Researchers developing new open-source software for Internet Protocol routers are hoping that they can do for routing what Linux did for operating systems.
The project, called the Extensible Open Router Platform (XORP), is being developed at the International Computer Science Institute, an independent research group closely affiliated with the University of California at Berkeley. Version 1.0 will be released in June, according to Orion Hodson, one of three developers working on the project.

XORP has been developed primarily for research, but it could eventually be used to build low-cost commercial routers used to shunt packet-based traffic across corporate networks and the Internet, Hodson said. Using standard PC components, a XORP router can be built for roughly $1,500. A comparable offering from routing giant Cisco Systems would likely cost 10 to 20 times more.

"We want XORP to be the Linux of routing," Hodson said. "People will be able to download the routing code and modify it for whatever purpose. Our intention is not to be in competition with Cisco or Juniper (Networks), per se, but if it can be used to build a router that saves someone money, then that's good, too."

The software has some advantages. Unlike older code, each component of XORP runs on a separate process. Because of this design, if one software component fails, it won't affect others using the same hardware. By contrast, software functions in Cisco's IOS run on a single process, so if one piece of the software fails, the entire router is affected.

Most routing vendors today are building software in this way. Juniper was one of the earliest vendors to run its software on different processes. Since then, others, including Avici Systems, Redback Networks and Laurel Networks have developed modular software.

But there are drawbacks to XORP. One is performance. While the software supposedly can forward up to 700,000 packets per second on a standard PC--faster than most other software routing technology--most high-performance routers today use specialized hardware to accelerate packet forwarding.

"I don't see open-source routing replacing high-end routers in enterprise or service provider networks," said Dave Passmore, an analyst at Burton Group. "But in the real low end, like in the D-Link and Linksys category of product, free software could be very useful."

XORP also lacks many of the bells and whistles found in offerings from big-name routing companies. For example, initially, XORP will support beta-level code for Routing Information Protocol and Border Gateway Protocol. Hodson said Open Shortest Path First and Intermediate System to Intermediate System Routing Protocol will be added later. The software also doesn't support advanced features such as built-in security or quality-of-service features. But Hodson is optimistic that the open-source community will help get the software up-to-speed.

So far, Cisco doesn't see the open-source code as a threat.

"There have always been pieces of open-source routing code on the market," said Jayshree Ullal, senior vice president at Cisco. "It is an important community that helps continue the development and innovation of the technology. But the software coming out of this community should not be confused with business-class software."

Open-source routing has been around for a long time. Most routing vendors today have based at least part of their routing code on software known as "GateD," which was developed in the late 1980s at the University of Michigan. Juniper and Avici have used portions of GateD to build their core routing technologies.

However, an open-source community never really developed around GateD. In 2000, the exclusive rights to the software were used to start a company called NextHop, which licenses versions of the software to vendors. The company's customers include CoSine Communications, Redback and Riverstone Networks.

Other open-source routing efforts have come and gone. The Linux Router Project developed and enhanced Linux routing code that is used in thousands of routers deployed in live networks worldwide. But due to a lack of funding, the project officially disbanded in January 2003.

Hodson is optimistic that the XORP project won't suffer the same fate as the Linux Router Project. He said he and the other researchers are committed to keeping XORP, which is funded by Intel and the National Science Foundation, in the open-source community rather than taking the GateD approach and commercializing the code.

"One of our funding requirements is that the software remains open source," he said. "We don't have plans to spin off as a start-up, but we aren't averse to letting people use the code to develop businesses around supporting devices using the software."
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