Will Cisco Be the Next to Fall to Open Source?

Cisco has long dominated the networking world. It seems its supremacy is unassailable. Yet open source-based networking just might be its undoing – eventually.

Open source software, after all, has conquered many arenas. Apache Web servers, Linux-based operating systems and the OpenOffice desktop suite are a few of the well-known areas where open source has carved out a large chunk of the marketplace.

More recently, open source software has been making major inroads into business applications – the traditional domain of powerhouses like Oracle and SAP. It is also gaining ground in storage where a host of startups are beginning to offer open source software running on commodity hardware. That model is now creeping into the networking arena. The question is: Can it unseat Cisco?

According to the latest numbers by Dell’Oro Group, that appears unlikely. Cisco dominates most areas of networking hardware. Take Layer 2 and Layer 3 Ethernet switch market. Alan Weckel, director of Enterprise Telephony & Ethernet Switch Market Research at Dell’Oro defines it this way:

Layer 2 Ethernet Switches are capable of dedicating the full wire speed of bandwidth to a single port or segment. This includes dedicated the 10 Mbps, 100 Mbps, 1000 Mbps, and 10 Gbps segments. This includes products like Cisco’s Catalyst 4500 and 6500 series, Alcatel’s OmniSwitch, 3Com’s SuperStack 3 Switch 4400 and Nortel’s BayStack 450.

Layer 3 Ethernet Switches, on the other hand, have routing functions that Layer 2 Ethernet Switches do not have. The same speeds apply. Examples include Enterasys X-Pedition Series, Nortel Networks Passport Series, Extreme Summit 24/48 and BlackDiamond, Foundry BigIron, Alcatel’s OmniCore and OmniSwitch/Router Series, and Cisco Catalyst 3550 series.

While there are many vendors involved, Cisco rules the roost. Cisco owns 72 percent of a market that was worth $15.4 billion in 2009. And with revenue growth of 40 percent, it seems there is no stopping the company.

So the question is: how much of the pie will Cisco own by 2014, when Dell’Oro predicts the total will have risen to $23 billion? One of the up and coming open source networking players is Vyatta. It is using open source software on commodity hardware in the network router market. Its software-based, open-source, network operating system is portable to standard x86 hardware as well as common virtualization and cloud computing platforms. Users benefit from a flexible enterprise-class routing and security feature set capable of scaling from DSL to 20 Gbps performance at a fraction of the cost of proprietary solutions. The company is on target to reach about 750,000 downloads.

“Someone asked me the other day how Vyatta has experienced such explosive growth in a short period of time, especially given Cisco’s extensive power over the market,” said Kelly Herrell, CEO of Vyatta. “We leapfrogged a vendor-structured industry model by leveraging an Internet-structured model.”

What does he mean?

Internet-based software distribution by a self-organizing community, he said, is the key ingredient for innovation. Herrell touts the open source development models as making proprietary operations look like they’re standing still by comparison. In recent months, for example, Vyatta has introduced integrated routers that provide additional functions/services, as well as virtual routing appliances.

“Cisco has dominant share in two major markets: switching and routing,” said Herrell. “Vyatta’s software model is having the most immediate impact on the router market because that workload is CPU-intensive. X86 hardware is clearly proving its price/performance superiority for this market.”

He sees this as a natural cycle. Market after market is succumbing to the allure of open system architectures. Eventually, the individual components become available – hardware and software at much lower cost.

“Sometimes it’s a long march, but vertically-integrated products that are 100% controlled by a single vendor eventually give way to solutions based on best-of-breed components,” said Herrell. “When it comes to the software part of that equation, it’s highly likely to be open-source-based simply because it is a superior development model. From the proprietary incumbent standpoint, the pace and power of open-source is shocking.”

He thinks this is being accelerated by the effects of virtualization and the cloud which are, he said, wreaking havoc on traditional networking products, which don’t fit the new IT architecture.

‘Virtualization and cloud dictate that software be separated from proprietary hardware,” said Herrell. “The days of monolithic, expensive infrastructure are beginning to fade and the huge cost-and-flexibility benefits of software-based networking are coming to the fore.”

Whether this is enough to topple Cisco remains to be seen. At the very least, expect the company to make some big changes to its product line if it starts to lose ground to the open source invasion.

Drew Robb
Drew Robb
Drew Robb has been a full-time professional writer and editor for more than twenty years. He currently works freelance for a number of IT publications, including eSecurity Planet and CIO Insight. He is also the editor-in-chief of an international engineering magazine.

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