Enterprises cut costs with open-source routers

Early adopters gain flexibility and big savings

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Mark Fabbi, a Gartner Inc. analyst, sees significant potential for open-source routers, particularly for enterprises in fields such as retail and food services that need to connect thousands of sites without breaking the budget on proprietary gear. "You think of a McDonald's or a Burger King [where] there are tens of thousands of franchisee-type locations, but you still want them connected," he says.

In other industries, the technology is well-suited for server-based routing applications, Fabbi says, including virtualization.

He notes that virtualized router applications are limited only by developers' imaginations. "Sometimes it's something as simple as a distributed print server, other times it's a video distribution caching -- it could [also] be for DNS and DHCP services in a branch office," he says. "There are a whole bunch of things that you can do."

Matthias Machowinski, an analyst at Infonetics Research, says open-source routers can handle enterprise-level workloads. "If you have reasonable requirements -- a regular-sized office or a normal amount of traffic -- then performance wise, they should be able to handle the traffic load," he says. The only exceptions he sees are for enterprises that run an extraordinary amount of traffic, such as video content distributors.

Open-source routers also hold their own on the feature front, Machowinski says. "They started out not being as feature-rich as some of the mainstream commercial [products], but open-source router vendors have narrowed that gap," he says. "They [now] pretty much offer everything that you would expect to have on a routing platform."

Yet, despite a steadily rising profile and a growing number of adherents, open-source routers aren't likely to topple the market status quo anytime soon. That's because the open-source field remains microscopic when compared to proprietary vendors, particularly router giant Cisco, which holds around 80% of the overall market. But even Cisco has recently begun making overtures in the open-source world.

On-the-fly flexibility

Managers embrace open-source routing for different reasons. New Mexico's Noble says pain-free customization is the technology's biggest benefit. "The flexibility of having a free software stack built into our routers will let us make a small change -- a tweak -- or an addition, and be able to continue with minimal impact on long-range plans."

Barry Hassler, president of Hassler Communication Systems Technology, Inc., an ISP and network designer in Beavercreek, Ohio, is relying on Iproute, a Linux-based routing technology, to give his customers enterprise-level Internet access at an affordable price. "I'm using standard PC hardware, running Linux, with the routing functionality built in," he says. "What we're doing with these boxes is routing among multiple interfaces, which is fairly standard routing, but beyond that we're also able to do bandwidth management."

Hassler says his customers can order up whatever amount of bandwidth they need. He's able to give a particular client, for instance, a 5Mbps by 5Mbps connection, where another client may only want a common DSL type of speed of 1.5Mbps by 5.12Kbps, he explains. Hassler says saving money was another reason why he turned to open-source routers. A comparable Cisco router would cost more than twice as much as the Linux-based router he chose, Hassler says. "That helps keep costs low," he says.

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