Open-Source Routers Are Becoming an IT Option

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

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.

The university uses an open-source router supported by Vyatta. "[The router] actually has a company backing it -- you can buy support for it, which makes it more viable," Johnson said.

Others say that community support, an open-source hallmark, can cut two ways in an enterprise setting. Communities don't usually respond as quickly as IT managers would like, and they don't offer inexperienced users one-on-one instruction.

Noble and Johnson are two among a small but growing number of IT managers eschewing proprietary routers in favor of open-source alternatives for a variety of reasons.

Noble, for example, 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, said he uses IProute, a Linux-based open-source routing technology distributed by the Linux Foundation, to provide his company's large users with 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 estimated that a comparable Cisco router would cost more than twice as much as the Linux-based IProute router he chose. "That helps keep [overall] costs low," he says.

IT consulting firm CMIT Solutions of Central Rhode Island has installed open-source DD-WRT firmware in both of its Linksys wireless routers to gain additional capabilities, said Adam Tucker, a network engineer at the firm. "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 said the routers have worked flawlessly for well over a year.

Fabbi said he sees significant potential for open-source routers, particularly in the retail and food services industries, where large companies must often link thousands of sites without breaking the budget. "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 said.

In other industries, open-source technology is well suited for server-based routing applications, including virtualization, Fabbi added. He noted 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 video distribution caching."

Ready for the Enterprise?

Matthias Machowinski, an analyst at Infonetics Research in Campbell, Calif., said he believes that open-source routers are now capable of handling enterprise-level workloads. "If you have reasonable requirements -- a regular-size office or a normal amount of traffic -- then performance-wise, they should be able to handle the traffic load," he said. The only exceptions he cited are large companies that run an extraordinary amount of traffic, such as video content distributors.

Open-source routers are also starting to hold their own on the features front, Machowinski said. "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 said.

Open-source routers come in three basic forms: software that transforms a standard PC or server into a combination router and firewall, firmware that can be inserted into an existing router, and appliances that come with open-source routing software preinstalled. In addition to Vyatta, DD-WRT and IProute, open-source routing technologies include Xorp, downloadable at; and pfSense, a free, open-source distribution of the FreeBSD operating system customized for use as a firewall and router.

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 compared with the market share held by the top proprietary vendors, particularly router giant Cisco, which has about 80% of the overall market. But even Cisco has recently begun making overtures in the open-source world.

Edwards is a technology writer in the Phoenix area.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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