XORP Goes Live
The Extensible Open-Source Router Platform (XORP) project is reaching a milestone of sorts, as its creators are ready to replace their own routers with XORP-wielding PCs.
Cut from the same conceptual cloth as Linux, XORP is an open-source alternative to the routing software provided by the likes of Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) and Juniper Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: JNPR). As with other open-source software, the XORP code is freely available -- meaning it costs nothing and can be manipulated at will by users, who must pledge to share any innovations with the world.
Version 1.0 of XORP came out last summer, and with version 1.1 imminent, the team feels ready to pour XORP into their own network. XORP-based IPv6 routers will be connecting the project's home, at the International Computer Science Institute, to the nearby University of California, Berkeley campus, researcher Atanu Ghosh told visitors at a recent ICSI open house.
Why build something like XORP? Just as Linux fans accuse Microsoft of stifling innovation, XORP's creators say router vendors are holding back progress. The problem is that each company's routing code is proprietary and not available for users to tweak. "They're inaccessible to you. You can't go to your router and add, say, some new piece of security," Ghosh says. "It's very difficult to experiment or innovate."
Supporters of the open-source concept say bugs get fixed more quickly this way, because an entire community can work on the problem. The software gets enhanced more quickly, too, because users can collaborate on ideas and aren't beholden to one vendor's release schedule. "You get the benefit of many more people adding features," Ghosh says.
Beyond the open-source philosophy, XORP could cut hardware costs. The software is built to run on a PC rather than on the specialty hardware used by router vendors.
XORP started four years ago, and Ghosh, working in Australia at the time, was drawn in after multiple conversations with project creator Mark Handley. (Handley has dropped out of day-to-day XORP work to teach at University College London.) XORP's team consists of Ghosh and three other full-time researchers, alongside several part-time contributors. In addition to the usual government sources, the project has drawn funding from Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) and, of all companies, open-source pariah Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT).
XORP won't be storming Cisco's gates any time soon, because the project is limited to small routers bearing just a few ports. The handicap comes not from XORP itself, but from the PC's Peripheral Component Interconnect (PCI) architecture. "If you have many interfaces, PCI won't let you switch across all of them," Ghosh says. "We're hoping for industrial partners so we can run XORP on high-end hardware."
Some of the established players have doubts about XORP's prospects in large-scale networks, however. One difficulty lies in the varying ways of applying standards.
"Cisco does it one way. Juniper does it another. We spend a lot of our time in interoperability testing," says Manish Vaidya, product marketing manager for NextHop Technologies Inc.. Likewise, routing code these days is tightly integrated with the underlying hardware -- chipsets from the likes of Broadcom Corp. (Nasdaq: BRCM), Intel, or Marvell Technology Group Ltd. (Nasdaq: MRVL) -- and open-source software might not be able to provide those ties, he says.
Vaidya also believes customers are shying way from buying separate pieces such as software. "What they want is a complete solution they can drop on a piece of hardware, so they can go to market quickly," he says. "They want to move away from being systems integrators."
What's Cisco's take on the Linux of routing? In XORP's early days, the team presented the idea to Cisco and got a warm reception: "They seemed to be very interested," Ghosh says. He adds that there's been no contact with Cisco lately. Cisco representatives couldn't be reached for comment.
— Craig Matsumoto, Senior Editor, Light Reading