March 7, 2006

Vyatta is building a business around Open Flexible Router

Author: Stephen Feller

The one-year-old company Vyatta is attempting to grow a community around the Open Flexible Router (OFR) it has compiled with several already available pieces of software -- and perhaps bring something new to the router market.

Vyatta launched its online community last month, and posted an early beta version of the software on its Web site. The intention is to create software that users can install on off-the-shelf commodity hardware and tweak to their specific needs, the company says.

"There has been open source routing code out there for a long time," says Dave Roberts, Vyatta's vice president of strategy and marketing, "so that in and of itself is not new. What we've done is package it together so people don't have to do it themselves. And we've wrapped an interface around it so it's easier to use."

The company plans to build a business around the OFR by selling services and support to enterprises that adopt and deploy the server software.

Vyatta's OFR is a heavily modified version of Debian built around the eXtensible Open Router Platform (XORP). Vyatta created the OFR, billed as a complete open source router and firewall distribution, by integrating parts of more than 60 open source projects, as well as its own code. According to the licensing page of the OFR wiki, the code included with the software is licensed under either Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD)-style licenses or the GNU General Public License (GPL).

XORP, which is the main component of the OFR, is an open source router platform that supports several protocols, including Border Gateway Protocol (BGP), Routing Information Protocol (RIP), Protocol-Independent Multicast Sparse Mode (PIM-SM), Internet Group Management Protocol (IGMP), Multicast Listener Discovery (MLD), Internet Protocol version 4 (IPv4), and Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6).

The XORP project is based at the International Computer Science Institute (ICSI) at the University of California's Berkeley campus. Released under a BSD-style license, the software was created for use as a network research tool. The National Science Foundation, Intel, Microsoft, and Vyatta fund the project.

Open source, extensions expand router possibilities

Though the ICSI developed XORP originally for network research, both the platform's developers and Vyatta see the open source router product as offering enterprises more customization potential. They also expect to see the potential of routers widen as the largely closed area of hardware and software gains accessibility.

XORP project lead Atanu Ghosh says that router-specific applications are on the horizon. He believes the open platform will spur the creation of new software of this type, benefiting both researchers and the commercial router market because of the potential for third-party development of applications. In most cases, only vendors can offer router applications right now.

Ghosh says that proprietary systems are too large for customers to tinker with anyway. "Cisco's Internetwork Operating System (IOS) is a single, monolithic program," he says. "It would be impossible for a third party to add a feature, even if [Cisco] allowed it. In XORP, each protocol is a separate process, making it easier to bring in a third-party process."

Ghosh expects developers to come up with ideas the ICSI has not. He says some simple applications may pop up for intrusion detection and worm suppression, which many routers already run. With XORP, vendors don't have to create those applications, meaning developers could create patches and fixes and release them faster.

Roberts says that Vyatta sees opportunities for Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) applications, among others, and the company is "leaving the door open to sell add-ons." However, Vyatta may eventually make any additional products developed for the router software free and open source, as it does with the OFR.

Been there, done that

Vyatta is not the first company to offer an open source router option. The Linux-based router vendor ImageStream Internet Solutions has been selling hardware that runs open source, extendable software since 1995 and has about 30,000 units deployed across a variety of industries, says Doug Hass, chief operations officer for the company.

ImageStream routers run the ImageStream Linux software distribution, which includes a specific Linux hardware driver that Hass says allows customers to use off-the-shelf hardware more easily with the company's products. Though the software stack is made up of both open source and proprietary software, the company also licenses its closed source code to hardware manufacturers who want to embed the software on their own products.

Hass says that recent press coverage that predicts an open source router solution will topple large vendors such as Cisco is wrong, because "another billion-dollar Godzilla" isn't going to appear to take them down. He thinks there's room in the market for several companies similar in size to ImageStream, but he doesn't see an open source company that doesn't sell an actual product as one of them.

"[ImageStream] survives because we sell hardware," Hass says. "We've been hearing that an open source routing product was going to take over the world for 10 years, and it has yet to happen.... When are writers and industry pundits going to stop doing backflips every time a new company comes along and says, 'We're going to beat everybody and give everything away?'"

Roberts says Vyatta plans to base its business model on that of Red Hat, by nurturing a community of developers around its software while selling services and support. What Vyatta will sell specifically is still being finalized though, he says.

Roberts also pointed to JBoss and MySQL as examples of open source companies that subsist on selling support and services to users of their products. He says that posts to the OFR mailing lists and specific interest from at least one company prove there is a market for the type of company Vyatta wants to be.

"There's a class of customer that loves open source and wants a company that will stand behind software," Roberts says. "We are an open source company, not a company that uses open source. We definitely are trying to grow the community, and we see it as a place where people can innovate. Our job is to help those people."

Mark Stallcop, a network architect at E*Trade Financial Corp., says that the ability to run third-party applications and customize routers is valuable because of the time proprietary vendors can take to bring new ideas to market. Though companies may meet regularly with hardware vendors to discuss what they need, he says years often pass between discussing an idea and seeing actual results of the conversation.

"Most organizations are first going to be attracted to price in the same way that Linux Web servers are attractive based on their price," Stallcop says. "I think [an attraction to] features and capability will come later. But you have a networking base out there that is basically trained on the major corporations' platforms and used to living within the limits of those systems. So, you have a cultural shift that has to occur."

Stallcop says he agrees with Roberts' assertion that Vyatta's OFR could fit best for mid-size data centers and branch offices, based on his own performance tests of the software. The results of Stallcop's tests are available at the OFR wiki. If E*Trade opts to deploy routers that run the OFR, Stallcop says it won't be for at least a year, because the product is still largely being developed.

A burgeoning open source market

Vyatta is the first company to announce a product built around XORP, Ghosh says, but he has spoken with several other companies that are interested in using the platform in products of their own as well. He says the project chose the BSD license so that companies and open source projects could adopt the platform for their own products.

"I think [XORP and Vyatta] will open up innovation," Ghosh says. "It's very hard now if you have an idea that routing or something else could be done in a better way. This is going to make it much easier."

A beta version of the OFR and a live CD are available for download now. Roberts says, however, that the software is "not necessarily ready for mission-critical jobs" because it contains bugs and can crash. Vyatta is inviting users to test the software and file bugs as the company works toward releasing version 1.0 sometime this summer.

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