California city connects with open-source networking

The city of Madera, Calif., has spent the last year successfully running an open-source-based network as a replacement for one based on Cisco Systems Inc. gear.

The idea to change to open-source technology came from Paul Wheeler, the IT manager for the city of 50,000.

Many people would say Wheeler is doing something fairly revolutionary, since open source in networking is still relatively rare, but Wheeler doesn’t see himself as a rabble-rouser or an IT guerilla. “I’m much more old school,” he said.

“I can’t imagine people in IT not going to open source,” he said in a recent interview. “It’s a disruptive technology, sure … but it can provide scalability and ease of administration.”

And it can cost less, he noted. In Madera’s case, two Vyatta Inc. routers that run on the Debian GNU/Linux-based open-source operating system helped Wheeler consolidate routers in the city’s data center last year.

By eliminating eight Cisco routers that needed upgrading in order to accommodate additional traffic, he said he saved the city $16,000, spending about one-third of what he would have spent on the Cisco router upgrade.

In a more dramatic money-saving move, the city did a complete network upgrade to implement a voice-over-IP system based on Asterisk, an open-source PBX system from Digium Inc. in Huntsville, Ala. The Asterisk VoIP system cost about $120,000, whereas a Cisco system would have run about $400,000, he said.

Given his success, Wheeler urged other IT managers, especially those in municipal government, to embrace open source. And he said he believes it can work well in networks that are bigger than Madera’s.

As he investigated upgrading the Madera’s systems, the city received four proposals, including one for open source. “The city administrator received dire warnings about going with freeware to serve taxpayers,” he said.

But Wheeler was taking to heart a recommendation by a group convened by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that asked towns to make a “more judicious use of taxpayer funds,” Wheeler said.

The financial risk with open source has been minimal, with zero licensing costs and minimal annual support costs.

In addition, there is “no risk” in going to open source, Wheeler said.

“If I am wrong with Vyatta, I have a couple of extra [hardware] servers that run the Vyatta that can be used anywhere else,” he said.

Cisco’s gear would be preferable at a job site where there are “no networking gurus on staff who are comfortable getting into a Linux-like environment,” Wheeler said, acknowledging that Cisco is “the market leader.”

But Wheeler said Cisco’s large size and market dominance as “one of the 800-pound gorillas in the industry” also makes it less innovative than companies like San Mateo, Calif.-based Vyatta. Cisco would not comment on the Madera projects.

Zeus Kerravala, an analyst at Yankee Group Research Inc. in Boston, said that, in contrast to all the open-source software used in servers, the number of open-source networking deployments is “very small … less than 1% of the total market share.”

In general, Kerravala said open-source routers “aren’t very practical” to deploy, since they would require “a lot of custom coding” and would require a company to have employees knowledgeable in open source.

“Every network engineer out there understands Cisco,” Kerravala said. “Instead of vendor lock-in with Cisco, you have employee lock-in” with an open-source product.

Wheeler said he agrees that open source in networking is a “relatively recent phenomenon” and has not been more accepted because it is “not as mature [as other types of open-source offerings] and people don’t know as much about it.”

But Wheeler said Madera’s open-source systems “are working without a hiccup.” And, noting that open-source systems are “stable, solid and extremely inexpensive,” he urged taxpayers to ask their government leaders if they are deploying much open source.

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