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Open source router on par with Cisco, users say

To avoid paying top dollar for Cisco routers, two users say Vyatta's Open Flexible Router is a viable alternative to the proprietary norm, with pluses and minuses, of course.

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The price and flexibility of an open source router is sometimes enough to lure in users, despite the router's reputation for having support and usability issues.

That reputation may be old news, according to two separate independent networking consultants who recently deployed open source routers instead of comparable Cisco models. They report that support was great, and usability issues were minimal.

For Sam Newnam, an open source software consultant and owner of SystemSam Technologies LLC, the initial hooks with open source and Linux-based routers were its price and speedy deployment capabilities. "We needed to find an inexpensive application to a [network] traffic problem, and quickly," said the Greensboro, N.C.-based consultant.

In the case of Lance Knox, an independent networking consultant based in Eighty Four, Penn., time was not the issue. He was looking for a router that could compete with a Cisco router -- minus the price -- as part of a small network deployment he was overseeing at a local mental health facility.

"The customer had just moved into a new campus with two main buildings. They wanted a network, but not the type I'd typically tackle with a VLAN [virtual local area network]. Since they were a non-profit with not a lot of money, a router from Cisco would have been very cost-prohibitive," said Knox.

Advice from users of open source software:

"I definitely encourage people who are doing consulting or systems integration work for SMBs to look into open source for the router market and even for applications like The quality of products out there today definitely rivals Microsoft and other closed source applications companies, and by implementing them, you are not passing off a lot of the costs to the people you are doing work for." -- Lance Knox, independent consultant, Eight Four, Penn.  

"I would say grab yourself a couple of hours and realize you are dealing with open source software, and it's not always perfect. Now, if you want to slap on a product you know is going to work with very little headache, there are places to go for that. Going with open source will provide flexibility and low costs, but there are always going to be tradeoffs when going in that direction. It's easy for people to blame open source for taking too long, because people don't see value in the things they don't pay for. Don't expect open source to magically just start working."
-- Sam Newnam, open source software consultant, SystemSam Technologies LLC

Eventually both consultants went with an open source router from Vyatta Inc., the self-described "open source networking company" that launched its signature product, the Vyatta Open Flexible Router (OFR), in June. Neither consultants had ever met and were hundreds of miles away from one another, but they both ran into similar peaks and valleys as they deployed the router into their networks.

Open router shakes up conventional thinking

The thing that first caught Knox's eye about Vyatta's OFR was that he -- a Windows network administrator through and through -- would be able to configure it fairly easily for the customer's 100 Mb network.

"The feature set was comparable to your standard Cisco router," Knox said. "They were offering translating, gateway capability, Samba file sharing, VLAN trunking to 11q ... it really looked like a corporate-level router," he said.

In fact, Vyatta OFR's features were even a bit more than Knox needed for the non-profit job; in his opinion, Vyatta OFR could work in the enterprise. According to Vyatta CEO Kelly Herrell, Vyatta OFR is a mid-range router marketed to a customer base that's very familiar with Cisco routers.

"We understand [Cisco] has an 80% market share and that routing protocols haven't changed much since Methuselah," Herrell said. "But we're taking on the myth that routing requires specialized protocols by offering an open alternative. By doing that, we are allowing the customer to take over what they deploy and manage."

Vyatta OFR is targeted against Cisco routers like the 2821 and 3845, which cost about $4,000 and $13,000, respectively. In contrast, Vyatta OFR hardware plus one year of support comes in at "just under $2,000," the company said.

Herrell also claimed Vyatta OFR could be dropped on an x86 server and be easily integrated into the data center. According to Newnam, Herrell was half right.

Hardware challenges and solid support

Indeed, for the most part, Newnam said his deployment of open source router technology was relatively "hiccup free," but there was a slight challenge with hardware compatibility. "[Vyatta] said we could throw the router on any old PC, but it did not always work so great," Newnam said.

Newnam said 80% of the installs he performed were flawless, but in the other 20%, he had to tinker with some older hardware before it performed to his standards. "Vyatta designed their router to be comparable to a Cisco one, so a lot of their focus was on today's PCs and not what you might still consider a serviceable PC," he said. "With my deployment, I probably took [Vyatta OFR] a hair bit further back than it was intended."

But both Newnam and Knox had similar experiences with Vyatta and the Vyatta OFR community in regard to support.

"Support was real good," Knox said. "Initially I had a little trouble with some of the command sets that weren't working right, but I had an email response back [from Vyatta] within a couple of hours. Once we weeded out the issue, it was resolved in 15 minutes, plus an additional five to 10 minutes for configuration."

Newnam was impressed with the mailing lists, which were a steady stream of bug reports and bug fix information. These types of mailing lists are a staple of any open source community. They provide users with regular updates from the other developers and IT managers who have their hands on the technology.

More on open source routers:
Open source router challenges proprietary networking market

"I'd say that any PC we could put [Vyatta OFR] on today is going to be way faster than Cisco. I would not be doing backbone routing with this, but I would not hesitate to say this will compete against Cisco either," Newnam said. "Well, as long as we're not switching half of the U.S. of course."

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