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Open-source routers are becoming an option for enterprise IT

The technology is slowly gaining the confidence of some early adopters.

By John Edwards
June 22, 2009 12:01 AM ET

Computerworld - Many large IT operations are extensively using open-source technology -- in operating systems, applications, development tools and databases. So why not in routers, too?

It's a question Sam Noble, senior network system administrator for the New Mexico Supreme Court's Judicial Information Division, pondered while looking for a way to link the state's courthouses to a new centralized case management system.

Noble wanted an affordable and customizable DSL router but found that ISP-supplied modems lacked the ability to remotely monitor local link status, a key requirement of the courts.

Another alternative, adding ADSL cards to the 2600 series frame-relay routers from Cisco Systems Inc. used at some courthouses, provided key features, but the aging devices lacked the power needed to support firewall performance.

A third option, Juniper Networks Inc.'s NetScreen SSG20 firewall/router with an ADSL option, "lacked many of the features we wanted, like full-featured command lines and unlimited tunnel interfaces," Noble said.

Frustrated, Noble decided to investigate yet another possibility: open-source routers. The technology is emerging but still isn't a favorite among corporate IT managers.

Noble first downloaded open-source router software distributed and supported by Belmont, Calif.-based Vyatta Inc. onto a laptop and ran some preliminary tests. "I was especially interested in whether the administrative interfaces were complete and feature-full," he said.

Impressed by the initial results, Noble created a prototype site in Santa Fe to study the technology's performance, cost-effectiveness and ability to work with other technologies used in the courts. "We needed to bring up a DSL connection for testing and to work out the best configuration without impacting our production network," he said.

The tests convinced Noble that the open-source router could provide what he wanted. He also noted that its VPN concentrator, support for the Border Gateway Protocol, and URL filtering and packet-capture security features "would have been unavailable or very costly to add to Cisco or NetScreen equipment."

In April 2008, Noble began deploying Vyatta router appliances to an average of two sites each month. When the project is completed over the next year or so, the routers -- 514 in all -- will connect 40 to 50 sites around the state to the centralized case management system.

Potential Problems

Analysts and users note that IT managers exploring the use of open-source routers should be aware of potential support and compatibility issues that could come with any open-source product. "You have to be careful during deployment," said Mark Fabbi, an analyst at Gartner Inc. "It's not ready to take over the world yet, but it certainly is providing an interesting base of discussion."

Trey Johnson, an IT staff member at the University of Florida in Gainesville, said that choosing a noncommercial technology with a limited enterprise-level track record could pose problems for IT managers. "That makes a hard sell for going into a business model with it," Johnson said.

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