Cisco ready for open source ... kind of

Cisco has announced Linux-based routers enabling third-party application development, but partners say the technology will take time to catch on.

Cisco Systems Inc. is opening up its integrated services routers (ISRs) to third-party developers, but some wonder if the move is more public relations than reality at this stage.

At the Cisco Partner Summit earlier this month, the company talked up its Application eXtension Platform (AXP), which will place hardware modules inside ISRs where applications can be embedded.

That news excited channel partners and software developers who have long hoped to create customer- and industry-specific solutions to up-sell, but have been constrained by Cisco's proprietary technology. This move could help Cisco prove to the channel and customers that it will remain competitive with companies that stress open standards and flexibility. (3Com offers an open source router and platform, and Juniper Networks has an open carrier-class operating system.)

Yet, while resellers and analysts alike see many opportunities that Cisco's development will spawn, they question whether the technology is ready for prime time -- especially for large enterprises.

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Some say that tying up crucial processing power in a single router could be a problem.

"I think this is a step in the right direction as long as the blade is sufficient to meet the applications that are going to run on it," said Tom Shaw, CEO of Santa Clara, Calif.-based WAMS. He said his company had determined that the processing power in the Application eXtension Platform ISR wasn't enough to handle WAMS' intensive applications.

"We were going to embed a network management system on that blade, but it didn't make sense for us to do that," Shaw said. "The processor is constrained. We can get a higher performance on a separate server."

That doesn't mean that the routers can't handle less capacity-intensive applications. "If it's a small, lightweight utility application then it would be OK," he said, pointing to voice recording technology as an example.

Cisco delineated an ecosystem of relationships with developers to promote and support application development while verifying that the resulting applications would not outstrip the router's ability to run them well. Among applications already developed for the routers are branch infrastructure management, VoIP recording, utilities infrastructure monitoring, IP payment processing, IP fax and workforce management apps.

Cisco will provide customers, software developers and resellers with technical and marketing support to develop and market new applications. But it will take coming months of pitching new ideas and testing them out to see how the processor will hold up and to disprove the single-point-of-failure possibility.

In the meantime, having applications at the branch office can solve an alternate outage problem, said Brian Riggs, an analyst at Current Analysis.

"Business-critical applications are being centralized into data centers. People working at a remote office won't necessarily have voice recording software deployed at the branch office, so what do you do to get access to that application over the wide area network if the line goes down?" Riggs said, adding that having the application on the router solves that. "You're solving one problem and creating another."

Technology problems aside, other partners say the AXP ISRs may not yet be cost-effective, especially for smaller customers. A "Linux box" is about a third of the price of a Cisco AXP and ISR, said Gary Berzack, chief technology officer and chief operating officer of eTribeca, a solution provider in New York. The list price for the AXP ranges from $1,795 for the Advanced Integration Module to $3,500 and $5,000 for two forms of the EtherSwitch Network Module. In addition, the 880 and 860 ISR series run from $449 to $1,295. Berzack said a Linux platform with as much or more functionality is about $700.

Berzack also said the array of applications that can be handled on Cisco's open source routers at this early point may be "fragmented," so they will require heavy engineering -- not a good idea for small or medium-sized businesses that aren't accustomed to working with Linux.

That's not to say that Berzack and Shaw don't see great potential in the open source routers. Once the kinks are worked out, there is a greening benefit, saved real estate in the data center, and ultimately the opportunity for IT shops to create billion-dollar markets in developing applications for specific vertical industries, said Berzack.

"The whole concept is wonderful. It's a sexy idea," he said. "I think the proof will be in the pudding in about a year's time. We have to understand where this works best."

As Cisco's open source router becomes more of a reality, the market will look to when Cisco will open up its internetworking operating system (IOS), Riggs said. That would encourage development in all of its functions, including routers, switches and enterprise and telecommunications networking. But most agree that will not happen anytime soon.

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