Open-source networking doesn't require a guru

Vyatta CEO and chief strategy officer on the open source router company

Open source router company Vyatta debuted earlier this year with a Red Hat-style alternative to Cisco and Juniper offerings: the Open Flexible Router, an open source-based WAN router and firewall stack, freely downloadable, with service and support offerings available for purchase. Since then the company has generated buzz in the network industry, while releasing products such as a pre-installed appliance-like version on Dell servers. Vyatta CEO Kelly Herrell and chief strategy officer Dave Roberts recently told Phil Hochmuth what Vyatta is, and is not, and what it hopes to become. (The following is an edited transcript.)

How much future is there in being an open-source networking company, given that a lot of what you're doing is packaging free technology that has been out there for some time? Is this something people will do themselves?

Herrell: Companies buy solutions. I don't mean to sound trite like that, but when people look for solutions, they're looking for something that has the best price/performance for the job at hand. We are a solutions provider. I don't know of too many CIOs who would look fondly upon their network teams if they were sitting in labs trying to compile and debug code, or something that was a standard function in their network. So as a solutions provider, we can give buyers what they want: continuity of the product, maintenance, a road map. You're not going to get much of a road map out of an open source project. And all the technical support and service that they rely on to run a network. So we're an open systems alternative to a proprietary approach. So from that perspective, we are a solutions alternative, and we believe that has just as much longevity as a proprietary solution.

What are the advantages of open source from a competitive standpoint?

Herrell: We pull from various parts of the open source world, and contribute back, of course. Everything from Linux, and XORP [eXtensiple Open Routing Platform -- the open source routing software on which OFR is based]. The advantage here is we're standing on the shoulders of giants. Many of the components have been weather tested in many other environments. So we're not coming in at the fundamental ground level where it's a systems theory. So we hit the ground running. And then from our perspective, our job as a solutions provider is to continue to make quick incremental improvements to the solution just to continually advance the state of the solution that we offer.

How come XORP, and open source routing in general, has not taken off as widely as open source computing or application platforms, such as Linux or Apache?

Roberts: We're fond of saying that networking started out open source. The first networking stacks were open source stacks with either BSD, or people would run [networking] software on Sun. That was a common way to get yourself on the Internet in the 1980s. Then the networking market swung closed source, and went through a period of extreme growth through the 1990s. I think now it's reached a level of maturity where people are willing to go look back at those open source solutions.

The market has to be accepting of what you're doing. We're at a point now where the market has come to the conclusion that open source is good. Customers want to see more open source alternatives in a variety of product categories, not just computing.

To be a Vvyatta customer, do you have to be a hacker or open- source guru, or have one on staff?

Herrell: Let's say you pick up the Vyatta appliance, or just the OFR software. When you push the on-button of the machine, it boots. When it finishes booting, it is a router, with a CLI and a GUI interface. So the comparisons to Red Hat for us are very apt, in many ways -- the subscription model, and the leverage of open source. Where they differ, is that what Red Hat provides is an operating system, then you have to load apps on it, and do all that kind of thing. From Vyatta, the product you get is the same, from a user standpoint, as a traditional router or firewall. You plug in the cables, you hit the on-button, you configure it, and you're done.

Roberts: You absolutely do not have to be a hacker to use this product. This is really designed for your average network manager who is comfortable with a Cisco or Juniper product today. They can fire up our products and find themselves very comfortable. One of the things about why open source networking had not, until Vyatta, really caught was because to a certain extent, the solutions and open source stacks that were out there -- XORP and others -- do rely on users to be a little bit more of a hacker to deploy them. You still have to download them, you have to run them on your Linux distro. You still have to understand Linux, because it's not like you get a full environment. When you boot up your raw XORP-based system, you have a set of processes running on top of Linux. You have to know Linux commands to maintain the system. That's where a lot of our value-add is; not just taking XORP and plopping it on top of Linux.

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