The Essential Guide to Open-Source Routers

Updated: April 30, 2009

Open-source routing technology is promising to have the same impact on networking as it did with operating systems. It offers companies an alternative to high-priced, inflexible products from proprietary vendors. That's good news to growing organizations searching for new solutions in today's $8 billion per year enterprise-router market.

How Open-Source Routers Work

Priced at a fraction of the cost of closed-source products, an open-source router is a device or software that forwards data packets along networks. Connected to at least two networks and located at gateways , these routers ensure that data continues to flow between networks and that it's forwarded to the correct location. By making its source code publicly available for any user to download, compile and execute, open-source routers allow IT managers to freely make modifications in accordance with their needs and requirements.

There's more than one way to deploy an open-source router. Some vendors allow companies to convert a standard Intel Corp. PC or server into a router and firewall by simply downloading a solution from the company's Web site. Others sell entire router appliances with open-source technology pre-installed.

Benefits of Open-Source Routers

The following are just a handful of the benefits of open-source routers:

  • Lower costs — as much as a 75 percent savings, according to open-source networking vendor Vyatta Inc . — and improved flexibility over today's closed-source, proprietary products.
  • A feature set comparable to standard routers from big-name vendors including Cisco Systems Inc . Features may include translating, gateway capability, Samba file sharing and VLAN (Virtual Local Area Network) trunking.
  • The ability to deploy, manage and customize solutions based on specific needs, as well as scale networks without investing in costly hardware upgrades.
  • The user maintains total control of the router and determines the need for new hardware, features and customization when it works best for the company — not the vendor.

Examples of Open-Source Router Technology

A number of different vendors offer open-source router options. The major players include:

  • Vyatta : Vyatta software combines the features, performance and reliability of an enterprise-class router, firewall and VPN (Virtual Private Network) with the cost savings and flexibility of open-source solutions. Customers can build routing and security solutions using hardware of their choice for maximum control and flexibility.
  • Open Linux Router : Formed by a group of networking experts, the Open Linux Router project aims to create a network appliance that allows users to pick and choose what features and services will be included with the implementation. By scaling the features and services down, the Open Linux Router can easily be installed on a small, embedded device. If the implementation demands functionality, it is just as easy to add features, which provides the Open Linux Router with a wide and diverse demographic. Although still in its early stages, the project encourages open source as a viable alternative to routers provided by vendors such as Cisco.
  • XORP Inc .: Based on extensible open-source routing technology, XORP provides a fully featured platform that implements IPv4 and IPv6 routing protocols and a unified platform to configure them. XORP's modular architecture allows rapid introduction of new protocols, features and functionality, including support for custom hardware and software forwarding.
  • 3Com Corp.'s Open Services Networking : The Linux-based OSNM (Open Services Networking Module) is integrated with 3Com routers and switches to provide an open-service delivery platform from which a variety of software-based services can run. Facilitated by the module's open, flexible development environment, organizations are empowered to select and implement solutions from a varied list of developers.

Issues to Consider

Open-source router technology may deliver flexibility and affordable pricing, but there are drawbacks to parting ways with a proprietary product. Here's what you need to consider when deploying an open-source router:

  • Hardware compatibility issues can arise from deploying an open-source router. Some tinkering may be necessary, which can stall an implementation.
  • Unlike proprietary products from big-name vendors, an open-source router may not offer the service levels and usability a company has come to expect from closed-source solutions.
  • Being able to turn to an open-source community for support is wonderful, but be certain that the in-house technical knowledge exists to handle maintenance in a timely and accurate fashion.
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