Enterprises cut costs with open-source routers

Early adopters gain flexibility and big savings

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Adam Tucker, a network engineer at CMIT Solutions of Central Rhode Island, an IT consulting firm in Portsmouth, R.I., has moved both of his firm's in-house Linksys wireless routers to open-source DD-WRT firmware. "We wanted a robust wireless system that would allow us to manage quality of service for prioritizing voice over IP [and] things like that, as well as to add some of the more advanced filtering and stuff the [old] firmware simply didn't support," he says.

Tucker says the routers, combined with an ancient Linux PC the firm recommissioned as a firewall by using open-source IPcop software, have worked flawlessly for well over a year. "The only thing I could say negative about it . . . is, historically, a lot of these open-source applications don't have the best user interfaces," he says. "They can be confusing ... so you really have to know what you're doing."

Challenges and pitfalls

While the non-proprietary approach can help enterprises cut costs, utilize new features and tailor routing technology to their precise needs, adopters should be aware of potential pitfalls in areas including support and compatibility.

Compatibility -- the ability to play well with other routers and associated devices -- is a major concern. "You have to be careful during deployment, in terms of size, and support, and scalability and this type of thing, compared to what we know we can expect from the incumbent vendors in the market," Gartner's Fabbi says.

Noble says he has felt the impact of open-source's compatibility shortcomings. "There's the EIGRP routing protocol, which is a Cisco proprietary routing protocol, and that's in heavy use in our legacy network," he says. "It's been painful not being able to speak that routing protocol to our other routers." This has required Noble's staff to export what they need from EIGRP into a Border Gateway Protocol session. This has to be done on a device that 'speaks' both protocols, which "limits the choices to Cisco and Cisco," Noble said in a follow-up e-mail.

Further, choosing a non-commercial technology offering with only a limited enterprise-level track record is another worry -- familiar to anyone who's worked with other types of open-source products. "That makes a hard sell for going into a business model with it," says Trey Johnson, an IT staff member at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

The school is using Vyatta router software in a virtualized environment on HP servers to provide a virtual desktop infrastructure capable of handling 40 to 50 remote users. "The Vyatta [software] actually has a company backing it; you can buy support for it, which makes it more viable," Johnson explains.

Community support, an open-source hallmark, is a resource that can cut two ways in an enterprise setting. "There's plenty of community support, and that's one of the wonderful things" about this open-source technology, Tucker says. On the other hand, community support isn't usually instantly responsive, like most commercial support desks are supposed to be, and there's very little handholding -- unless one is lucky enough to connect with a particularly friendly, passionate and knowledgeable community member.

Even when enterprise-class support is available as an add-on from an open-source vendor, potential buyers are often wary of purchasing a key component from a small vendor, sometimes offering a relatively obscure technology. "Some companies also are reluctant to buy from startups, so they're looking for a vendor with a long history," Infonetics' Machowinski says. "A company like Vyatta hasn't been around long, and that can be a drawback."

For his part, HCST's Hassler says he's reluctant to use open-source technology in customer deployments. "If it's going to be something I'll be putting on a customer's premises, that the customer or someone else may end up having to support, then it's generally a commercial product as opposed to using the open-source solution."

Still, for a growing number of IT and data network managers, the benefits provided by open-source routers can far outweigh the negative aspects. Fabbi, however, urges potential adopters to proceed cautiously. "Under certain circumstances, you can certainly take advantage of the technology, but you have to do it with a degree of caution," he says. "It's not ready to take over the world yet, but it certainly is providing an interesting base of discussion."

John Edwards is a technology writer in the Phoenix area. Contact him at at jedwards@gojohnedwards.com.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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