank Dzubeck, president of Communication Network Architects. “Competing in the enterprise network infrastructure market, you have to win the hearts and minds of customers.”

Beyond a better mousetrap, he says, this takes a strong presence in reseller channels, as well as with carriers, which provide much of the routing equipment for businesses that use their services.

Even established network vendors with R&D, product channels and strong marketing that have recently entered the enterprise WAN routing arena have had a tough go. 3Com, Adtran, Alcatel, Enterasys and Foundry all have announced routers over the last two years, but none have gained significant market share.

There is a lot of interest in open source software in data centers, but it could be a harder sell to network engineers.

“It’s a conservative customer set that has a large installed base of [Cisco] routers,” Dzubeck says. “For many, they’ll say it’s too risky. Linux and open source have had a lot of success in enterprise servers … but it took IBM chipping in a billion dollars for that to happen.”

Whether an open source router vendor can succeed may depend more on the company’s execution than on its technology. Open source technology is already the base of many commercial network products. IP PBXs by most major telephony vendors run on Linux or Linux-like, free operating systems.

Niche vendors such as Astaro offer security appliances based on a hardened Linux operating system and privately developed software. Many vendors in the application front-end market, such as Citrix’s Netscaler product and Juniper’s RedLine device, use a mix of open source software (FreeBSD in Netscaler’s case) and commodity, albeit very high-end, Intel processors to build their high-end network gear.

Even Cisco uses Linux and open source software for its small-business routers – marketed under its Linksys One business unit – instead of its proprietary IOS routing software. Cisco also utilizes Linux on a number of network appliances and server products it sells, such as caching engines and security devices.

In addition to all this, the engineers who created XORP – Vyatta’s core technology – were not throwing together a low-end routing stack.

In a white paper on XORP, the technology’s developers write “we are developing a new suite of router software: an integrated open source software router platform running on commodity hardware, and viable both in research and production.”

The paper describes XORP as a platform for developing new features and capabilities for routers in the most demanding deployments, such as the Internet core. While conceived as a research tool, the project’s founders indicate that the jump from lab to production environments will be a short step.

“The loop between research and realistic real-world experimentation would eventually close, allowing innovation to take place much more freely. We have made significant progress towards building this system.”

Open source router pros and cons When investigating open source routing technology, there are trade-offs to consider.
HarwareUsing standards-based hardware could save money vs. proprietary memory interfaces.Off-the-shelf PC hardware cannot match custom ASICs and network processors used in some routing gear, such as SSL acceleration or QoS processing.
SoftwareModular, Linux-like software stacks provide greater flexibility and reliability, while open source software allows for modifications.Router software running on a PC could be more subject to system crashes than a router operating system developed for purpose-built hardware.
SecurityOpen source software lets a global network of programmers find bugs and potential vulnerabilities.A global network of hackers have the same access to the code.