Open-source software for use in networking applications is relatively rare, but start-up Vyatta recently released free software that provides basic router functions, while running on a commodity PC. The release follows publicity earlier this year (Computerworld, March 6).
Vyatta announced the free Open Flexible Router (OFR) late last month and says it will offer technical assistance and upgrades for an annual fee starting at US$497 (NZ$800). The company is touting the OFR’s ability to support high-availability routing with the kind of security that large organisations expect.
“Until now, users have had little choice but to accept the slow-changing and feature-bloated, closed-source solutions on the market — and pay a high price in the process,” says Vyatta chief executive Kelly Herrell.
Lance Knox, a networking consultant to non-profit groups, says he installed OFR on a Pentium 3-based PC that was “headed for the dumpster”. He uses the software to effectively route data between two buildings at a mental health centre. Each of the buildings has a separate LAN for security and privacy purposes, but Knox says he needed an inexpensive link for limited communications.
“It solves a basic routing issue and avoids passing on an exorbitant routing cost,” Knox says. Even paying for a basic Cisco router would have been tough for the organisation, he says. The open-source Vyatta router has been in use for about a month with no problems, he says.
Knox hasn’t tested how scalable the new router is, but says it “could definitely handle a branch-office routing need” for a larger business.
Sam Newnam, owner of IT consultancy SystemSam Technologies, has been using the OFR for two weeks on a small Hewlett-Packard rack-mounted server inside a datacentre he runs as a hosting centre for small- and medium-sized businesses. It serves as part of the backup network for the datacentre.
“We’re not running the most complex network in the world, and we didn’t want to pay lots of money for features we’d never use,” he says. “With an open-source package we could keep things simple.”
Looking ahead, Newnam says his business can build more complex networks without large investments by using open-source. “On top of cost savings in production, it opens up a whole new world of testing and brainstorming,” he says. “We’ve often sat around saying this or that would be cool, but we didn’t feel like investing in hardware just to see if something works.”
Analysts say the Vyatta open-source software release is significant because open source has been important in numerous areas of computing and is just beginning to grow in networking.
The global routing market for business users is about US$3.3 billion, and free open-source routing software is probably displacing only a “very small” part of that total, says Matthias Machowinski, an analyst at Infonetics Research.
Vyatta, which is Sanskrit for “open”, isn’t alone. ImageStream Internet Solutions is a competitor, Machowinski says. There are probably many pieces of open-source routing code being widely shared in the user community, he says. He adds that usage is hard to measure because much of the code isn’t part of a recognised company like Vyatta.
Rob Whiteley, an analyst at Forrester Research, says, “I think we’ll see that in five to ten years, open-source will be much more prevalent in routing and networking generally.”
Forrester conducted a survey of 608 large businesses in the US in November, finding that 39% were using or piloting open-source software. Of that group, 47% were using open-source software in the network for firewall, router, email or related areas.
However, Zeus Kerravala, an analyst at the Yankee Group, says there is little push by businesses for cheap router systems. “If people wanted a cheaper router, wouldn’t the low-cost router companies have more market share?” he says.
Users are willing to pay for a Cisco router for its solid engineering and the third-party support that Cisco adds, Kerravala says.
“I always say with open source you don’t get what you don’t pay for.”