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Here Comes Open Source Telecom

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My latest Business 2.0 article, The Black Box That Would Conquer Telecom, just went online over at the CNN Money website. This is a story about a stealthy startup called Vyatta, that has build the world’s first commercial open-source router, and how open source is slowly moving its way into the telecom world. Vyatta’s first product, an enterprise class router that will compete with Cisco-medium to low end offerings is currently in beta testing with some customers is based on XORP or extensible open router platform and runs off on two Intel chips.

The versatile open-source application can direct data traffic for a giant corporation as easily as it can manage a home Wi-Fi network. And that’s what makes it as disruptive as a leaf blower in a feather factory: Vyatta’s router will cost about a fifth the price of comparable models from big networking equipment makers such as Cisco Systems.

Vyatta is one of the many start-ups that are bringing open source disruption to the highly profitable and closed world of networking. While open source software movement has ravaged the bottom lines of companies like Sun Microsystems; networking behemoths like Cisco and Juniper have continued to enjoy fat margins they earned even before the telecom crash of 2000. Even today, a big portion of their IT budget goes into networking gear. Routers, switches, firewall devices, and even VPN boxes cost thousands of dollars.

“Open-source is providing real competition to the commercial telecom companies,” says John Todd, an open-source telephony expert. “It will force them to improve.”

The scramble for open source in networking comes because two primal forces tearing the old telecom order apart. First, the Internet-based technologies are replacing the closed legacy phone systems, thus helping the convergence of computer and the phone systems. In old times, in order to build a networking box, companies would design specialized chips, and run specialized software on them to get the best performance. Now you can buy extremely powerful processors like Advanced Micro Devices’ Opteron chips for a few hundred dollars, run special networking software on them, and get similar performance. There are nearly half-a-dozen open source projects that capitalize on the cheap processing power.

“I used to work in Novell’s multi protocol router group, but that failed because the chips were not fast enough,” Chris Ranch, Director of Network Architecture at data center operator Affinity Internet. “But you can do it all on a good PC.” His company is currently using open source load balancing software running on 15-pizza-box style servers that cost about $25,000. Similar gear from Cisco Systems or F5 Systems could have cost Affinity at least $750,000. “Given that we making money by selling hosting services, the cost of equipment is the difference between us making money or not,” says Ranch.

Corporations shopping for PBX systems are reaching same conclusions, and are turning to ultra-cheap boxes made by start-ups like Fonality, a Los Angeles company that packages open source Asterisk PBX software onto PCs running Linux. But no project is as audacious as Vyatta’s attempt to take on the highly lucrative and profitable router market.

Vyatta’s core brains come from XORP, a software router project started at ICSI in Berkeley back in January 2001. Atanu Ghosh a British-born researcher who works on the project points out that the software can be scaled down to run a simple enough home router on one end of the spectrum, to large-scale data network on the other extreme. “It is easy for third parties to extend the software, and I think people will come up with ideas to extend it,” says Ghosh.

The biggest interest in XORP and future Vyatta products will be in emerging economies like China and India, which are not cash rich, but have broadband ambitions. No one wants to pay for expensive commercial routers. “In the near future there would be ad-hoc networks on a person, and that could conceivably need a router with a tiny footprint, like XORP,” Ghosh predicts.

33 Responses to “Here Comes Open Source Telecom”

  1. Joe McGuckin

    This is nothing new. People have been building routers with GATED
    and Unix on cheap intel hardware for more than 10 years.

    This is at least the second company attempting to commercialize
    open source routing code running on Linux or *BSD. None, so far has been a resounding success.

    The Cisco routers this product would compete with aren’t that expensive – $1000 – $2000. Just about the same price as a generic server + Vyatta software.

  2. Om — It’s more radical than that. Today you can download a free VMware Server preconfigured with Asterisk and immediately start running in virtual mode in your Windows or Linux Server. Thus, a powerful, completely free, preinstalled PBX is ready to implement in a flash. You can get the image at VMware’s site. It’s almost shocking.

  3. I believe this is not a big deal. While other high quality open-source routing softwares are in existence (e.g. Zebra and Quagga), Vyatta is nothing but a short term hype.
    The main problem in networking is hardware. The ideal open source router should come with opensource drivers for high-speed serial interfaces and such sort of things which are only available on commercial hardware like Cisco and Juniper.
    Folks, Vyatta is not going to bring Cisco or Juniper to their knees. They have the hardware.

  4. Gary, technically you are absolute correct. But I believe what counts here is the message itself. Tech people know very well what you were talking about. But the business people currently haven this open source thing on their RADAR and for them this message matters. To what this might lead is another question though…

  5. This is a lot of hype. Software and hardware are not the “secret arsenal” of telcos and open source versions don’t make it much easier to compete. Internetworking is complex, and the skill of telcos in managing, designing, and building infrastructure is what makes them successful.

    We run many, many racks of equipment using an Open Source router called Linux. It’s been possible for years. While it’s true that XORP is a valuable addition, I definitely see the the scarce commodity is network architecture knowledge.

    Cisco equipment is valuable only in the hands of qualified network personnel. If you don’t have those, it doesn’t matter what kind of equipment you have. Plus, if Open Source routers can compete with Cisco equipment in terms of quality and value, then telcos can simply replace their Ciscos and eliminate any competitive advantage anybody else has.

    Throw a heap of great equipment at a group of technical know-it-alls and tell them to set up a telco data centre. Unless they’ve done it before, and have the rare qualifications necessary to do it right, all you’re going to have in the end is a heap of useless great equipment.

    It’s true, Cisco equipment is overpriced. Packaged router solutions (similar to what Smoothwall has done for firewalls) certainly will simplify life. We run racks of servers now using Linux systems as routers, have done it for years, and it works great. The scarce resource we always need to find is qualified people.

    Open Source routers just aren’t revolutionary at all. It’s just a incremental step forward in expanding the scope of open source applications.

  6. OK, maybe that is not applicable, but this could be the beginning of not needing to depend on large telecoms for basic service in the future? If I am way off, please delete my comments. Otherwise, am I correct?

  7. This is an EXCELLENT post. I definitely see the huge implications of Vyatta’s XORP — especially for developing countries like Kenya, where I’m currently avoiding the Canadian winter. :-)
    Keep up the great writing Om.

  8. We are in an age where openness will find it’s way into every major closed business model that exists today. And as a result, if hardware that is neccessary is cheap enough to do the job, then software will come along that will allow that solution to be done cheaper more easily.
    It’s the productivity jump that big companies enjoyed after the bubble, and now its trickling down to startups and individuals.

  9. Ummm, does anyone remember the global firestorm last year when someone was supposed to be releasing part of Cisco’s IOS into the public for general distribution? Everyone went bonkers….now we are expected to believe that someone will run their enterprise network on code that any script kiddie can get their hands on for FREE!?!?! yeah, whatever….

  10. What would be interesting is to have an idea how consumers would benifit from this i.e. the $ impact on the final price of the product. So, in case of say VOIP, we know that the cost is less than half for unlimited calling compared with traditional lines.

  11. We’d better call it ‘commercial-*grade*’ open source router. That would make more sense.

    Also, the routing world has a terrible dependence on the myraid of interfaces that are not always very common on intel based platforms (read ‘servers’) and this is where it makes all the difference. The enterprise market (not to mention the SP market) requires a myraid of interfaces for their connectivity requirements and this is where Cisco and Juniper guys shine. XORP based platforms, when worked upon by enthusiast and the FLOSS evengelist in the enterprise, will face problems for sure.