Best of Open Source in Networking

If we had to pick the most significant trend in networking today, the VoIP phenomenon might well top the list. And open source is playing no small part. While enterprises remain reluctant to rip out their tried-and-true PBXes, open source VoIP, usually in the form of Asterisk, is capturing business communications one small business or branch office at a time. Sooner or later, enterprises too will catch the open source VoIP bug. The cost savings and flexibility are too compelling to resist.

Asterisk is the clear winner of our Bossie (award for Best of Open Source Software) for VoIP telephony. It isn’t the only game in town, by any stretch; there’s OpenPBX and FreeSwitch, and other open source VoIP projects abound. But Asterisk is by far the most mature and scalable of the lot, and it’s taking the VoIP world by storm. Yes, it’s hideously complex in places, but also immensely configurable, and compatible with darn near everything.

Our other Bossies in the networking space recognize interesting developments in streaming media and directory services, as well as faithful wired and wireless analysis tools. One important category we’re skipping until we can get more of the products in for testing is enterprise monitoring, where vendors such as Zenoss and Hyperic are really heating things up (see the sidebar, “Best of open source in enterprise monitoring”).

Our Bossie for streaming media goes to Azureus Vuze. Azureus, the BitTorrent (p-to-p file transfer network) client that doubles as the poster app for Java, has gotten a makeover in Version 3.0 that carries it into the realm of streaming media. Azureus Vuze isn’t streaming media as we know it now, where our computers typically receive content one file at a time, from a single server, with terrible handling of interrupted connections and speeds capped by the content’s host. Azureus Vuze brings the many-to-many magic of the BitTorrent swarm to content sharing. Your download speed is determined by your bandwidth, the number of people who already have the content you want (even a small piece of it), and your willingness to share what you’ve downloaded. It’s all free and open source, and Azureus Vuze is completely automated.

Is Azureus Vuze streaming in the sense that you can watch a movie or TV show while you’re downloading it? It is possible, but we think BitTorrent has the better solution. You can download content at a small fraction of its playback time, queue an unlimited number of downloads that run while you sleep, use RSS feed subscriptions that notify you of new content, and rely on faultless auto-restart of downloads that were interrupted by, say, suspending your computer. While you’re watching the first piece of content that Azureus Vuze brought in for you, it is pulling in countless others and sharing it with the community. We see it as next-generation streaming.

Although it is possible to blend LDAPv3, Kerberos, BerkeleyDB, Zeroconf, policy-based password services, and single sign-on to create the ideal directory server, Apple has done that work for Unix developers and admins in Open Directory. The key components of the directory service client and server components built into OS X are available from Apple as part of Open Directory, which is itself part of Apple’s Darwin open source effort. Apple added value to the open source elements that it pulled together for Open Directory by integrating them, subjecting the integrated suite to commercial-level validation, and tuning everything for scalability. Users and administrators of OS X Server will find that Apple’s commercial implementation of Open Directory offers easy administration through Server Admin GUI, and ubiquitous compatibility with prevailing directory and authentication standards.

It almost goes without saying that Darwin’s Open Directory project does not represent the entirety of OS X’s directory services. However, Darwin’s Open Directory server, its plug-in architecture, as well as its abstracted client APIs and utilities work out of the box and are exceedingly well-documented. Apple credits the open source projects from which Open Directory is derived. Apple’s contribution to the integration of these projects, their administrative interfaces, and their documentation makes Open Directory a solid choice among open source directory services.

Here’s something else that almost goes without saying: Wireshark, nee Ethereal, takes the Bossie for network protocol analysis. Wireshark lacks many features found on pricey commercial network analysis tools, but what it does do, it does extremely well. An exceptionally powerful analyzer, Wireshark provides a wide range of default decoders and parses out traffic threads with ease. It’s so good, in fact, that many of those pricey commercial tools use it as their packet parsing engine. If it’s on the wire, Wireshark will help you make sense of it, and present the data in a clear, concise manner. Don’t expect any fancy automatic problem diagnosis or troubleshooting — that’s up to you.

Though a relative newcomer to the wireless sniffing space (as compared with NetStumbler), Kismet has wide appeal. It accepts a wider range of wireless cards — any card that uses rfmon (raw monitoring mode) — and it can capture both beaconing and non-beaconing networks. Kismet uses a passive approach, as opposed to NetStumbler’s more active scanning. Both are good choices, but Kismet seems to have a stronger technological backbone, and it certainly has wide community support. Kismet gets our Bossie for wireless sniffer.

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