Users like it; analysts debate whether the market will agree.
Open-source software for uses in networking applications is relatively rare, but start-up Vyatta Inc. recently released free software that provides basic router functions while running on a commodity PC.
San Mateo, Calif.-based Vyatta announced the free Open Flexible Router (OFR) last week and said it would offer technical assistance and upgrades for an annual fee starting at $497. The company touted the OFR's ability to support high-availability routing with the kind of security that large companies 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," said Vyatta CEO Kelly Herrell.
Lance Knox, a networking consultant to nonprofit groups who works in Pittsburgh, said he installed OFR on a Pentium 3-based PC that was "headed for the dumpster" and uses the software to effectively route data between two buildings at a Pennsylvania mental health center. Each of the buildings has a separate LAN for security and privacy purposes, but Knox explained that he needed an inexpensive link for limited communications.
"It solves a basic routing issue and avoids passing on an exorbitant routing cost," Knox said. Even paying $500 for a Cisco Systems Inc. router would have been tough for the nonprofit, he said. The open-source Vyatta router has been in use for about a month with no problems, he said.
Knox has not tested how scalable the new router is but said it "could definitely handle a branch-office routing need" for a larger business.
Sam Newnam, owner of SystemSam Technologies LLC in Raleigh, N.C., has been using the OFR for two weeks on a small Hewlett-Packard Co. rack-mounted server inside a data center he runs as a hosting center for small and midsize businesses in the area. It serves as part of the backup network for the data center.
"We're not running the most complex network in the world, and we didn't to pay lots of money for features we'd never use," he said. "With an open-source package, we could keep things simple."
Looking ahead, Newnam said 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," Newnam said. "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 said 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 $3.3 billion, and free open-source routing software is probably displacing only a "very small" part of that total, said Matthias Machowinski, an analyst at Infonetics Research Inc. in Campbell, Calif.
Vyatta, which is Sanskrit for "open," isn't alone. ImageStream Internet Solutions Inc. in Plymouth, Ind., is a competitor, Machowinski said. There are probably many pieces of open-source routing code being widely shared in the user community, he added. But its usage is hard to measure because they are not a part of a recognized company like Vyatta, Machowinski said.
"I think we'll see that in five to 10 years, open-source will be much more prevalent in routing and networking generally," said Rob Whiteley, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass.
Forrester conducted a survey of 608 large businesses in the U.S. last November, finding that 39% were using or piloting open-source software in their companies. Of that group, 47% were using open-source software in the network for firewall, router, e-mail or related areas.
However, Zeus Kerravala, an analyst at Yankee Group Research Inc. in Boston, said 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 said.
People are willing to pay for a Cisco router, the clear leader in the market, for solid engineering and the third-party support that Cisco adds, Kerravala added. "I always say with open-source that you don't get what you don't pay for."